The Home Secretary has suggested acid attack convictions could soon carry life sentences as the Government launched an urgent effort to combat the rising number of acid attacks in the UK after a spate of assaults, including five that took place in just 90 minutes in London.
Amber Rudd warned an overhaul of current guidelines would ensure those who used noxious liquids as a weapon "feel the full force of the law".
"I am clear that life sentences must not be reserved for acid attack survivors," she wrote in The Sunday Times.
A review announced by the Home Office, working alongside the police and Ministry of Justice, will examine the law enforcement and criminal justice response, existing laws, the access to harmful products and support available for victims.
The Crown Prosecution Service’s sentencing guidance for offenders will be reviewed as part of measures to ensure corrosive substances are treated as dangerous weapons and punished accordingly. A widened list of substances could be also be included in the Poisons Act 1972, amid mounting calls for restrictions on the purchase of corrosive substances.
Ms Rudd wrote: "Today I am announcing an action plan to tackle acid attacks. It will include a wide-ranging review of the law enforcement and criminal justice response, of existing legislation, of access to harmful products and of the support offered to victims."
"We will also make sure that those who commit these terrible crimes feel the full force of the law," she added. "We will seek to ensure that everyone working within the criminal justice system, from police officers to prosecutors, has the powers they need to punish severely those who commit these appalling crimes."
Labour MP Stephen Timms, who will lead a debate on the issue in the House of Commons on Monday, is backing the move, as are survivors like Katie Piper.
The campaigner and author has undergone more than 250 operations since an ex-boyfriend arranged the assault almost a decade ago.
“I couldn’t recognise myself when I woke up from a coma and I wanted to commit suicide,” she wrote in an open letter published in the Scars, Burns & Healing online medical journal.
“I will continue to need operations and therapy for life. For acid attack survivors, the aftermath is a life sentence.”
Another acid attack victim from Luton, who wished to be named only as Mr Khan, told The Independent those found guilty should get “15 years in prison – minimum”. “It’s disgusting that someone can so easily obtain that kind of liquid and change someone’s life,” he added.
The Home Office said new guidance will be provided to police officers on preventing attacks, searching potential perpetrators and responding to victims at the scene. Work will also take place with retailers to agree measures to restrict sales of acids, which can currently be bought cheaply and easily from high street retailers and online.
Another measure in the Government plan includes ensuring that victim impact statements are completed in every case so courts are made aware of the full impact of the attack, while police will be encouraged to draw up separate evidence showing the effect on communities.
Concerns have spiked following a series of high-profile incidents, with the nation shocked by a rampage on Thursday that saw five separate victims targeted by two moped-riding attackers in the north and the east of the capital. Two of the assaults saw mopeds stolen, while another victim was left with “life-changing” injuries inflicted after being sprayed.
Detectives have made two arrests relating to Thursday’s rampage, with boys aged 15 and 16 in custody.
Another similar suspected acid attack was launched the follow day, police revealed on Saturday. The Metropolitan Police said they were called at around 5pm on Friday to reports of an attempted robbery of a moped in Dagenham. The rider, in his 20s, was approached by two men on another moped who squirted what was described as a “noxious substance” at him.
They attempted to steal his moped but were unsuccessful, and the man was taken to hospital. “He does not have lasting injuries and has been discharged,” a spokesperson for Scotland Yard said. “There have been no arrests and enquiries continue.”
Chief Inspector Ben Clark said attacks using corrosive substances were rising in London, adding: “I would urge businesses and parents to challenge those who they think may be trying to obtain or carry these substances as this could help prevent serious offences and life-changing injuries being caused.”
In April, clubbers in east London were caught up in a mass attack that injured 20 people, then last month cousins Resham Khan and Jameel Mukhtar were left with life-changing injuries after having liquid thrown on them through a car window.
Figures from the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) suggest that more than 400 acid or corrosive substance attacks were carried out in the six months up to April 2017, based on returns from 39 forces in England and Wales. They also indicated that bleach, ammonia and acid were the most commonly used substances.
There were more than 300 crimes using “corrosive substances” in London alone during the 2016/17 financial year, including 208 incidents of violence against the person – one that was fatal – and 118 robberies.
Data obtained from the Metropolitan Police by the BBC through Freedom of Information requests showed the incidents were among more than 1,800 reports of attacks involving acid-like fluids since 2010, with their use recorded in murders, robberies and rapes.
The dramatic rise in incidents has generated suspicion of a copycat effect, with campaigners warning that gang members now see acid attacks as a “safer” form of crime following crackdowns on guns and knives.
Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International charity, said carrying the corrosive liquid should carry the same penalty as possessing a knife to help tackle an “explosion” of attacks in the UK.
Acid attacks were previously dominantly associated with so-called “honour” crimes by men aiming to disfigure female victims, but have been used in the UK for crimes including robbery, rapes and assaults motivated by personal disputes. Globally, most acid attack victims are women and girls but in the UK men are more likely to be targets, with recorded numbers in Britain now higher than countries such as Colombia, India and Pakistan.
In an earlier statement, Ms Rudd said: “Acid attacks are horrific crimes which have a devastating effect on victims, both physically and emotionally.
“It is vital that we do everything we can to prevent these sickening attacks happening in the first place. We must also ensure that the police and other emergency services are able to respond as effectively as possible, that sentences reflect the seriousness of the offences and victims are given the immediate support they need.”
Assistant Chief Constable Rachel Kearton, of the NPCC, said forces are continuing to collect data to understand the scale and extent of attacks. “While it is virtually impossible to ban the sale of all corrosive substances, we are working closely with the Home Office and retailers to determine how we can keep these products from people who intend to cause harm,” she said.
“I would urge anyone who is a victim of this type of attack to report it so that we can deal with the matter positively and sensitively.”
Sarah Newton, minister for crime, safeguarding and vulnerability, will outline the Government’s proposals during the debate in the Commons on Monday.
Additional reporting by PA