In focus: BHETA’s Will Jones on the impact of the Offensive Weapons Act on knife retailing

On 6 April, when the new Offensive Weapons Act 2019 (OWA2019) came into force, trading standards officers and the police were further empowered to ensure that bladed items – and some other types of products (such as corrosive substances as found in some cleaning and DIY items) – are sold in a way which complies with ‘age-restricted purchase’ rules instore and online. While this does not sound especially problematic on the face of it, BHETA, which has coordinated and hosted the Responsible Knives Sales Steering Group with leading suppliers and retailers and worked with the Met Police and Trading Standards since 2019, is seeking to clarify the real implications of the Act for the industry. Kitchenware International learns more from Will Jones, chief operating officer, BHETA

What are the key aspects of the new knife legislation that suppliers need to be concerned with? And what does it mean for retailers?

The biggest challenge presented by OWA2019 to both suppliers and retailers is its lack of clarity regarding exactly what the definition of ‘bladed item’ is when it comes to considering what products are now deemed age-restricted sales. This means that the costly – but not necessarily unreasonable – measures that both suppliers and retailers have taken to comply with the Act may not in fact fully address what could happen in practice. Meanwhile Trading Standards and the police are also trying their best to interpret the legislation sensibly.  The result is that the whole industry is left in confusion. To look at the question from the suppliers’ point of view first, these are the issues which have had to be addressed to achieve theoretical compliance. Changes to packaging, POS and merchandising instore, and to outer packaging in the case of items delivered direct to consumers.  In practice this has involved specific wording to indicate 18+ age verification (with many using the Challenge 25 model) and changes to methods of display, including potentially no display at all, as some retailers elect to take affected items off open sale.

Changes to online purchase / delivery, which now needs to include robust age verification at the point of purchase and delivery. This in turn involves staff training and potentially changed contracts with courier companies, as well as an end to locker or ‘leave in safe place’ deliveries. The implications for suppliers are clear in terms of increased costs and the likelihood of reduced sales where items are no longer browsable. Nevertheless, it is BHETA’s experience that there is consensus among suppliers as to best practice in terms of these packaging, point of sale and online changes to comply with OWA2019. 

For retailers, all the above also applies, plus the cost of staff training to improve the ability of retail staff to challenge on age grounds where necessary and to adapt to the changed nature of bladed item sales in store and online. 

Unsurprisingly, some retailers have taken the view that to avoid any possibility of finding themselves at odds with OWA2019, the only solution is to cease selling bladed items online and to take them off open sale in store. As with suppliers, the cost implications for retailers, including the effect of lost sales is obvious. Again, however, there appears to a level of consensus in the actions they have taken thus far.

In real terms, what does this new UK knife legislation mean for companies?

In BHETA’s opinion, over and above all this, the real issue for suppliers and retailers is the confused nature of the wording of the legislation in relation to the definition of ‘bladed items.’  The most contentious aspect of this is that due to the way the law is written, blunt ended cutlery knives could be regarded as offensive weapons under the terms of OWA2019, and therefore considered as subject to age restricted sales. This is a challenge for the industry. Here is the problem – owing to the way the Act is worded, any item that could be described as a knife – including cutlery knives – are included. While this has technically been the case since 1988, in practice it has been viewed as irrelevant to legitimate public safety concerns because it would be highly unusual for a cutlery knife to be used in knife crime.  Now however, the Home Office has stated: ‘The legislation in relation to sale of bladed articles to under eighteens is silent in relation to whether the blade is blunt or not. Therefore, a knife with a blunt blade or rounded end is still a knife and subject to age verification,’ reminding everyone that cutlery knives are legally speaking an ‘age-restricted sale.’ At a special meeting of the Expert Panel on Age Restrictions in March, Home Office representatives were challenged on the inclusion of cutlery knives. In response, they said, “we [The Home Office] had in mind larger knives capable of greater harm, such as chefs’ knives, combat knives, hunting knives. Pizza cutters were excluded from the list for this reason.”  Thanks to the way OWA2019 is worded, however, the panel concluded that cutlery knives are likely to be caught by s.141A, although children’s cutlery, wooden cutlery or picnic cutlery “would be unlikely to be considered offensive weapons by a court.”

So here is the situation in which suppliers and retailers find themselves. Despite the legitimate public safety intentions of the Act and the actions of all parties to comply, thanks to the seeming inability or unwillingness of the Home Office to find the appropriate words to exclude blunt and round-ended cutlery knives, we are in the remarkable position that while knives with ‘a folding blade which is three inches (7.62 cm) or less in length’ are specifically excluded from age restrictions, blunt and rounded ended table knives are included.  No wonder not only the industry, but the police and Trading Standards, who are tasked with implementing the Act are increasingly frustrated. And no wonder some of our biggest and best-loved retailers are taking cutlery off open sale.

What is BHETA’s stance on the knife legislation, is it necessary?

Like the industry in general BHETA supports the need for responsible retailing of knives.  In 2018, in response to the issues affecting the sales of knives and bladed items, BHETA set up a supplier/retailer steering group to identify collaborative initiatives which contribute to responsible and safe knife retailing, such as Challenge 25 packaging and POS. We have supported the Metropolitan Police Knife Retailing group, hosting their representatives and attending meetings at New Scotland Yard. The disappointingly poor way in which OWA2019 has been drafted, however, threatens to impact negatively on legitimate supplier and retailer businesses and livelihoods – and consumers – without contributing anything to public safety. BHETA, alongside the steering group is currently having productive discussions with the police and Trading Standards. The Metropolitan Police and London Trading Standards officers on the Metropolitan Police Knife retailing group said that, in practice, they did not believe that any experienced Trading Standards or police officer would ever use cutlery knives as part of a test purchase for bladed articles. 

There is much support for the common-sense point of view, but unless BHETA and the steering group see the Home Office entering meaningful discussion, companies affected will have no choice than to initiate an industry wide campaign against these measures.  It is vital that UK suppliers and retailers of cutlery knives – excluding steak knives – do not lose out due to the wording of this Guidance. Ultimately, we need an update to the law excluding blunt and round-ended cutlery.

More details of BHETA’s lobbying programme can be found on the BHETA website www.bheta.co.uk.

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