Knives ban is a deal too far for PM

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The Prime Minister last night spurned a further offer of all-party co- operation, from Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown, for an agreed approach to banning combat knives.

Replying to an open invitation from John Major to build on their support for speedy action on a paedophile register and stalking, the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders jumped at the chance of taking action against military-style knives.

The immediate response of one Cabinet source was that the offer would be constructively considered. Then, shortly before 8pm, No 10 issued Mr Major's highly-charged rejection.

He said new legislation was not the issue because the Government already had powers to ban knives under the Criminal Justice Act 1988. Altogether, 14 different types of weapon had been banned on that basis.

But Mr Major then appeared to accept that such banning orders were not enough - the point implicitly made by Mr Blair and Mr Ashdown. "We remain concerned about the problem of knives," Mr Major said in a letter to Mr Blair. "Obviously if you, the Liberal Democrats or, for that matter, anyone else have any useful suggestions to make, I trust you will do so in a constructive way."

He said that after extensive discussions with police representatives it had been reluctantly agreed "that no workable solution has yet been found."

Inserting a barbed political sting in the tail, Mr Major added that Labour might wish to reconsider its opposition to police stop-and-search powers in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, "specifically designed to provide greater protection for the police and public against thugs with knives".

In his letter to the Prime Minister yesterday lunchtime, Mr Blair said Labour had all along argued for a ban on combat knives. Recognising the Home Secretary's problem over definitions, however, Mr Blair offered the all-party approach to overcome the problem.

Mr Ashdown confirmed in a separate letter to Mr Major that Alex Carlile, his spokesman, would be "happy to participate in a cross-party approach on knives".

Challenged on the difficulty of finding an adequate legal definition for combat knives, Labour home affairs spokesman Jack Straw told BBC radio last night: "I've got in front of me advertisements from a mail order catalogue for a `Rambo short sword' ...

Any member of the public could clearly tell the difference between these weapons and a kitchen knife. I don't believe it to be beyond the wit of man for parliamentary counsel and politicians to spell out the difference in legislation."

A further incentive for government action might have been provided by the fact that Frances Lawrence, widow of the murdered teacher, Philip Lawrence, had a private meeting yesterday with Mr Blair and Mr Straw.

But Michael Howard - who now has responsibility for a Crime Bill, a Firearms Bill, and a Police Bill, on top of the sex offenders' register and stalking, was unlikely to have welcomed another piece of complex legislation even with cross-party support.

The Home Office is currently hoping that further promises of legislation, on drugs in clubs and sex tourism, will be picked up by backbench MPs.

Sex tourism curb, page 2

Guns and morals, page 7