‘GOVERNMENT TRYING TO FIND A SOLUTION TO PROBLEM – BUT MORE STILL NEEDS TO BE DONE’

By JOHN BIGGS
Tower Hamlets
council mayor

THE rise of acid attacks is something which has caused understandable anxiety both in our bor­ough in Tower Hamlets and across the capital.

Each attack represents a horrific and normally life-changing injury for the victim. The fear of at­tacks has been spread quickly through platforms such as social media. As of August, Tower Hamlets Police recorded 36 offences with 37 victims in 2017, compared to 35 and 37 respectively in 2016. This is the third highest in London. Of those, this year 92 per cent of victims were male and 76 per cent of victims were Asian. It’s vital we work across all our communities to tackle this issue.

As this is a criminal matter, we of course work closely with the police to help catch the culprits and send a strong message to the perpetrators that they will be caught and face justice. We are concerned about the cuts to policing numbers from central government and the closure of police front counters. I have allocated money for 39 additional police offic­ers in the borough, however the council cannot make up the short fall in terms of officer numbers that have been cut when our own budget has been slashed.

While there is evidence that such attacks have increased over five years, there is currently a down­ward trend year-on-year. In August 2017, the council’s Community Safety Partnership set up a Task and Finish Group, made up of key partner agencies Lon­don Fire Brigade, Metropolitan Police, Royal London Hospital and the council to investigate the perceived increase locally and how the partnership should make a co-ordinated response to both the perception and incidents within the borough. They looked at four areas: response; recording; prevention and impact.

Our emergency services also need support to be ready to help victims of attacks. Rapid action can make a huge difference in terms of injuries. We also campaigned for a change in the law, and launched a petition in the summer calling on the government to make carrying acid without good reason illegal, the same as carrying a knife. It also called for the introduction of an age restriction on purchasing acid and prevention of cash purchases of acid, as debit or credit card purchases are traceable.

We wanted the government to require manufac­turers to make products less corrosive and thicker, to make them harder to spray or throw. Finally we called for the reintroduction of a requirement for sellers of acids to register with local councils, and fund councils to make spot-checks on sellers. I was pleased when the home secretary announced her intention to adopt two of the five measures I called for – stopping people carrying acid in public without a good reason, and introducing an age restriction on acid sales, however this does not go far enough.

In the aftermath of the attacks, we did a number of things as a council. We held a public meeting at a community centre to discuss concerns and reas­sure our residents. This month we launched an ‘acid charter’ in Tower Hamlets as a way of engag­ing with local businesses to try and prevent the sale of acid and other corrosive substances to people who may use them to carry out attacks.

By signing up to the charter, shops agree not to sell to those who may cause harm or are under age. Shops will maintain a “Refusals Register” showing how they won’t sell to certain individuals. It’s a voluntary charter but represents a practical step we are taking to tackle this problem.

As a council, we can also support retailers by providing training to help identify underage buy­ers, as we do with the sale of alcohol and cigarettes. We recognise that retailers are the frontline in stop­ping acid attacks.

At the launch of the charter, Jabeen Hussain, a local resident, came along to show his support. He was a food delivery worker who suffered a horrific acid attack whilst going about his business as thieves sought to steal his moped. He was seriously traumatised by the attack and has found it hard to work since, however fortunately his helmet pro­tected his face from disfigurement. He’s now cam­paigning to prevent attacks and I am pleased he is backing our acid charter.

We have seen the fear these attacks can create. There has been an increase in reporting of inci­dents, including where the substance used was lat­er found to be harmless but may have been used to threaten or cause fear rather than harm.

We know each statistic represents a life changed, and our residents deserve to feel safe walking the streets. As a council we are working with retailers, emergency services and other partners to prevent these attacks, and call on the government to con­sider further legislation and support for councils to back us up.