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House of Commons Hansard
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Knife Crime (Sentencing)
04 May 2016
Volume 609

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered sentencing for knife crime.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), for being here to respond on behalf of the Government.

In this House we are all deeply concerned about rising levels of knife crime. When I was elected in May last year, I pledged to my constituents that I would do all I could to address the scourge of knife crime. Why? Because Colchester has seen too many young lives destroyed by crimes involving weapons. Many in this House will be aware of the tragic murders of James Attfield and Nahid Almanea, both of whom lost their life far too early. Two weeks ago an individual was convicted of their murders, and he has been sentenced to 27 years.

Too many people, particularly our young people, still find it acceptable to carry blades and knives. They wrongly believe that doing so will keep them safe, but let us be clear that carrying a knife does not keep people safe; it is illegal and it puts them and others in grave danger.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing such an important debate. Does he agree that education is a huge part of addressing the knife crime problem? Many young people consider themselves to be safe when carrying a knife. I am the chairman of the all-party child and youth crime group, and we have done work demonstrating that a lot of the knives are taken off those children and used against them.

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My hon. Friend is right that education plays a key role, and I will return to that later in my speech. We have to get the message out loud and clear that, statistically, people are far more likely to be the victim of a knife crime if they are carrying a knife themselves.

What is troubling about the case involving James Attfield and Nahid Almanea is not just that the perpetrator was only 15 at the time of the murders but that, on 26 March 2014, he was in court being given a youth referral order for criminal damage and robbery at knifepoint. Seventy-two hours later, he stabbed James Attfield 102 times. Three months later, he brutally murdered Nahid Almanea with a knife.

I understand that, under our legal system, judges decide the appropriate action in each case, taking into account a number of different factors, including the facts of the case, the age of the offender, the maximum penalty and any sentencing guidelines.

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I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. He is making a powerful case. We also need to consider access to knives. I have come across a case in the west midlands involving the so-called “zombie” knife, which is a brutal weapon up to two feet in length and including several serrated blades. It has no practical usage, yet it is available online for just £8. Will he comment on access to knives?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Government have introduced measures on “zombie” knives. Where there are such weapons that serve no purpose other than to cause damage to another individual, it is absolutely right that the Government take action.

As Members of Parliament, we must trust judges to make the right decisions. However, there is undoubtedly a feeling in my constituency that the judiciary failed my constituents. There will also be people across the country who question how someone who robbed a newsagent at knifepoint, regardless of age, failed to receive a custodial sentence.

To be fair, the Government have done much to address knife crime. I welcome steps such as minimum custodial sentences for repeated knife possession and the commitment on police budgets, but we need to do more on education. I am fortunate to have two fantastic charities offering weapons awareness training in my constituency: KnifeCrimes.org, run by Ann Oakes-Odger, and Only Cowards Carry, run by Caroline Shearer. Those two inspirational women lost their sons to knife crime. There is a strong case for schools to teach pupils about the dangers of carrying knives.

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In Derby we have recently had reports of increased levels of knife crime. Last week, somebody was threatened with a penknife in a school. Does my hon. Friend agree that projects such as Project Zao, which is run by the police in Derby to educate parents and children, are a way forward in addressing such crimes?

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I agree. There is no question but that education will play a key role in addressing knife crime. There is no question but that there is a strong case for more schools to teach pupils about the danger of carrying knives. As I have found, Ministers regularly throw back the challenge that the demands on the curriculum are great, which I accept, but we are talking about one 45-minute lesson in years 9 or 10. I do not believe that would be a huge burden on the curriculum.

The purpose of this debate is to consider whether enough is being done on sentencing. It is often said that sentencing guidelines are just that, “guidelines, not tramlines.” I appreciate the need for judges to have discretion to sentence according to the circumstances of each case, but let us look at the statistics. In 2015, there were 54 instances of 10 to 15-year-olds being convicted or cautioned for threatening with a knife or offensive weapon, of whom three already had two previous convictions for possession of a knife or offensive weapon. Two of those three received a community sentence. Despite having already been sentenced twice, they received, in effect, a slap on the wrist.

Let us look more generally at simply possessing a knife or offensive weapon. In 2014, 2,725 10 to 17-year-olds were sentenced for possession of a knife or offensive weapon. In 2015, the figure went up to 3,103, a rise of 14%. Of those sentenced for possession of a knife or offensive weapon in 2014, 44 had two previous convictions and 17 had three previous convictions. How about last year? Seventy-five had two previous convictions, an increase of 70%, and 27 had three previous convictions, an increase of 59%. It is deeply troubling that we are sentencing more and more repeat offenders for carrying knives.

Let us look at first-time offenders. Of those sentenced in 2014 for possession of a knife or offensive weapon, 2,398 had no previous convictions. In 2015, the number went up to 2,699 with no previous convictions, an increase of 13%. If we are sentencing more and more children with no previous convictions for knife offences, is our approach to deterrence working? Lord Thomas, the most senior judge in England and Wales, said in 2014:

“There is obviously a really serious problem in relation to knives. The carrying of knives has become commonplace in gangs and with children who are very young… I think we need to look very, very carefully at the best way of using the various levels of sentencing to control the use of knives. I think this is something which is urgently required. We’ve been extraordinarily successful in this country in controlling the use of guns, but knives, particularly knives carried by 12, 13, 14-year-olds, is a major problem… This is a problem which is very, very serious, which is rightly a real concern.”

I welcome the new “two strikes” sentence, which means that adults convicted more than once of being in possession of a blade face a minimum six-month prison sentence and a maximum of four years. Young offenders, aged 16 and 17, will face a minimum four-month detention and training order. However, there is no provision for those under 16. During a debate on 3 March 2016, I said that the answer to youth violence is threefold: deterrence, education and intervention. As I have said, I want the national curriculum to be modified to include weapons awareness training. The Government should take another look at encouraging more schools to introduce weapons awareness lessons.

On deterrence, let me be clear that I do not want to throw vast swathes of teenagers in prison for possession of a knife or offensive weapon; it is far better to rehabilitate them in the community. However, there are three changes that I would like to see.

First, where an under-16 with a previous knife-related conviction is found to be using a knife in any violent crime or offence involving threatening another person, there should be a mandatory detention and training order. I believe that, in those cases, there is enough doubt about the effectiveness of a community sentence that the public safety argument alone requires a custodial response.

Secondly, where an under-16 with no previous convictions commits a threatening or violent crime involving a knife or offensive weapon, there should be a mandatory psychiatric assessment in addition to their sentence. Finally, I would like to see any under-18 who is convicted or cautioned for a first-time knife-related offence to be sent on a mandatory weapons awareness course as part of their sentence.

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Would my hon. Friend like to see these interventions take place prior to sentencing or after sentencing?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. The psychiatric testing would almost certainly have to be done prior to sentencing, but the weapons awareness course, by its design, would happen as part of the sentence; it would happen after sentencing. I would see that working in a similar way to the speed awareness courses for someone who has been caught speeding. They have to go on a course. The courses are often very shocking, as they are hit with hard facts. Often, young people—especially first-time offenders—need a hard look at what could have happened and what could happen again if they continue to carry and use a knife.

I am aware that making law around a tragedy is often the wrong approach. However, the evidence suggests that we are sentencing more and more teenagers for first-time knife offences, as well as more and more teenagers with a history of knife-related convictions. This Government have rightly recognised the importance of tackling youth knife crime and I hope that they will take on board my suggestions.

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May I say at the outset that it is a great honour to serve, I think for the first time, under your chairmanship, Mr Davies? I know you take a very close interest in these matters.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) on securing this vital debate. I also note with interest the thoughtful interventions made by other hon. Friends. I think I can safely say that we collectively share a desire to stamp out the scourge of knife crime.

I am particularly privileged to be able to respond to this debate. I should say at the outset that the Government are committed to keeping our streets safe from knives, which includes sending a simple, uncluttered and clear message: if someone carries a knife, they are more likely than ever to get a custodial sentence.

Unlawful possession of a knife or offensive weapon is a serious crime, which carries a maximum four-year custodial sentence. If someone is harmed, there are a range of existing offences against the person, including—as my hon. Friends will be aware—wounding or causing grievous bodily harm, which reflect the seriousness of the behaviour and the harm that is caused. The maximum sentence available for grievous bodily harm with intent is up to life imprisonment, and the use of a weapon is an aggravating factor in sentencing. I note that 87% of people convicted of this offence receive a prison term and the average length of that term has risen by more than a third since 2010.

Within that sentencing framework, it is for judges and magistrates to decide the proper sentence in individual cases, and they must take full account of the harm to the victim and the culpability of the offender. As politicians, we may sometimes be tempted to try to second-guess judges or do their job, but we have to respect judicial independence in sentencing on the specific facts of the individual case before the court.

At the same time, it is quite right, and not inconsistent, to say that we must also address victims’ concerns and fears, and the concerns and fears of the wider public. In December 2012, we introduced new offences of threatening someone with a knife in a public place or a school and causing an immediate risk of physical harm, which carry a minimum custodial sentence. Under the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, we banned the use of cautions for offenders convicted of serious offences, including those who carry knives. Consequently, more people face the full force of the law.

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In the sentencing guidelines that the Minister quite rightly referred to, is there anything that allows judges to take into account whether or not the individuals concerned are members of a gang?

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I need to check the specific guidelines, but I think there is enough latitude for the courts to address that issue and take into account any involvement in a gang, and the particular characteristics of that gang, in relation to the sentencing framework. Of course, whether the courts place the right weight on that factor is difficult to say; as politicians, we can sit here and second-guess individual cases. However, I do not think there is any question but that judges have the power to consider all the facts of a case.

To continue with the measures the Government have taken, in July 2015 we commenced the provisions introducing a minimum custodial sentence for anyone aged 16 or over who is convicted of a second or further knife possession offence—that issue was raised earlier. I pay tribute to the tenacity shown by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and Nick de Bois, the previous Member for Enfield North, in securing that change to the legislation.

That is the law, but often the real question is: how well is it being enforced? The latest figures show that an immediate custodial sentence is now the most common disposal for knife possession, compared with 2010, when most offenders could reasonably expect to receive a community sentence. In the fourth quarter of 2015, 31% of all offenders convicted of knife possession offences received an immediate custodial sentence, compared with 23% back in 2010.

The latest figures also show that 38% of adults were given an immediate custodial sentence, which is an increase of six percentage points from a year ago and an increase of 11 percentage points since recording began in 2008. Over the same period of seven years, the use of adult cautions for this offence has more than halved. Sentencing for young offenders has also become more consistently robust—that point was rightly raised earlier.

In the fourth quarter of 2015, 10% of young offenders received an immediate custodial sentence for possession of a knife, compared with 6% in the same quarter of 2007. The average length of custodial sentence for possessing a knife has also increased. In the latest figures, the average length was 7.7 months, an increase of almost two months on the same quarter in 2008. More people are being sent to prison, and for longer, for carrying a knife, which reflects the changes this Government have made.

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Clearly, the sentencing that the Minister has been describing has been significantly tightened by this Government over the last few years, and I think all of us welcome that. However, does he agree that there is another side to this issue, which is about preventing knife crime in the first place? There is a real role for charities, county councils and police and crime commissioners to get together and ensure a serious education campaign in schools about the risks of carrying a knife and the devastation that knife crime can cause to the families who suffer losses as a result.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right; as usual, he hits the nail on the head. Of course, there is nothing inherently contradictory or inconsistent in saying that we want to send a very clear message from law enforcement and the criminal justice system, while also trying to do as much as we can through education and raising public awareness to prevent these awful crimes from happening in the first place—for the victims, but also for the offenders, who sometimes, through gullibility or naivety, get dragged into things that, with some education, awareness and nurturing, they could have avoided in the first place.

I want to refer to the Sentencing Council, because it is currently preparing a draft sentencing guideline on possession of knives and offensive weapons. It will be subject to full public consultation later in the year, which will provide an opportunity to inform the definitive sentencing guideline and the approach to be taken by the courts in dealing with these very serious offences. That will be another opportunity for us to consider whether we have got the balance right.

In relation to the question about gangs, having taken advice, I can confirm that if an offender is acting as a member of a gang, where two or more offenders are acting together to commit the offence, that is an aggravating factor in the sentencing guidelines and, of course, all courts must follow those guidelines. My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) raised the important issue of gangs, and I am glad that I can provide some clarification about it.

The introduction of minimum sentences for offences of possession of a knife, blade or offensive weapon sends a crystal clear message: if people carry a knife, they can expect to face a custodial sentence. That message from the law enforcement community and the criminal justice system is crucial for victims, their families, the wider communities affected, the general public and those who might be tempted to break the law.

I am aware of the tragic murders by James Fairweather and the circumstances around that case. I note the interest and concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester. He will know that I cannot comment on individual court cases, as sentencing is a matter for the judiciary, independent of us politicians. I send my deepest personal condolences to the families of his constituents Nahid Almanea and James Attfield. I note that this is a complex case, given the mental health assessment of the perpetrator. I note in particular that four separate psychiatrists were required to give expert evidence at the trial. James Fairweather was sentenced on 29 April to detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure with a minimum term of 27 years. I also note that the critical learning report into James Fairweather’s earlier offence and referral order concluded that the subsequent murders were neither preventable nor predictable. Clearly that is zero consolation for the victims’ families, and I reaffirm that in such cases as this, we always seek to learn lessons for the future.

Tackling knife crime is an ongoing high-level priority for the Government. As my hon. Friend has already mentioned, it requires a team effort across Government and law enforcement agencies. Knife crime offences recorded by the police remain 12% lower than in 2010, but I accept that there is more to do. In February, we supported 13 police forces to undertake co-ordinated action against knife crime. That involved targeting habitual knife carriers, weapon sweeps, test purchases of knives from identified retailers and the use of surrender bins. A new week of activity was held at the end of April, with 11 police forces taking part. That is exactly the kind of preventive work that we should be doing, and we continue to attach a high priority to it.

In February, the Home Office jointly hosted a meeting with the Metropolitan Police Service and the national policing lead aimed at retailers selling knives. More than 80 retailers attended. On 23 March, the Government published the “Modern Crime Prevention Strategy”, which sets out a range of measures to strengthen our response to knife crime, including: working with the police and industry to ensure effective controls on the sale of knives and other offensive weapons; identifying and spreading best practice; and delivering measures designed to deter young people from carrying knives. As my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) called for, that will also include a ban on the sale and importation of “zombie-killer” knives, which so horrifically glamorise senseless violence.

When it comes to the sale of knives more generally, the law is clear that a retailer commits a crime if they do not take proper steps to ensure that they are not selling knives to under-18s, with the exception of smaller-bladed pocket knives. On 23 March, the Home Office agreed a set of principles with major retailers to prevent under-age sales of knives in their stores and on their websites. That point was made earlier. The Home Office will work with the British Retail Consortium to develop the principles and to encourage other retailers to sign up to them. We want retailers to buy into and be proactively engaged with them.

I am conscious of the time and, in particular, the fact that we have a vote coming up. In case others wish to contribute, I will quickly make a couple of points about the education of young people. That issue was rightly raised. We know that intervening early can stop young people becoming involved in the gang culture that fuels youth violence. On 17 November, the Early Intervention Foundation published a report setting out its research into the risks and protective factors that can lead to young people becoming involved in youth violence and gangs. It attached importance to early identification and intervention. The Home Office is working with the Department for Education to promote these messages to schools and children’s care homes, which are another important area.

I again take this opportunity to pay tribute to the vital work that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester does at a local level in Essex with the local charity Only Cowards Carry. That is incredibly important work. A lot of that localised work is as important, if not more important, than the stuff that comes out of central Government. We have a role to play in supporting and spreading awareness of that work. There is also Charlie Taylor’s wider review of youth justice, which provides a timely opportunity to assess the causes of youth offending and how better to respond to drive down reoffending.

Ridding our streets of the scourge of knife crime will remain a high-level priority for the Government and for future Governments. We can never be remotely complacent, not even for a moment. That means educating youngsters to steer clear of knives and gangs in the first place; preventing retailers from selling knives to youngsters; targeting the police response in the most effective possible way—that, I suppose, is the role of the Ministry of Justice—and continuing to send a clear message from the criminal justice system that carrying knives will not be tolerated and that those who do are more likely than ever to be sent to prison, and to be sent to prison for longer.

Question put and agreed to.

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In five minutes we are due to start the next debate. The Minister is not yet here—not unreasonably, because we are not due to start as yet. There will be a vote very shortly in the Chamber. Taking those factors into account, the sitting will be suspended until no later than 4.45 pm, after the vote has taken place. We will start back as soon as everyone else arrives. It is courteous to wait until the debate is scheduled to start, by which time there will be a vote.

Sitting suspended.