THE WEAPONS DEBATE : New power for police to curb combat knives

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New police powers to stop and search suspects, and legislation to restrict the promotion of "Rambo style" combat knives, were proposed by the Government yesterday.

The two initiatives are the latest attempts by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, to tackle the growing concerns about the escalating knife culture. But the proposal to give police greater freedom to search people was immediately condemned by civil liberty groups as a draconian measure that could lead to unrest and discrimination in inner cities.

The Home Office is proposing to amend the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to allow police to stop and search in a specified area for "a suitable period" if a senior officer reasonably believes that people may be carrying weapons or drugs. A similar measure could be introduced in Scotland.

However, after opposition from Labour it is understood that the Home Office has agreed to drop the drugs aspect of the proposal and restrict it to knives.

This proposal follows an announcement earlier this month by Mr Howard that the police code of practice would be altered to allow officers to stop and search anyone they believed to be a member of a gang known to carry knives or other weapons.

John Wadham, director of Liberty, the civil rights organisation, said: "This latest proposal is a massive extension of stop-and-search powers. Any young person, any black person, any person with long hair, in fact any person at all will be subject to random and arbitrary searches by the police."

But Mr Howard said: "Extra stop-and-search powers for the police will tackle the real evil of people carrying knives in public without good reason."

In a letter to Labour's home affairs spokesman, Jack Straw, and the Liberal Democrats' spokesman, Alex Carlisle, Mr Howard also proposed a new offence of marketing a knife in a way which suggests an aggressive use for it. This would apply both to its name and advertising. However, Mr Howard admitted that this would not prevent the sale of any knives, just their packaging.

He said: "This would not guarantee the prohibition of the sale of undesirable knives. But it would stop them being called by unacceptable names or being accompanied by unacceptable language." The new marketing offence - aimed at weapons with names such as the Vindicator - would carry a maximum penalty of six-months imprisonment and/or a pounds 5,000 fine.

The new measures could be taken through the Commons by Labour MP Jimmy Wray. Mr Wray came top in a ballot for backbenchers to have an opportunity to pilot legislation on to the statute book. He is in discussion with Labour about the precise wording of the Bill, which will be published in early December.

Jack Straw said the Home Office proposals, which will be considered by Labour when they receive full details, was belated recognition by ministers that the law surrounding knives could be tightened.