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Volume 447: debated on Monday 19 June 2006

5. How many offences involving the use of knives or other bladed weapons have been recorded by the police in each of the last five years; and if he will make a statement. (77874)

With the exception of homicides, the recorded crime statistics do not separately identify all crimes involving knives and sharp instruments. Of the 4,141 offences currently recorded as homicide between 2000-01 and 2004-05, 1,211 involved sharp instruments. On 24 May, the Association of Chief Police Officers and I launched a nationwide knife amnesty to encourage people to hand in unwanted knives. The amnesty runs until the end of June, following which forces will undertake robust enforcement actions, education and community engagement work. Concurrent with that, the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, which is currently before Parliament, contains a number of measures to tighten still further the control of knives.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. He may be aware that 10 years ago I worked with Frances Lawrence, the widow of the murdered head master Philip Lawrence, in order to secure action to deal with the scourge of knife crime. At that point, the then shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), assured me that dealing with knife crime would be a priority for a future Labour Government. Since then, public concern about knife crime has risen—in my constituency, one school pupil, Natashia Jackman, was attacked in the precincts of her own school, and we are all aware of the recent tragic murder of Kiyan Prince. Will the Home Secretary tell me what he and his ministerial colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills are doing in order to ensure the safety of schoolchildren against that particular scourge? And what will he do to honour the promise so freely given by his colleague 10 years ago?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the matter is a major public concern. Although I have been at the Home Office for a relatively short period, I have already indicated that I am reviewing the situation and considering the options on the possession of knives. I am giving serious consideration to suggestions that the maximum sentence for possessing an article with a blade or point in a public place should be increased, which is a measure of the seriousness with which I treat the matter. I would not like the hon. Gentleman to think that we have not acted previously, because we have, but I accept that the level of public concern obliges me to re-examine whether we should make sentencing even more robust in that area.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the perception that knife crime is a serious problem drives many young people to carry weapons where they might not otherwise do so? Although screening, stop and search and deterrent sentencing have an important role to play, prevention must lie at the heart of the response. In my constituency, which incidentally includes St. George’s school where Philip Lawrence was tragically murdered 10 years ago, we are currently seeking charitable funding for a major project that will work with schools and youth clubs to get to the root causes of why so many young people seek to carry weapons as a result of fear and as a way of resolving conflicts. Will he urgently work with the DFES to see whether ways can found to ensure that projects are available in a range of constituencies to work with young people to make prevention a priority?

Yes, I certainly will do that. It is important that, along with other measures, we educate young people out of the idea, which is no doubt fashionable and attractive, that if someone carries a blade or a knife it will somehow defend them from attack. In fact, in many cases it will provoke, and may even be used against them. Education is an important aspect, as are prevention and prohibition. We are also considering banning samurai swords and other weapons used in violent crime. Sanction is important as well, so I confirm to the House that in reviewing sentencing options, I am giving serious consideration to the suggestion that the maximum sentence for having a knife or a blade in a public place should be increased. We intend to make a decision on that before the Violent Crime Reduction Bill is debated on Report in the other place.

Given that it is possible to receive a lengthier jail sentence for stealing a bicycle than for carrying a deadly weapon in the form of a knife, can the public really have confidence that the Government’s priorities are right when it comes to tackling violent crime?

I think that the hon. Gentleman would want to be as honest as possible on the length of sentence that one can get for possessing an offensive weapon, which in the case of a knife could be up to four years. However, there is an incongruity in that in other circumstances the sentence for having an article with a blade or a point would be limited to two years. I am considering that with a view to possibly extending it. Of course, someone who uses a knife in pursuit of another crime can receive up to a life sentence—for instance, in the case of murder with the use of a knife.

When my right hon. Friend is reviewing sentencing policy, will he also consider the Government’s approach to working with young people and acknowledge that the carrying of knives seems to be closely related to gang culture and the organisation of gangs among young people? For all the effort that we have put into working with young people, there is very little focused work by the police or other agencies to tackle and to break up gangs. Perhaps when the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), goes to the USA, he could look at some of its experience in tackling and busting gangs to see whether that can have any effect on the predominance of knife-carrying.

My right hon. Friend speaks with considerable experience, both ministerial and from his position as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. I certainly will consider that. I would not like people to think that we have done nothing in this direction. First, in May 2004, we set up the Connected fund to provide grants for small community groups. It now supports more than 200 local groups working on gun crime, knife crime and gang-related issues. I accept that that was a start, but it was a substantial start.

Secondly, we have to deploy a range of measures—for instance, the amnesty that we are carrying out at the moment. The previous amnesty brought in some 30,000 knives. As we announced last Friday, in the first week of the amnesty about 17,700 items were handed in to forces in England and Wales. I do not pretend that that deals with the whole problem, but it is another aspect of tackling it. People should understand that if they are found in possession of such weapons after the interlude during which they can be handed in, they will be tackled robustly.

I will resist the temptation to talk about Zimbabwe.

Given what has been said in questions from both sides of the House, and given that the Home Secretary himself said that he is considering extending the penalty for carrying knives, why did his own Government oppose this exact proposal from the Opposition in November of last year?

The hon. Gentleman is asking me the same question—[Hon. Members: “Right hon.”] I beg his pardon. The right hon. Gentleman is asking me the same question, through a slightly different prism, that he asked a fortnight ago—that is, how I could vote on something with the Government a few months ago. I think that he has served in government, and he will know that there was a different Secretary of State then. [Interruption.] Just as I, as Secretary of State for Defence, made different judgments from those that the current incumbent will make on some matters— the nature of Cabinet Government is collective responsibility—so I have now reached a new position. I have considered what has been said and, rather than being completely focused on the process whereby we reach decisions—which is a legitimate subject—I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will also be interested in their substance. I am prepared to consider extending the sentence in one of the examples—indeed, I will go further and invite him to discuss the matter with me. I hope that that process will not upset him unduly.

I promise not to be upset when I discuss with the Home Secretary the sentencing options, which are currently before the Lords, of three, four or five years under the Tory agenda. I am sure that he will accept one of them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) made a powerful point about the length of time that the issue has been before the Government and, indeed, the previous Government. Three years have passed since the massive public outcry over the brutal stabbing of the schoolboy Luke Walmsley—I am sure that everyone remembers that. There was a great deal of tough talk from the Government then but little effective has happened since.

Since the Government have been in power, the number of knives in schools has doubled yet the convictions for selling knives to minors—under-16s—run at an average rate of six a year. That is how seriously the issue has been taken. Let me therefore bring the Home Secretary to a practical point about knives, youngsters and schools. When will the Government ensure that all at-risk schools have the resources and facilities to screen all their pupils to ascertain that they are not carrying knives?

First, I take it that the right hon. Gentleman’s response was an acceptance of my invitation to discuss the matter. The public are more interested in that than point scoring about the process.

Secondly, I would not like the House to be misled inadvertently. As I said, with the exception of homicides, the recorded crime statistics do not separately identify all crimes that involve knives and sharp instruments. I therefore took the trouble to examine the incidence of the use of knives in homicides. The figures have stayed roughly the same for the past five or six years—between 29 and 33 per cent. That is around 230 out of 820 homicides. I do not want to give a sensationalist portrayal of the use of knives. Nevertheless, there is great public concern about it and I believe that it should be a cross-party issue, which we ought to discuss with an open agenda to ascertain how we can deal with sentencing. I am more than willing to discuss any related issues, including schools, at the same time.