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Volume 201: debated on Friday 20 December 1991

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11.59 am

I am pleased to have obtained this debate on the important and serious matter of the increasing use of knives in crimes of violence. Christmas is a time of celebration and joyfulness, but there is no doubt that during this time someone, probably more than one, will become over-exuberant, a knife will flash and someone will die. Christmas will be spoilt not just for those involved but for their friends and relatives.

People should not carry a knife at any time and particularly not at Christmas. We have recently seen the horrendous stabbing in Walthamstow which resulted in the death of Sergeant Alan King, a popular Chingford policeman. Police Constables Simon Castrey and John Jenkinson received terrible knife injuries in a similar incident. The Government have expressed their horror at such attacks on the police, but they also need to act.

I planned this debate before that terrible murder. On one occasion, I was cycling with my wife at Whipps Cross when I saw two 14-year-olds with their bicycles. One of them got out the ugliest looking knife that I have seen to cut a piece of string or something on his bicycle. It was a matter of horror to me and my wife that such a young lad could carry that knife. I cycled off quickly, but when I discussed the matter subsequently with my wife she said that to carry a knife was not uncommon nowadays. She cited the example of a model boy from an impeccable family down the road, who I hope will have a golden future, who apparently always carries a knife for his own protection. It is horrific that youngsters should think that that is necessary. The Minister is a little older than I, but when I was a rough and tough lad, we would never have dreamt of carrying a knife and nor would he. It is shocking that that ethos should exist now.

There has been a big increase in the use of knives in crimes of violence. I have asked parliamentary questions about the illegal sale and possession of knives and I was told that 150 people were prosecuted in 1988 for having in a public place such an article with a blade or point and in 1989, it was 2,018—a huge jump. In 1990, a total of 903 knives were seized at ports, airports and other points of entry and in 1991 that figure had risen to 2,082.

I do not want to say that there has been a huge leap in the past year or so, because that would not true, but there has been a big leap since 1980. For example, in 1980 in the Metropolitan police district there were fewer than 2,000 cases of the use of knives in offences of violence against the person and 1,240 cases where knives were used in robberies. By 1987, those figures had shot up to 2,870 cases of the use of knives in offences against the person and 4,630 cases where they were used in robberies—a huge increase.

The figure have dropped a little since then, which I welcome. That drop was a consequence of a campaign against the use of knives in mid-1988 and the effects of section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. But with the new ethos to which I have referred of youngsters carrying knives, allegedly for their own protection, there is a real danger that there will be another explosion of such crimes.

In 1989, it was estimated that sharp instruments were used in one in three aggravated burglaries, one in five robberies, one in 17 offences of violence against the person and one in 100 sexual offences. Knives and sharp instruments are the most common weapons used in homicides and account for one third of all homicides.

An article in The Independent on Sunday on 19 May clearly substantiates my point about the danger of an explosion in knife violence. The article was headed
"Death by Stabbing: the new British way of life".
It said:
"Knife attacks are on the increase, with more young men carrying blades.,"
It talks of anecdotal evidence in 1991 that the carrying of knives is on the increase among young people and it quotes Detective Chief Superintendent Roger Stoodley, who works in east London, as saying:
"I have never known so many people to be carrying these weapons."
Barrie Irving of the Police Foundation is quoted as saying:
"There is much evidence that more people are going out with knives. There is a lot of threat and counter-threat in the pubs and clubs. Much of it is display. The knife is produced as the young man slips into a role that has been established in his mind by videos and that sort of thing."
A serious problem already exists and it is becoming even greater. The Government's response has been inadequate and that is why I initiated the debate. I do not say that in party-political terms, because the Government's objective is the same as mine. They want to see the elimination of the use of knives in crimes of violence, but their approach is that the law is adequate to deal with the problem and that nothing needs to be changed. In a parliamentary written answer I was told:
"The sale and possession of knives is subject to a number of controls … There will be practical problems in seeking to apply more general restrictions on the sale and purchase of knives which have a variety of legitimate everyday uses."
The answer refers to the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 and ends by saying:
"The Government have no plans to introduce further legislation in this matter."—[Official Report, 2 December 1991; Vol. 200, c. 3.]
When I asked about local amnesties, I was told:
"It is for chief officers of police to consider whether offering opportunities for disposing of offensive weapons would be a worthwhile crime prevention initiative in their own force area."—[Official Report, 11 December 1991; Vol. 200, c. 436.]
Again, the Government are saying that the procedures are there and nothing further need be done. I challenge that. I accept that we do not want to become involved with domestic cutlery and important workmen's tools such as Stanley knives, but there is other action that the Government should take.

In the face of the dreadful attacks on police officers, the Home Office should have put together an urgent review team which should have incorporated other Departments and put forward a package of measures. I hope that the Minister will take that suggestion on board.

I want to put forward some suggestions for inclusion in such a package of measures. I acknowledge that not all will be appropriate, but some will be. For example, there is a case for a further restriction on the sale of knives and for licensing shops. I know that that is not supported by the Association of Chief Police Officers or by shopkeepers, but there is a case for saying that shops should be licensed.

In November 1980, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewesbury (Mrs. Taylor) said:
"It is vital that we ban offensive and useless weapons. I say `useless' because people buy them for only one reason, which is to injure or, at the very least, to threaten other individuals. We feel strongly that weapons of this kind have no place, so we support measures to ban them or prohibit their sale."
The key point is that if the knives are used for one purpose and do not fall into the category of domestic cutlery there is a case for a ban. There is certainly a case for enforcing the law more strongly to prevent under-age people buying such weapons. In that same debate my hon. Friend said:
"The proposal that weapon sales be banned completely to people under the age of 16 should stay on the agenda. The Minister is aware that the peak age of offenders is 15 and that it is boys of that age who commit the vast majority of street crimes and crimes involving intimidation or offensive weapons."—[Official Report, Fifth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. 10 November 1988; c. 4.]
Butterfly and gravity knives are already banned and there is a case for extending that. I have some information about knives for sale by mail order. I have an advertisement for CIA survival knives which states that it
"is a superb high tech fibreglass filled nylon construction knife which weighs just 20 gm…due to its double edge, spear point and double fluted reinforced spine, tremendous plunging power—it can literally be driven straight through a telephone directory (remains undetected by airport metal detectors)".
Another one is advertised as a "sabretooth survival saw" and it again is said to be able to pass unnoticed through metal detectors. The advertisement says:
"when you need that 'extra edge'.
An advert for a CIA letter opener says that it can be driven by hammer through ½ in plywood. The OSS sleeve dagger is said to be
"Specially designed to be concealed on arm or leg, especially during body search."
The advertisement says that it is supplied only to military personnel, but these are general adverts and I doubt whether that is the case.

Such weapons should be banned and there should be tighter control on their manufacture and import. The police should be protected by body armour. Research is being carried out on that, but it should be speeded up and it should not be left to police officers to buy such body protection. That should be the job of the Home Office. We should consider the supply of metal detectors and the regular retraining of police officers to enable them to deal with knife problems.

Police are often delayed through having to seek permission to enter places such as shopping malls, and the law needs to be enforced in pubs and clubs. Penalties should be reviewed. At the moment the punishment is up to six months' imprisonment and/or a £2,000 fine. That is to be increased and perhaps there should be an increase in the sentence for hardened criminals going out with a criminal purpose and carrying a knife. Section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 could be strengthened.

There should be a concerted programme to change the knife-carrying ethos in schools. The Minister should get his oar in with the Minister for Health who is carrying out a review in conjunction with the mental health tribunal. We do not want to see more knife carrying by people who are mentally ill, although that clearly affects a minority of community care cases. Search powers should be reviewed and should be exercised where there are reasonable grounds. Perhaps random spot checks could be carried out in the same way as breathalyser tests.

Above all, there should be a knife amnesty with knife banks not just outside police stations but elsewhere. Local authorities could be brought into that and such an amnesty would need Home Office funding and improved publicity. There is a case for implementing Labour's policy aim of a crime prevention council and a crime management foundation to undertake independent research. I hope that the Minister will consider that package of measures to stop people carrying knives and to change the ethos. Knives affect all our civil liberties and can even affect the ultimate one. I give way to the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby).

12.17 pm

I take it that the hon. Gentleman also has the consent of the Minister.

Yes. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) for allowing me to speak in this valuable debate. As the House knows, I am parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation of England and Wales. My right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine), who represents the Police Superintendents Association, cannot be present at the debate and wishes to be associated with what I have to say.

As the House knows, a terrible situation faces our country. No fewer than five police officers have lost their lives in the past decade as a result of attacks in which knives have been used. A further 17 officers have lost their lives as a result of being shot, crushed or injured in some other way. In the last couple of weeks we have heard about the tragic death of Sergeant Alan King and Detective Constable Jim Morrison and we have seen the terrible injuries inflicted on their colleagues.

As the hon. Member for Leyton has said, the common factor in many of these assaults is the knife. I have one or two suggestions to add to those advanced by the hon. Gentleman in an attempt to alleviate the problem. First, the Home Office should mount a national publicity campaign using all available media to warn parents and young people of the dangers of young people carrying knives. It would remind them that young men who carry knives and youngsters who take them to school may lose their temper and find that one stab is enough to kill a school mate or a police officer.

Such a campaign should be mounted by the Home Office and not left simply to chief constables. Parents should be reminded that they have a responsibility and that they can be fined and required to pay compensation for acts committed by juveniles. The campaign should remind young people of the severe custodial sentences that are available for this type of crime. I should like to see the Home Office introduce what is called the side-handled baton. That is longer than the standard truncheon and would be useful to police officers who patrol alone at night because it affords additional protection against all kinds of assaults, excluding of course, assaults using firearms.

I hope that the Home Secretary will set up a working party jointly with the Police Federation of England and Wales. It represents 125,000 officers in what is unfortunately only too truly the sharp end of policing. I hope that the Home Office will review the stop and search powers. Those powers were conferred under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and replaced those under the Vagrancy Act 1824. In the opinion of the police, those powers are not adequate. The Act does not give a constable power to search a person or a vehicle or anything in or on a vehicle unless he has reasonable grounds for suspecting that he will find stolen or prohibited articles.

That restriction was introduced because of the concern expressed about the old Vagrancy Act and the sus laws. The Home Office and the House must strike a balance between preserving the liberty of the citizen and protecting the lives of police men and police women who are the only protection available to ordinary citizens against people who carry knives and who will stab and kill without regard for the misery that they inflict on their fellow citizens.

12.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) on his success in securing this debate and thank him for raising the disturbing and important question of the use of knives in crime. It has been brought to the forefront of our minds in a most horrible way—by the recent series of shocking attacks on police officers in London, which resulted in two officers being killed and two others receiving terrible injuries.

I am sure that the House joins me, the hon. Member for Leyton and my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) in expressing deepest sympathy to the families of the officers who so tragically lost their lives in the course of duty. We also offer our best wishes to those who were injured, and trust that they will make a full and speedy recovery. Those incidents are a salutary reminder of the dedication of police officers to protecting the public.

The hon. Gentleman referred to an apparent increase in the number of offences involving knives, and I will examine the figures that he gave. I know that some were provided in parliamentary answers from the Home Office. Statistics on the misuse of knives are not readily available, because misuse is categorised under other offences, such as assault. In 1989, however, S1 division conducted an ad hoc survey of notifiable offences between 1986 and 1989 in which sharp instruments and knives were used.

Not all forces responded to that survey, but the results suggested that the percentage of notifiable offences involving the use of sharp instruments and knives fell during the period surveyed. The hon. Member for Leyton makes the point well that we could benefit from better statistics.

Details of the types of knives used in crimes are not generally available either, but ordinary kitchen and craft knives are believed to be the most commonly used in attacks, rather than the kind that the hon. Gentleman mentioned as being advertised. The hon. Gentleman wants additional controls on knife sales. Following the recent series of knife attacks on police officers, there were calls from the Police Federation for further restrictions on the sale of knives. While I appreciate public concern about misuse, I do not see how additional controls on sales could offer an easy or practical solution. I do not believe that licensing shops, for example, would help in practice. However, I shall reflect further on the hon. Gentleman's suggestions.

There are, of course, existing controls on the sales of knives. Certain types of knives that have no legitimate use—such as flick, gravity and butterfly knives—are banned. If any other knife identified by its construction as being suitable for banning comes on the market or enters the country in some way, of course we will readily and rapidly consider adding it to the controlled list.

Banned knives all have distinctive mechanisms that can be defined in law. It would be difficult to distinguish between items that have legitimate everyday uses in the home and workplace, such as kitchen and craft knives, and other types—for example, commando-style daggers—that might be considered undesirable.

It must be recognised that knives are a common feature of everyday life and that, in the wrong hands, almost any bladed or sharply pointed article is potentially a lethal weapon. The Government take the view that imposing further restrictions on the sale of knives would not generally be practicable. However, as I indicated, any particular knives that enter the country or come on the market will be examined to establish whether they can properly and effectively be added to the controlled list. The Government's approach has been to tackle the misuse of knives by tightening the law on possession of knives in public.

The hon. Member for Leyton asked about further legislation. Section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 makes it an offence to possess a bladed or sharply pointed article in a public place without good reason. That Act also places the onus on the knife carrier to show that he had good reason for possessing it in public.

That measure was aimed at tackling the menace of the casual carrying of knives on the streets to which the hon. Member for Leyton drew attention. It certainly appears to be used with good effect by the courts. In 1989—the latest date for which figures are available—there were more than 1,500 convictions under section 139 of the 1988 Act. It supplements the Prevention of Crime Act 1953, which makes it an offence to carry an offensive weapon in public without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. That offence, unlike the section 139 offence, requires proof of intent to cause injury on the part of the knife carrier, and tough penalties are rightly available to the courts. The maximum penalty is two years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine.

The Government also introduced powers, under section 141 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, to ban offensive weapons as specified by means of statutory instruments. Butterfly knives and a range of martial arts equipment were banned by that means and the Government are ready to take further action if other types of weapon become a problem.

The Government believe that the measures I have outlined provide the police and the courts with the powers and penalties to deal with those people who carry knives. As the hon. Member for Leyton knows, the maximum penalty for wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm is life imprisonment. A life sentence is mandatory if an attack leads to death and is categorised as murder.

The hon. Gentleman referred also to a knife amnesty. As he rightly suggested, there is great scope for local initiatives to increase awareness, particularly among young people, of the dangers of carrying knives and offensive weapons and to encourage the safe disposal of those weapons. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Metropolitan police launched such a campaign on 9 December, which involves providing specially adapted bins near police stations where people can deposit knives. I hope that that campaign, which continues until 19 January, succeeds in taking substantial numbers of weapons out of circulation. In 1988, when such an amnesty was held in east and south London, some 1,400 knives were collected.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge, who speaks from great knowledge of such matters, urges more public awareness. An amnesty campaign is one way in which police forces can draw a great deal of local attention to the threat of knives and what can be done about it. He is right that parents as well as young people should know the dangers, and I will refer my hon. Friend's suggestions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge talked about side-handled batons. As he knows, we would be prepared to consider arranging for a scientific evaluation of any equipment that might assist in public order control if the chief officers request it. The offer is there and is open to senior police officers if they believe that such batons would be of advantage to their forces.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge would like a review of police powers of search. He referred to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which stresses that there must be some objective basis for reasonable suspicion if somebody is to be searched, such as the individual's behaviour or information received. It cannot be supported purely on the basis of personal factors.

When the codes of practice were revised recently in response to strong pressure from the police, the guidance was made slightly less restrictive by removing the statement that reasonable suspicion should be no less than the suspicion required to effect arrest without warrant. I shall take back to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary what my hon. Friend has said. As there has recently been a revision of codes, I am bound to say that my right hon. Friend may feel that the time is not right for a review. Current powers do not allow for searches that are based on a policeman's hunch that someone may be carrying an illicit article, or for blanket searches that are carried out in a particular area or among particular groups. Legal changes in that direction would, I believe, attract widespread criticism on the basis that unjustified interference with blameless citizens was being sanctioned. I should say to my hon. Friend——