Opposition Day — [14th Allotted Day]
Humfrey Malins (Woking, Conservative)
As always, I begin by declaring an interest as a Crown court recorder and a part-time district judge. Sentencing is an important issue and it is a pity that the debate is not longer, that it has not been better attended and that Opposition Back Benchers have 23 minutes between us to make our points.
I speak from experience in the House and in the courts across London and the south-east. In the time available, I want to focus on sentencing, especially in relation to two crimes and our approach to them. First, I want to consider knife crime. We are in the age of the blade, and all hon. Members will have been horrified in the past few months by so many nasty knife crimes around London and other cities. Some have been mentioned tonight.
I have been in court and listened to witnesses describe what it is like when somebody brings out a knife—the flash of steel, the terror, the legs turning to jelly; the evil of a knife when it is shown to one. I heard a troubling statistic when the Violent Crime Reduction Bill was considered in Parliament three years ago and I asked about knives in schools. I was told that, according to Government figures, some 20,000 children aged 11 to 16 carried a knife into school for offensive purposes and some 40,000 children aged 11 to 16 carried a knife into school for defensive purposes—60,000 children with knives in our schools.
It was and is an horrific figure, and it should trouble us all tonight much more than anything else that we have heard. How can it be, in this age of the blade, that 60,000 children are taking blades into school? What about the children outside school, across the cities? How many tens of thousands are carrying knives? How many hundreds of thousands? If Government figures say that 60,000 children are taking knives into school, we are facing a true tragedy, but we have not got to grips with it.
There have been far too few prosecutions. In 2005, only 73 youngsters were prosecuted for having a bladed article or offensive weapon on school premises. Only a modest amount received any form of custodial sentence. It is no wonder the public are in despair. Can someone not get to grips with knives in school? What are we going to do? The police and head teachers have plenty of powers already. Somebody, somewhere, has got to send out the message that it will not do for 11 to 16-year-olds and 16 to 18-year-olds to carry knives, and that it will be punished with custody.
In debates on what became the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, I suggested a mandatory three-month sentence for such offences, unless there were exceptional circumstances. What happened? The Government rubbished my proposal, saying that there were probably not enough prison places. What summed up the Government's position at that time? I shall tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker. As I said in Committee, they had answered a written question, saying—can you credit this?—that
"It is essential to educate young people about the dangers and consequences of becoming involved in criminality associated with weapon-carrying and the Home Office funds and operates a number of community-based initiatives aimed at encouraging good citizenship and turning vulnerable young people away from crime."—[ Hansard, 3 November 2004; Vol. 426, c. 300-301W.]
Encouraging initiatives? Tell that to people on some of the estates that I have seen in London. We in this House must send the message that knife carrying among young people must be stamped out, and stamped out hard.
I turn to my next point. Come with me to a court in south London, Madam Deputy Speaker, and look over at the dock. You see a man who looks 50 years old. He is scratching his arms. He is grey haired. He is stuttering. He is wobbling. He can barely lift his head. He is charged with stealing £60 worth of razor blades yesterday from a local supermarket. Why? To sell them, to get the money to buy his heroin. He looks a beaten man. He looks quite elderly. I ask him how old he is. He says 26. This is his 35th conviction in that court for a drug offence. He steals to fund his habit.
When are we going to get to grips with the issue of drugs? Every heroin addict I have seen—and my God they come from some bad backgrounds; I shall say a word about that later—started with cannabis and solvents at the age of 11 or 12, and moved on to cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin. They are ruined at 26 years old. They have no self-esteem. They come from the most rotten estates.