New Clause 2 — Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Amendment)

Orders of the Day — Violent Crime Reduction Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:41 pm on 14th November 2005.

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'(1) The Criminal Justice Act 1988 (c. 33) is amended as follows.

(2) In subsection (6)(b) of section 139 (offence of having article with blade or point in public place), for "two years" substitute "five years".'. —[Mr. Malins.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 7—Offence of having article with blade or point in public place (amendment)—

'(1) The Criminal Justice Act 1988 (c. 33) is amended as follows.

(2) In subsection (6)(b) of section 139 (offence of having article with blade or point in public place), for "two years" substitute "seven years".'.

Government amendment No. 45

Amendment No. 20, in page 26, line 36 [Clause 24], leave out 'section 141A' and insert 'sections 139 and 141A'.

Amendment No. 21, in page 27, line 5 [Clause 25], leave out 'section 141A' and insert 'sections 139 and 141A'.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Shadow Minister, (Assisted By Shadow Law Officers)

During the debate, I shall refer to—[Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Will hon. Members who are not staying for the debate leave the Chamber quickly and quietly, please?

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Shadow Minister, (Assisted By Shadow Law Officers)

Over the years, I have become increasingly used to people walking out, rather than in, when I begin to speak. Today is no exception.

Conservative Members feel strongly about new clause 2 and I hope to test the opinion of the House on it. New clause 7, which the Liberal Democrats tabled, is roughly along the same lines. I hope also to speak briefly about amendments Nos. 20 and 21.

As was said in an earlier debate, knife crime has rocketed in the past eight years. Recent reports show that knife crime in England and Wales has leaped by as much as 90 per cent. in two years in some areas. Figures that were released not long ago under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 show a total of nearly 25,000 knife crimes last year logged by the 30 police forces that supplied figures. The highest rise in knife crime was recorded by Nottinghamshire police. In Nottinghamshire, offences involving blades increased from 338 in 2002 to 650 last year—a rise of 92 per cent. The number of muggings that involve knives has shot up. That worries us all, including the police. The assistant chief constable of Devon and Cornwall, Tony Melville, who is the Association of Chief Police Officers' spokesman on knife crime, stated:

"Lots and lots of people are carrying knives in public places—in many parts of society it now seems to be a credible and normal thing to carry a knife."

I have some experience of our courts sitting judicially. The offence of carrying a bladed article, which is contrary to section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, is not only prevalent but increasing. It is a terrifying experience for a complainant or victim to witness somebody in the street taking out a knife. Far too many people carry knives for offensive purposes. Doctors report a marked increase in the number of patients who arrive at accident and emergency with stab wounds. Such crime is not only on the increase but deadly serious and must be stamped out.

I have listened to witnesses who gave evidence in criminal trials and recounted with terror how they felt when someone in the street drew a knife. They suffered nightmares for months afterwards. The amount of knife crime has undoubtedly increased—there is a culture of the blade. Many young people believe it is brave to carry a knife. In truth, it is cowardly. However, the number of prosecutions against people for carrying knives and the level of detection remain abysmally low. The courts do not pass sufficiently stiff sentences. They seem sometimes to have forgotten the importance of deterrence.

I strongly commend new clause 2 to the House because it would send a signal to the knife-carrying fraternity that we want to see them severely punished. Under section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, it is an offence to carry a bladed article in a public place. There are certain defences, including having a reasonable excuse or lawful authority, but that is the basic offence. It applies to knives with a blade of 3 in or longer. Earlier today, the prevalence of knife-carrying in schools was mentioned, but it is happening not only in schools but out on the streets. I suggest that the police, if asked their opinion, would say that knife-carrying is one of the fastest-growing offences at the moment. It is therefore essential to give the courts the facility to sentence people on indictment to more than two years in prison for this quite dreadful offence.

Some statistics might be of interest to the House. Charges relating to bladed articles have run at between roughly 4,500 and 6,500 a year over the past five years. In 1999, about 4,500 people were proceeded against for carrying a bladed article, of whom about 3,500 were found guilty. In 2003, about 6,800 were proceeded against, of whom 5,311 were found guilty. One might have thought that more people would go to prison for such a serious offence. Being confronted at any time, but particularly at night, by someone carrying a blade in the street is the most terrifying experience.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee, Shadow Minister (Transport) 6:00 pm, 14th November 2005

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the wording of his new clause provides for an increase only in the maximum sentence for such offences, and not the minimum? The courts would therefore still have full discretion to impose a lesser sentence if they felt that the circumstances of the case warranted that.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Shadow Minister, (Assisted By Shadow Law Officers)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The new clause would simply give a different maximum sentence, not a different minimum. By giving the courts that power, the Minister would permit them to retain the flexibility that they sometimes need. It would not at any stage prevent a court from imposing the sentence that it thought fit, be it considerably less than five years or even less than the current maximum of two years. As my right hon. Friend says, however, it would permit the heavier sentence of five years to be passed in the worst cases. Critically, it would also send a signal to the knife-carrying fraternity that we will not put up with them and that Parliament is beginning to take notice of this increase in crime.

As I said, 5,311 persons were found guilty of the offence of carrying a knife in a public place in 2003. How many of them were actually placed in custody? We might think that 50, 60 or 70 per cent. ought to have been placed in custody—these figures include repeat offenders—but the truth is that only 755, out of well over 5,000, faced a custodial sentence. That means that the people who carry knives on our streets understand that their chances of being caught are very slim, that detection rates are dropping, that they are unlikely to be prosecuted and that their chances of receiving a custodial sentence on conviction are only about one in seven. Times have never been better for the knife carrier, and it is high time that Parliament sent a message to the knife carrier that times are going to get worse.

It is clear that knife crime has increased dramatically in the past few years, but I shall not go further into the figures. I shall simply repeat the fact that it is a terrifying crime. I cannot see any reason for the Government to object to new clause 2, which simply says that the maximum penalty for carrying a bladed article should be increased from two to five years. Such a sentence would not have to be imposed in every case. The advantage of such a measure is that it would send a signal to the courts that Parliament takes knife-carrying very seriously. It would send a signal to the people who carry knives that the maximum sentence that they could face had been increased from two years to five. It would also send a signal to the victims of knife crime that we take their side and want the courts to be much more robust in dealing with those who carry knives.

Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 also stand in my name in this group. The Bill creates an offence of

"using someone to mind a weapon".

I have no criticism of the Government for introducing this measure; indeed, I would go further and say that it is much to be valued as a tool in our armoury against people who are part of the knife culture. The amendments are designed to tease out from the Minister whether bladed articles are included in the description "dangerous weapon" in clause 24.

Let me set the scene. Under clause 24, a person is guilty of an offence if

"he uses another to look after, hide or transport a dangerous weapon for him".

The clause goes on to state that "dangerous weapon" means

"a weapon to which section 141A of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (c. 33) applies (knives and bladed weapons)".

It is not entirely clear to me that section 141A actually applies to a bladed article, although such an offence is covered in section 139 of the Act. Will the Minister explain whether minding a weapon—which, under clause 25, carries a sentence of up to four years—includes minding a bladed article? For example, if it is an offence to mind or look after a knuckle-duster, a sword or some other weapon that is undoubtedly an offensive weapon per se, and the offender is liable to up to four years in prison, I can understand and readily accept that. However, the purpose of my two probing amendments is to determine whether a bladed article is covered by the description "dangerous weapon". If it is, we shall find ourselves in a slightly odd situation.

The maximum penalty for carrying a bladed article in public is at present two years in prison, but if I were to ask someone to look after that bladed article off the street, it would be an even more serious offence, carrying a four-year prison sentence. That would be slightly odd. Frankly, it is more serious for me to carry a bladed article in the street than to ask a friend to look after it in case I wanted to carry it in the street next week. The friend would thereby keep it off the street. It is strange, if I am right, that I am liable to four years for the second of those activities—asking my friend to look after it—but liable to only two years if, in effect, I am carrying it on the street.

If bladed articles are included, can the Minister cover what appears to be an odd situation in terms of sentencing powers? If they are not included among dangerous weapons, can she tell us whether it is an offence if I ask somebody to look after a bladed instrument on the basis that I might shortly need to take it out on the street for offensive purposes? If that is not an offence, why not? The culture of the knife is on the up and it is vital that Parliament recognises that and sends a signal to the criminal fraternity, the world at large, the judiciary and victims of knife crime that we recognise how terrible it is and propose to give the courts a higher sentencing option in relation to the dreadful offence of carrying a bladed article in a public place. I can see no arguments from the Minister that can possibly resist my proposition in the new clause.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I want to speak to new clause 7, which is not dissimilar to new clause 2, except that our provision exceeds that of the Conservatives by two years. I agree with everything that Mr. Malins said, because having a bladed article in a public place is punished with two years' imprisonment whereas carrying a firearm is an offence punishable by up to seven years' imprisonment.

Whether one is murdered by a knife or gun, the result is precisely the same—one is dead. That exactitude of outcome needs to be reflected by an exactitude of punishment, and perhaps more so in the case of knives as the incidence of knife purchase, carrying and use has soared in recent years, as has been said. That needs to be tackled. In response to an oral question from my hon. Friend Mr. Oaten, the Home Secretary said that he would examine bringing gun and knife crimes more into line. The Bill provides the ideal opportunity for the Government to address that differential.

I acknowledge that this part of the Bill presents a difficulty, and I appreciate what the Government are trying to achieve in relation to the reduction of knife crime. I fear, however, that one of their measures—raising the age at which one can purchase a knife to 18—might bring the law into disrepute, as it is difficult to imagine how it could be prosecuted. Under the Bill, all knives, however commonly available, would be subject to the offence if purchased under-age. The enforceability and effectiveness of the provision must therefore be questioned. It is ridiculous that people can get married and have children at 16 but not buy their cutlery. Someone under 18 might also legitimately ask a third party to purchase a knife for them, and no satisfactory answer has been given as to the culpability of the third party if a knife so circuitously purchased were used to kill.

A gun has limited use, but knives do not, so we believe that it would be better to strengthen the law in other areas and to propose restrictions on carrying in a public place and restrictions on what type of knife might fall under the provision. In relation to increasing the sentence for carrying knives in a public place to parity with that for guns, we believe that we are better able to tackle irresponsible and criminal use of knives and the mischief that the Government seek to address if we still allow the purchase of knives where that is done responsibly and for a harmless purpose.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I strongly support my hon. Friend Mr. Malins in raising this important point. Many of us have seen a growing incidence of knife-based crime in our communities, which is alarming. I am pleased that he is campaigning on the issue and is trying to get the Government to take suitable action to deal with it. I am also pleased that the Government are legislating and I hope that the Minister will explain, if she does not welcome my hon. Friend's initiative, what else could be done to reassure people that knife crime can be brought under control.

I also hope that the Minister and the Government can reassure us that there is no intention to obstruct the defence to alleged crimes of carrying a knife in a public place that someone has just been to the shop to buy new kitchen knives and is transporting them home, has taken a broken or damaged knife to a repair shop and is taking it home, or is getting a knife sharpened. Of course, it must be a legitimate defence that someone is carrying a dangerous-looking knife in the course of their trade—when people come to fit carpets or other floor coverings they often carry really frightening-looking knives, but they seem effective at doing their job, and such people would not be using them for criminal purposes. Although there is nothing about that in the Bill or in my hon. Friend's new clause, I hope that the Minister will reassure us that that is implied and will carry forward from previous legislation. Some mistaken comments have been made, which are unfortunate. We want a world in which law-abiding citizens, if they need a knife for the purpose of their trade or wish to take new knives back to their home, should be free to do so.

A stronger signal should be sent out, however, that the rising tide of knife crime is unacceptable and that if people are caught in public places with knives around their person for no good reason, very strong action will be taken. Although a person carrying a knife might not go out with a criminal intent, if they get involved in an argument or come under the influence of drink all sorts of dreadful things might happen that could not happen if that person has been persuaded not to carry the knife in the first place.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 6:15 pm, 14th November 2005

I thank Members for welcoming the Government's legislation on these issues. We are all concerned about the rise in people carrying knives and, in some cases, being prepared to use them. We therefore need strong legislation.

I am afraid that I cannot agree, however, that the maximum penalty for the offence of possession—two years—is inadequate. To set that in context, there is a different though related offence—possession of an offensive weapon, under the Prevention of Crime Act 1953—which has a maximum penalty of four years. Which offence people will be charged with, and which offence is fulfilled, is a matter of circumstances. It is sometimes said that the second offence of possession of an offensive weapon is hardly ever prosecuted. I am happy to reassure Members that figures for 2004 showed that around 5,800 people were convicted of the more serious offence, which has a maximum penalty of four years, which is broadly the same number as were charged with the lesser offence of possession of a knife or bladed weapon. It is not a little-used offence, which is why the prosecuting authorities and police consider carefully which category defendants ought to fall into.

An "offensive weapon" means any article made or adapted for use for causing injury to the person, or intended by the person having it with him for such use by him or some other person. Clearly, therefore, the nature of the weapon, and the intention of the person carrying it, are an issue. There are certain key factors that put the offender into one category rather than the other. The first is the weapon itself—there is a whole schedule of different weapons that cannot be perceived as having any innocent use, such as butterfly knives, disguised knives and sword sticks, which are offensive weapons per se. If one is caught with those, one is automatically subject to the offence that carries the higher maximum penalty of four years. An offender can be charged with that more serious offence if he is in possession of, say, a kitchen knife, but threatens others with it—as was mentioned, if he draws it in the night, frightens people with it, or it is shown that he planned to use it. Someone who draws what would otherwise be an innocuous item in a threatening way, with intention to use it, may be judged to have committed the more serious offence, which carries a maximum of four years' imprisonment. The two-year maximum relates to the simple act of being in possession of a knife that is capable of being used non-violently in a public place. As the hon. Member for Woking says, we want to ensure that decent law-abiding citizens can still buy knives that could be used entirely legitimately without falling foul of the law. There is already a defence of having a knife with good reason or lawful authority.

I think we agree that maximum penalties should generally be proportionate, the aim being to indicate the relative seriousness of the crime. New clause 2 would raise the maximum sentence to five years, while the Liberal Democrats' new clause 7 would raise it to seven. I do not think that we are in the business of having a Dutch auction, but a comparator might be the offence of causing actual bodily harm, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Injury caused by that offence can be minor, but it is nevertheless real injury. Someone who simply possesses a knife without any intention of using it or threatening anyone with it could be subject to a higher maximum prison sentence than someone who had actually caused physical injury. That is why we believe that a two-year sentence is adequate for the former offence. Of course those who use knives are subject to penalties for offences ranging from actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm and wounding with intent to much more serious offences, such as murder. Obviously severe penalties are available for those who use their knives.

The Sentencing Guidelines Council and the sentencing advisory panel are consulting on the "seriousness" test, in the context of a weapon's use as an aggravating factor. We entirely agree that higher sentences should be imposed on those who use knives in violent crime, but we think that that should be done through the Sentencing Guidelines Council. I hope that neither Lynne Featherstone will press their new clauses.

Government amendment No. 45 merely corrects an error in the drafting of clause 24. We want to make it clear that the definition of "dangerous weapon" does not include air weapons or components thereof.

Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 are a little more complex. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Woking for welcoming some of our proposals, and I hope that I can now be equally generous to him. The amendments concern the definition of "dangerous weapon" in clause 24. In its present form, the clause applies to

"a firearm other than an air weapon or . . . a weapon to which section 141A of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 . . . applies (knives and bladed weapons)."

Amendment No. 20 would alter the second part of the definition to include section 139 of the 1988 Act, which contains a wider definition than the one in section 141A. It includes articles with a blade or point per se—not necessarily a knife or a bladed weapon. Compasses have been used as an example in the past. Section 141A includes such articles only if they were made or adapted to cause injury to a person.

A screwdriver, for instance, might have been specially sharpened for use as a weapon. It would fall within the section 141A definition of a knife or bladed weapon, because it would have been turned into a weapon. It would not, however, be covered by the wider definition sought by the hon. Gentleman, which would include objects that had not been made or adapted to cause injury.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Shadow Minister, (Assisted By Shadow Law Officers)

Let us suppose that I say to a friend, "Please transport my bladed article—which is a knife—to the such-and-such estate or the such-and-such park, because once I am on that estate or in that park I want to carry it." It appears that that would not be an offence.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

An unlawful purpose would have to be involved. That is part of the definition. I do want to consider the hon. Gentleman's amendment, because I want to be certain that there is no gap in the law and that the section 141A definition covers the circumstances that we want it to cover. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's amendment achieves that, because the definition would apply only if both section 139 and section 141A applied. Perhaps inadvertently, the hon. Gentleman has narrowed the definition rather than extending it.

The hon. Gentleman said that if a person persuaded someone else to hide a weapon, the maximum sentence could be four years rather than two. In creating a "minding" offence, we sought to put the penalty at the higher end of penalties relating to knives, because we consider that a serious offence. It is not a mandatory minimum, as in the case of guns; it is a maximum sentence to give the courts discretion to establish where the offence might lie. I do not entirely accept that there is a contradiction, because we have genuinely tried to place such offences at the higher end of the scale.

My reservation about the hon. Gentleman's amendment is that I do not want to muddy the waters. I do not want to obscure the primary purpose of clause 24, which is to ensure that people do not seek to persuade others to conceal their weapons and thus evade prosecution and punishment. I do not want us to become so remote as to implicate what may be innocent articles that people have asked others to mind for them in innocent circumstances. We had a long debate in Committee about shotguns being left in the back of cars, and about whether that constituted inadvertence, negligence or recklessness. I do not want to repeat that debate now, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will look at his proposals again and consider whether there is a need for amendments to plug any gap that needs to be filled.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Shadow Minister, (Assisted By Shadow Law Officers)

I warmly thank the Minister for her constructive approach to my amendments. I think that we all want to ensure that someone who said, "Please transport my bladed article across the city and give it to me at the other side, because I intend to do something with it tonight which I do not want to tell you about because it is not very kind" would be guilty of an offence. It was very thoughtful of the Minister to say that she would consider the matter.

This is a rare situation. The Minister has been kind enough to express sympathy with two of my amendments, and she is thinking of acting on them. I may achieve a first before long and have an amendment accepted by the Government, even if my drafting is not quite up to it.

Let me return to the important principle of a maximum sentence. I repeat that it is a maximum, not a minimum. Conservative Members believe that a maximum sentence of two years for carrying a bladed article is too low, in view of the enormous increase in such offences. The Minister said that the maximum sentence for carrying an offensive weapon was four years. We do not need to discuss what constitutes an offensive weapon; we know that a knuckleduster, for instance, is an offensive weapon per se. On the other hand, items made or adapted for offensive purposes can also come under the definition of offensive weapons. A perfectly innocent item such as a baseball bat, or a cricket bat—I apologise to the cricketers among us, if there are any—[Interruption.] I understand that there are distinguished cricketers on the Conservative Benches; and I forgot to mention your vital role, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in relation to parliamentary cricket, which is on our minds all the time and is much appreciated. Anyway, carrying a cricket bat in public with unlawful intent would put someone in the frame for carrying an offensive weapon. Actually, I would rather come across someone carrying a cricket bat in public than a bladed article. On that note, I believe that it is important to test the House's opinion on whether the maximum sentence for vicious, nasty offence of carrying a bladed article in public should, in these difficult times, be lifted to five years maximum. I believe that it should and I hope that the House does, too.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 199, Noes 277.

Division number 89 Orders of the Day — Violent Crime Reduction Bill — New Clause 2 — Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Amendment)

Aye: 199 MPs

No: 277 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.