Topical debate — Knife Crime

Royal Assent – in the House of Commons at 11:32 am on 5 June 2008.

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Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission 11:32, 5 June 2008

Before we start the debate, I must ask Members to be careful in any reference that they make to specific incidents of knife crime where charges have been made or where any court proceedings have not been completed.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction) 12:29, 5 June 2008

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of knife crime.

This is a very important and opportune debate, and the whole House would agree that the murders of 15-year-old Arsema Dawit and anti-gun crime campaigner Pat Regan over the weekend are deeply tragic. My sympathies and those of everyone will be with their families and loved ones, as well as with those of all the other victims of crime. Looking around the Chamber, I see Members whose constituents have been affected by such crime.

No doubt, we will rightly consider in the debate the impact of knife crime, particularly with respect to young people, but I promised the young people at the NCH children's charity event that I visited in Hackney this morning that I would say that we should start by saying again that not all young people carry knives and that the vast majority of young people in this country are decent, obey the law, work hard and are a credit to themselves and their families. It is important to make that clear in this context.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North

Does my hon. Friend agree that many young people, sadly and foolishly, carry weapons because they are frightened and that there is a culture of fear on the streets? Does he also agree that it might be time that some neighbourhoods, such as those where three young men have tragically died on the streets of my constituency, deserve a higher safer neighbourhoods and reassurance policing presence than others where there is simply not that risk?

a

The majority of teenagers who carry knives,use the excuse that it is for protection,but really what they mean is that if other youths from another area were to step into their 'teritory'they wil then be prepared to use it for protection of their territory! Do you honestly...

Submitted by alex jonson Continue reading

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

My hon. Friend has worked extremely hard with her local community and local police to deal with some of the tragic incidents that have occurred, and we have spoken about the issue. I agree that, of course, the police, the local authority and other agencies in any area need to ensure that they target their resources where they are most needed. Indeed, that is part of the lesson that we learned from the tackling gangs action programme—a taskforce that we set up—where we targeted resources on gun crime in certain areas of the country. That is true of gun crime, and it is true of knife crime. Of course, it is the case that individual police forces can direct their resources to where they will have the most impact. I agree with my hon. Friend.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Opposition Whip (Commons)

I totally agree with the Minister's opening comment that the great majority of young people are law-abiding and well behaved. However, today, we are considering how we can tackle the minority. With 32 per cent. of schoolchildren admitting to carrying knives, according to a recent MORI poll, does he believe that an advertising campaign, however well intended, will have any discernable effect?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

I absolutely accept that an advertising campaign is not sufficient on its own, but an advertising campaign—such as the one that we launched last week, which was designed by young people, who advised us on what they thought would be the most appropriate campaign—can certainly play a part. I think that, as I go through my speech, the hon. Gentleman and most people will agree that this is a case not of one solution or the other but of all the different parts fitting together to form a strategy.

Although such incidents are tragic, it is worth saying that the overall number of people killed with knives or other sharp instruments over the past few years has remained stable. The problem now is that the police are catching more and more young people carrying knives, and many of us are worried that a culture is emerging in some areas where it is deemed acceptable to carry one. There is increasing concern about the lower average age of both the perpetrators and the victims of knife crime.

I

Sir,

I think that you are quite wrong - it is the parents of this (minority?) scum that need to be targeted, penalised and brought into line. Take away the benefits of the household for any family member committing a crime.

Submitted by Ian Seale

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

Just a year ago, my constituent, Police Constable Jon Henry, was stabbed to death. He was a fine police officer and a devoted family man, who was loved and respected by all who knew him. Since then, an individual has been detained under the mental health Acts, but I cannot comment on the case because it is sub judice. Will my hon. Friend say how the Government propose to protect people, particularly police officers, from those who suffer from serious mental health conditions and serious personality disorders who perpetrate some of those crimes?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

Without commenting on that case, although I recognise the awfulness of what happened, I can say that the Government are considering, with other agencies, how we can ensure that dangerous people are not released on to the streets and how the management of people with mental health problems can be made effective, to ensure that we do not unnecessarily put people at risk because of mental health problems. A more rigorous use of the existing system and rigorous management of the tools available to us are relevant to addressing that risk.

Although the number of people caught with a knife has risen, the number sentenced for that crime has increased significantly from 890 in 1996 to 6,284 in 2006. In the same period, the number of those under the age of 18 sentenced for possession of a knife in a public place has risen from 114 to 1,226. However, we are absolutely determined to clamp down on the carrying of knives, which, as we all know, all too frequently leads to serious injury and sometimes fatal consequences.

We are concerned about the number of cautions issued. In 2006, there were 10,217 cautions for possession by those of all ages, but, as the Prime Minister announced this morning, anyone over the age of 16 caught in possession of a knife can now expect to be prosecuted on the first offence. Under-16s can still expect to receive a caution if there are no aggravating factors, such as being in or near a school or being involved in gang activity, but, apart from just that, they can also expect to be referred to a knife education scheme to help them to understand the dangers and consequences of carrying knives, and their parents will be informed and may receive parenting orders to ensure that they play their part in changing those young people's behaviour.

Photo of Lee Scott Lee Scott Conservative, Ilford North

Will the Minister join me in congratulating groups, such as Hainault Youth Action and the Open Door project in my constituency, on getting the very youths whom he met this morning off the streets and into activities, discouraging them from getting involved in knife crime and getting them involved in the community, to the benefit of all, including their own safety?

M

Lee Scott has been supportive of The Open Door Centre where we tackle various issues concerning young people, not least knife crime. We are fairly unique in this particular part of the Borough but need to expand the work to meet...

Submitted by Marie Whitcombe Continue reading

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

To be fair, the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The police or schools cannot solve the problem on their own, and the sort of voluntary organisation activity that he mentions is extremely important. Sometimes, the most effective work is done by those community-based organisations—all hon. Members can point to such effective organisations in our constituencies. The challenge for us all is to ensure that some of them receive not only funding but long-term sustainable funding. We need to find a better means of doing that, as it would help voluntary organisations, such as those mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

M

The biggest issue we face at The open Door Centre at the moment is funding. I am on the management Committee and also an experienced professioanlly trained youth worker in my 'former life'. We have professional committed staff, a local venue, regular and consistent contact with the young people. We need to expand the services we offer but lack of funding prevents this. We have to...

Submitted by Marie Whitcombe Continue reading

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

On a related point, is not the problem primarily one of feral youths in gangs going armed? If they are prevented from going armed with knives, they might go armed with something else. We need to concentrate on how concerned adults somewhere in their communities—parents, relations, teachers, youth workers or whoever—gives them a purpose for living, other than going out on the streets and causing trouble.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

Again, that is a perfectly reasonable point to make. Indeed, the young people whom I met this morning made the point that good role models are needed, that people need to be responsible for young people and that their roles and those of schools, voluntary organisations and faith organisations are crucial. However, as well as all that, we are trying to put across the message that there must be a deterrent in the law, so that people also know that the expectation is that they will be prosecuted if they carry knives. That, as well as the other measures that the right hon. Gentleman refers to, is an important part of our work in trying to attack the problem.

We are also putting in place local targeted action to reduce knife crime. The tackling gangs action programme showed that focused action on specific areas really works, which is the point made earlier by my hon. Friend Ms Buck. It set a template for joined-up working by bringing together community groups, Departments and local delivery partners with some excellent results. We will take forward that type of organisation and template by intensifying our knife crime work in seven areas.

Key elements of that work will include providing extra search equipment to the forces involved; fast-tracking the knife referral project, which is a course for young people convicted of a knife-related offence designed to increase their awareness of the consequences of knife crime; re-enforcing parental responsibility; introducing home visits and letters to parents of those young people known to carry weapons in the area; and developing new or strengthening existing youth forums, to give young people the opportunity to speak directly to the police and other statutory bodies. As I have already said, tackling the issue does not stop at the door of any organisation or Department.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

In his list of seven points, the Minister did not mention metal-detecting equipment, which was supposed to be put in place in schools. I remember that there was a Government announcement on that some months ago. How many schools in areas that are being ravaged by knife crime have metal-detecting equipment in place?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

I shall see if I can find out the answer to that question before the end of the debate; I could not tell my hon. Friend exactly how many schools are involved. However, the power for head teachers to search has been extended, and of course they can delegate that power to teachers in their schools. It is open to schools to use that power, if they feel that that is appropriate in their area. One would expect them to work with the local community to do that. My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Government will work with schools to ensure that that can be delivered, where appropriate, and if the measure is felt necessary and is agreed by the school and the local community. On his specific question, I shall see whether I can get the number to him by the end of the debate.

We need to deal with all aspects of the problem, including prevention, education, diversion, family and health. Our strict enforcement and tough legislation serve to capture all who flout the law, irrespective of age or where they come from. We have already increased the maximum sentence for carrying a knife—not for using it, just for carrying it—from two to four years in prison. We know that the judiciary shares our view that carrying a knife is a serious offence. Sir Igor Judge, one of the most senior judges in the country, stated in a recent judgment:

"Every knife or weapon carried in the street represents a public danger and, therefore, in the public interest, this crime must be confronted and stopped."

I welcome and support Sir Igor's comments.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

Welcome though that is, will the Minister confirm that knife crime is three times more prevalent in society than gun crime, but that the criminal justice system still treats knife crime less seriously than gun crime?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

The hon. Gentleman has consistently made the point well that knife crime is much more prevalent than gun crime, serious though gun crime is. I agree that it is important that knife crime be treated extremely seriously by the courts; that is what I was trying to suggest from the remarks of Sir Igor Judge. I am talking about not just occasions on which a knife is used, because that obviously results in other charges, too, but about the possession offence. The message being sent by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, who spoke earlier today about the expectation of prosecution for 16 and 17-year-olds, and the comments of Sir Igor Judge will mean that, for possession offences, the courts will now give cautions as an exception, whereas previously they were used more often than not.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

My hon. Friend is right to focus on the problem of knife crime among young people, but there is another aspect to it, to which I referred earlier. Does he have statistics on what proportion of knife crime is committed by people who suffer from serious mental health disorders and personality disorders?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

If I am to do justice to my hon. Friend's question, I probably ought to look into the matter and write to him about it. I do not have to hand the number of people involved in knife crime who have specific mental health problems. Suffice it to say that much of the knife crime that we discuss in the House and that is rightly discussed in the media is street knife crime. We know that knives are used in lots of domestic violence incidents and lots of family incidents—they are a significant part of knife crime. I will look into the incidence of knife crime among people with mental health problems, write to my hon. Friend and place a copy of the letter in the Library, so that other hon. Members can look at it.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

I am eating into everybody else's time, but of course I give way.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

I thank the Minister for giving way. Obviously it sends a good signal to society when a maximum sentence is doubled in the way that he has described, but am I right in thinking that people will still be released halfway through that doubled sentence? Are we not giving with one hand and taking away with the other? On the one hand, we are sending the message to society that we will be tough, but on the other we are letting people out halfway through the sentence, and that negates the message that we are trying to send.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

According to our understanding, people are released halfway through the sentence if they present no danger. The problem at present is not so much the one that he describes; the fact is that very few people receive the maximum sentence of four years, irrespective of the argument that he puts forward. I do not want inappropriate sentencing, but it has to be said that the courts need to consider the four-year sentence available to them when making sentencing decisions.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

We are in danger of isolating knife crime and of trying to treat it on its own, but I suspect that there is a strong correlation between the leader of the pack who carries a knife, the leader of the pack who throws a brick through a bus shelter window, and the leader of the pack who sets fire to school premises during half term. All those youthful crimes need to be dealt with as a whole; I urge the Minister to do that, rather than just highlighting knife crime.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

I agree, and that is what we have tried to do. Our youth crime action plan, which will be published in a few weeks, will try to bring all those issues together. The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, but as I have said, there is a specific issue with knife crime, and that is what we are dealing with, although I agree that the other crimes that the hon. Gentleman mentions need to be dealt with, too. I also understand his point that there is usually a ringleader. Often, someone in the group is the persistent offender whom the system needs to grip more firmly. They sometimes get other people involved, and they sometimes become the sort of negative role model that we do not want. A couple of weeks ago, the Home Secretary announced the work that is going on with the police to ensure that we more effectively target persistent offenders, who may be of exactly the type to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

I think that the Minister and others accept that all the evidence shows that the increase in the number of youngsters who go about tooled up, either with a knife or with another instrument, is due to fear that they will be attacked. Is the Minister willing to take on an idea that other Ministers have been positive about, namely that where local authorities are willing to collaborate, we have a much more extended network of detached youth workers on the street, funded ward by ward, or community by community? They could spot incidents happening on the ground, identify the people concerned, and intervene pre-emptively, rather than wait until there is an incident and it is too late.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

I agree, and that is my point about the fact that we cannot just have one focus in tackling the problem. Detached youth workers, and the money that the Department for Children, Schools and Families is trying to push down to local authorities so that they can deal with the issue, are important ways forward. In addition to detached youth workers, as used by local authorities, voluntary organisations are important. The hon. Gentleman will have seen, as I have, the work of street pastors and other such people, which is fantastically effective. We need to support that type of activity, too.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

I apologise to my hon. Friend for not being here at the start of the debate. I congratulate the Prime Minister, and indeed the Minister, on this morning's announcements that highlight the issue and the seven-point plan. I also congratulate the Mayor of London, who admitted in a statement yesterday that there is real difficulty in getting to the core of why such crimes are committed, and that is what my question is about. Research is being carried out on gang culture and the real frictions at street level between kids in different communities. That is incredibly important work. I have had five teenage murders in my constituency since the turn of the year, three of which were committed on the street as a result of friction between gangs. Will the hon. Gentleman carefully consider extending that programme of research, so that each and every local authority can have some idea of the level of gang culture that is leading to such crime?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

That is an extremely important point, and we need to look at that research. We also need to understand much better the dynamic of gangs, what we mean by gangs, as opposed to collections of kids on the street, and other such issues. A lot of work needs to be done. I will look carefully at the matter, share the results of that research with my hon. Friend, and try to take it forward.

I congratulate the Metropolitan police on the very successful Operation Blunt. Operation Shield is also being run by the British Transport police. To date, we have funded almost 100 search arches and 350 wands, and we are committed to extending that in the police forces with which we are working. They will be receiving additional funding as part of the various package of measures. The use of search equipment has had a positive impact in London.

The emphasis has been on enforcement, but I should like to conclude by saying that we also fund various voluntary programmes and diversion work in the community. The response cannot be enforcement alone. That must be combined with education, increased parental responsibility and work with youth organisations. For too long, such public policy debates have been plagued by the participants being categorised as tough law enforcers or wishy-washy liberals. Frankly, all those things need to be—

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 12:50, 5 June 2008

The scourge of knife crime has touched the lives of too many families across the country. It is impossible not to have been deeply moved by the individual tragedies detailed, with appalling regularity, in the newspapers and on the television—a sentiment which I know is shared in all parts of the House. I join the Minister in sending a message of condolence to the families of all those affected by such shocking and appalling incidents. I also join him in sending out a message from the House that that is not to suggest that all young people are lawbreakers. We have so many fantastic young people who contribute so much to their communities, and it is right and proper that that message should go out loud and clear from here. Those same young people often end up the victims of terrible crimes.

We need also to send out a strong message from the House that knife carrying in our communities is unacceptable, and that we will take all appropriate steps to confront and control knife crime. I make it clear from the outset that the Opposition will support any measure that will be effective in tackling the growth in knife offences.

Sir Igor Judge, the president of the High Court, Queen's bench division, in his recent Court of Appeal judgment gave a clear and powerful statement on the current disturbing situation when he said:

"Offences of this kind have recently escalated. They are reaching epidemic proportions."

Action has been slow in coming. Last year, 258 people lost their lives in incidents involving the use of a knife or other pointed weapon—up by nearly a fifth on the previous year and by more than a quarter on the number of such offences 10 years ago. According to the centre for crime and justice studies at King's college London, there were 64,000 muggings in which a knife was used last year—more than double the number two years before. Home Office research indicates that there are around 500,000 young people carrying knives on the streets, and an earlier Youth Justice Board study suggested that more than a quarter of young people in school admitting to carrying a knife.

Policing and enforcement are essential in combating this serious problem. That is why the action that the Mayor of London and Chief Constable Bernard Hogan-Howe in Merseyside, for example, are taking is so important to ensure detection. But knife arches and mobile scanners should not be isolated initiatives. The risk of getting caught with a knife must be a real factor in the mind of someone getting ready for a night out, and that means the police making proper use of powers to stop and search.

When offenders are caught, they should normally be prosecuted and receive the most severe sentences appropriate. Fines are an inadequate deterrent. Frequently, if the crime involves a young person, fines are paid by the parent and not by the youth responsible; more often, they are not paid at all. A caution does not recognise the seriousness of the offence. In 2005 and 2006, nearly 6,000 people were dealt with by a caution or a warning alone for the possession of a knife. There should be a presumption that offenders receive a custodial sentence or a tough, enforced community penalty, not a so-called unpaid work requirement that is not even completed.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

I do not dissent from much that the hon. Gentleman says, but does he accept that some youngsters who carry a blunt instrument or a knife do so under pressure from their peer group—from their mates—and carry it for someone else? We must be careful not to institutionalise, send away and criminalise those who are not the gang leaders or the motivators, but who get dragged along by the much more evil and malicious intentions of others?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

There needs to be a presumption that such matters should be dealt with by the court. The culture of dealing with such incidents through cautions has been one of the fundamental problems and failures of the Government's approach in the drive to summary justice. Clearly, there needs to be flexibility for police officers at local level, but the presumption should be to go to the courts rather than deal with the issue by way of cautions.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, and I am listening with great interest. Is he aware that evidence indicates that many young people are carrying knives because they are worried about being victims of crime?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I shall come to later in my speech. How we tackle the problem of people feeling that they are not safe in their own community is one of the key factors in dealing with knife possession.

It is telling that between 1997 and 2006, just nine people out of more than 47,000 convicted of carrying a blade in a public place received the maximum custodial sentence, as it was then, of two years. Even with changes to sentencing, the Government's early release scheme means that offenders will not stay inside for long. Violent offenders are being released on to the streets early, before half of their sentence has been served.

Last week the Government launched a new initiative with a hard-hitting advertising campaign designed to shock young people out of carrying knives on the streets. Although prevention through education and advertisements is an important strand, it will work only if it is part of a wider package of measures to tackle the problems of social breakdown, drug abuse and binge drinking, which have become significantly worse under the present Government. The initiative will be effective only if people's experience of being in their communities is not one of risk and danger.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

My hon. Friend is making an extremely important point. Does he agree that if the Government are thinking of introducing more legislation in this field, they need to deal with the problem that there are many everyday items other than knives which, in the wrong hands, can be wielded as weapons, and that, on the other hand, knives and other domestic utensils can be lawfully used and we should not make it impossible for the law-abiding to make lawful use of them?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

My right hon. Friend makes an important point, which is why there is a limit to the use of wands and knife arches as a means of identifying the presence of weapons. However, I do not underestimate their importance: the use of wands in stop-and-search is an important way of conducting some of those searches. He is right—the police need to have discretion in how they conduct their operations. In recent years they have been too heavily hemmed in by targets and the culture surrounding them.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise all the points that he has. He has obviously not had the chance to see the evidence on alcohol given by some of the supermarkets to the Select Committee yesterday. Does he agree that there is a responsibility on those who sell alcohol to make sure that it is not readily available? We should look at how much alcohol is sold at a discount or as a loss-leader, which provides young people with the opportunity of buying alcohol very cheaply, which contributes to the number of knife-related incidents.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Although I was not able to attend his Select Committee, I heard a report from it. I agree that loss-leaders and sales of alcohol below cost are relevant factors, which is why I argue that we should regulate to outlaw the below-cost selling of alcohol. In some cases, alcohol is almost cheaper than water. Cost is an important issue, as is supply. Local authorities should have the powers that they need to crack down on licensing, which sadly has not been the experience following the introduction of the Licensing Act 2003.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I strongly support the theme of raising the price of cheap alcohol, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that prohibiting below-cost sale is not good enough? Alcohol is still quite cheap for supermarkets. Even if they sold it at cost, it would still be too low in price. Does he agree that there should be a minimum price for alcohol, as well as strict enforcement of who is able to buy it?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on minimum prices. We should look at below-cost sales, but also at specific products that may be linked to binge drinking. That is why we support a targeted approach to taxation, focusing on those products most closely associated with the underage sale and excessive consumption of alcohol that, sadly, leads to violence on our streets and to real pressures on accident and emergency units, which are having to pick up the pieces as a consequence of the Government's general approach to licensing.

On safety, the picture among young people is not good. According to a recent report by the children's charity NCH, becoming a victim of crime, particularly violent crime, is a real fear for children and young people growing up in the UK today. The NCH report suggested that nearly half of all young people do not feel safe at any time, with one in five saying that they sometimes or often feel in danger. Part of the solution lies in strengthening communities, and neighbourhood policing is an essential element of this, but how committed are the Government to the community policing model? The Flanagan review says that current police numbers are apparently unsustainable, so what guarantees can the Minister give that front-line community policing will not be hit, given that the Government have welcomed the Flanagan review and, by implication, the potential cuts in policing that might sit within it? It is no good the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary issuing press releases and doing walkabouts promoting neighbourhood policing if they are not able to commit to it in the future.

The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing said in a recent interview that the Government had reached the "end of the road" in legislation to tackle knife crime. He and the Government may have reached the end of the road, but we would legislate if required. In particular, we would give police sergeants at the heart of community police teams a new authorisation to conduct stops and searches for up to six hours in specific areas where they believe—they are most likely to know their communities the best—that weapons are being carried or that an act of serious violence is about to occur. Such a measure has the support of the Police Federation.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent South

The hon. Gentleman makes some powerful points on knife-carrying and what the police have to do. I wonder what he thinks of this statement:

"You may want to take knives in your picnic hamper to cut the fruit, or have a knife on you to cut your lunchtime roll at the office. On a country walk you might want a knife to fashion a stick or toy for children in your party."

How important is it that we curb such comments?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The issue is unlawful knife-carrying. The law is quite specific: one must not have unlawful purposes for carrying knives. It is understood—the point was made earlier by my right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood—that there will be other circumstances in which knives are carried, but if there is the unlawful carrying of knives on our streets, we must confront it firmly and clearly. That is at the heart of the debate this afternoon and why there needs to be the presumption of prosecution, rather than going down the route of issuing a caution or lesser sanction through summary dismissal.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and apologise for joining this important debate late; unfortunately, other parliamentary business kept me away from the Chamber. Following the hon. Lady's comment, does my hon. Friend agree that there is a difference between someone going out with the intention of using a kitchen knife to cause harm and someone going fishing and having a knife for the purposes of their sport? Those are two different scenarios. We need to establish why someone feels the need to carry a knife to protect himself, compared with somebody who uses it for a form of sport. To ban knives completely would miss the point entirely.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend makes his point very well. The real question is why people feel they need to carry knives on the street in everyday circumstances. The fact that they do not feel safe in their own communities says an awful lot, which is why community policing is so important. That is why we would cut the form filling, the bureaucracy and the central targets that prevent the police from doing their job effectively and from providing the reassurance that so many communities desperately need.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

The statistics that my hon. Friend has given about the number of young people who feel unsafe in their communities are shocking. I would be surprised if many of those arrested or prosecuted for being in possession of a knife were coming into contact with the police or other authorities for the first time. Are the troublemakers—the leaders of the pack—not being dealt with seriously enough, early enough, before they reach the stage at which they carry a knife in public?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. We must deal with offending early enough and effectively enough, which is why I am critical of the Government's approach. Their Respect agenda has been put out to pasture, because that is not happening. If we look at the offenders involved, we will see a pattern of offending; by the time they get to the offence in question, they are inured to the criminal justice system. It is then much harder to turn things around as they have not been dealt with properly from the outset.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I want to make some progress, as I am getting into injury time.

We fully recognise that the criminal justice system alone cannot solve this problem. Addressing the roots of social breakdown requires long-term social action. Dealing with family breakdown, reforming welfare, tackling gang culture and improving discipline in schools are all important long-term components of a strategy to tackle violence in our communities, but none of these actions should stand in the way of more rigorous enforcement and stricter penalties.

The sad fact is that the Government have lost their way on tackling this most serious of crimes. The Prime Minister is now belatedly talking about prosecutions for knife possession, but only after 6,000 cautions and warnings have been issued in just two years. Home Office Ministers used to talk about the importance of knife amnesties until it became clear that the most common knives out on the street can be found in the kitchen drawer.

The Government used to believe that violent crime was about specific people in specific areas; now they appear to accept that there is a much wider societal problem. The Government even voted against Conservative proposals to increase the sentence for knife possession to five years, only to do a U-turn on increased sentences later. The Prime Minister's statements today on more prosecutions for knife possession are the latest admission of failure. It is an acceptance that the policy agenda of a slap on the wrist rather than a conviction before the courts was fundamentally flawed. The Home Office was wrong. The Government were wrong. The Prime Minister was wrong. We will not forget and neither will the public.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee 1:08, 5 June 2008

It is always a pleasure to follow James Brokenshire. We served together for a short time on the Justice Committee before we went our separate ways. He was quite right in his analysis of the problems that face our country on knife crime. At the end of his speech, he of course made the normal attack on Government policy. We expect that; we cannot expect a bipartisan approach throughout the speech, but his analysis was similar to that put forward by the Minister: we do have a serious problem with knife crime and it is important that we as a nation should debate it, but also that we should take specific action.

Many of the points made by the hon. Gentleman and the Minister are ones that everyone in the House will agree with. We may have different emphases on how we would like to see these matters pursued, but we agree that something pretty dramatic has to be done about this situation. That is why I welcome the summit held this morning at Downing street, when the Prime Minister, with representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Home Secretary, set out a clear strategy as to what the Government are proposing to do about this important issue.

To whom do we owe that strategy? We owe it, of course, to the country, because we are legislators. However, we also owe it to people such as Arsema Dawit, the young woman stabbed to death on Monday of this week. We are parents of young children, as well as legislators; the hon. Member for Hornchurch has young children, as I do. The fear that children such as ours may go out at night on to the streets of London, catch a tube or bus and not return home because they have been stabbed should concentrate all our minds.

The commitment by the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Government to change the presumption about people's ability to carry knives is extremely important. It is vital for us to understand that when a person goes out with a knife intending to cause harm, it is right and proper that they should be stopped and prosecuted. That should not be prevented from happening just because that person happens to be under the age of 18. That presumption is important.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

I do not dissent at all from what the right hon. Gentleman has said. Does he agree that things can be done in addition to the measures that have been announced and other initiatives, such as that of the Home Affairs Committee when it took evidence on young black youths in this country? If we are to get the messages from the young people concerned, we could consult them as broadly as is possible. Will the right hon. Gentleman reflect on whether, between now and the end of July, his Committee—with the Leader of the House, who is positive about the idea—could hold, on behalf of Parliament, an online consultation with youngsters aged under 18? In that way, we could get their views on how they think they can help themselves, their neighbours and friends.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I am delighted to accept that suggestion. I shall have to put it to other members of the Home Affairs Committee, two of whom are here today. As part of our current inquiry into policing, it would be an excellent way of finding out precisely what young people think about the issue of policing and knives.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent South

Simon Hughes has raised a valuable point. I have launched a website, mylifemysay.co.uk, to which young people can log on and have their say about issues that matter to them. In Democracy week in October, young people will be invited to the House of Commons to have a debate and set an agenda that we expect all politicians from all parties to listen to and take on board.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I was not aware of that. As always, my hon. Friend is campaigning on youth affairs with much passion. I do not know whether I will be admitted to her meeting—I would not qualify, of course—but I shall certainly be keen to know its outcome. It will help the Home Affairs Committee enormously with our inquiry into policing.

I welcome what the Government have done this morning. I want to concentrate on just four aspects of the policy. The first relates to enforcement and the proper way the police conduct their investigations into these matters. I am pleased with how Operation Blunt has worked. It is right that people on the public transport system, especially the tube, should have been challenged about the knives and weapons that they carried. The figures indicate that the exercise was properly conducted, with sensitivity.

It is important that when we undertake stop and search, we are focused on what we are trying to achieve. It should not be done like a fishing expedition; I do not believe that every young black person in London ought to be stopped on a presumption that they are carrying knives. However, the targeting and focusing are extremely important if we are to get to the real source of the problem.

On additional policing, the Minister will know much more accurately than I the number of police officers the Government have put on the streets of London and the rest of the United Kingdom; he probably has an up-to-the-minute account. He will be able to reassure the hon. Member for Hornchurch that the Flanagan report does not mean a reduction in police officers; it means—or I certainly take it to mean—that there is consideration of how the police use their time productively. There may not be an increase on the levels of the past 10 years, but there is certainly no commitment from Flanagan that there should be a decrease or from the Government that there should be any reduction in the resources given to local police authorities.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

As usual, the right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful argument, and about something in which he has a great deal of expertise. As an authority on home affairs issues, will he comment on police authorities wanting to turn away from Government targets—in respect of arrests following fights in children's playgrounds, for example—and focus on more serious issues such as tackling knife crime?

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

The hon. Gentleman is far too generous with his compliments, which I do not deserve. Owing to our case loads, all hon. Members are—or seek to be—experts on this issue. Policing is an issue that affects every one of our constituencies. The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on what police officers do with their time; as the hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and for Colchester (Bob Russell) have discovered during the progress of our inquiry into policing, it is important to consider that. Some local police authorities have decided not to record or pursue certain offences such as fights in the playground, but to concentrate on what we and they regard as more important issues. We should consider police priorities. However, the police have their priorities right: they understand that the issue is crucial and needs to be pursued, and that Parliament and the public are concerned about it.

We have seen a cultural change. It is not just that older children or young adults are stabbing young children or teenagers; it is that young people are stabbing each other. That different cultural phenomenon seems to have occurred in the past few years. There have been 15 deaths similar to that of Arsema Dawit; 16 young people have been stabbed on the streets of London so far this year. That is particularly worrying, and it is why I welcome what my hon. Friend Ms Butler has been saying. It is important to ask young people themselves what they see as the solution to the problem. The problem for us is not only generational, but to do with the fact that we are not part of that culture. Young people have to be consulted if we are to find the solutions to the problems.

I turn now to sentencing. The Minister mentioned what the deputy Lord Chief Justice said about sentencing priorities. It is important that judges understand precisely what is happening as far as the cultural shift is concerned. However, we also need to give them a bit of leeway. As we know, the jails are full; as previous Governments have done, we are releasing people from prison to make places available for others. We need to find a way to break the cycle. Of course, prison is the only answer for serious offences. However, if we get involved in more preventive work, that will make a great deal of difference.

That brings me to the From Boyhood to Manhood Foundation, an organisation with which the Minister is familiar. The funding regime for the organisation, which operates in south London—not a million miles from the constituency of Simon Hughes—had been threatened with closure. After the foundation's representatives had given evidence to and been praised by the Home Affairs Committee last year, its grant was withdrawn—not, of course, because we had praised them but because financial resources are limited. We were pleased when the Minister intervened to make sure that the grant was restored.

Such mentoring organisations, which break the stereotypes of young people carrying knives, are extremely important. The issue is about awareness; it is about education and schools. It is not just about taking the knives from the young people as they go through the scanners into school, but making sure that when they come out again, they do not get a knife from somewhere else. Mr. Ellwood was right about the idea of banning all knives. According to the statistics, kitchen knives are now the weapon of choice in most of these cases. We cannot ban kitchen knives, nor can we have SWAT teams suddenly entering people's homes, invading the kitchen and taking all those knives away—they just happen to be part of the household. We need to stop the kitchen knife leaving the household for reasons connected to crime, and that is where sensitive policing is so important.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

I should like to make what might seem a slightly strange and counterintuitive point. It has been put to me that most injuries are caused by the point of a knife or other weapon, not by the blade, and that in the medium term we could think about getting the people who produce knives to ensure that they do not have sharp points, as they do not need sharp points but only blades. That is a production issue that might significantly reduce the danger of the common-or-garden bread knife, kitchen knife or suchlike.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point that I have not thought about before—trust him to come up with an innovative solution to the problem. We would need to consult those who use such knives in kitchens—sadly, I am not one of them, because I cannot cook very well—to see whether that would spoil their culinary delights.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

The comments of Simon Hughes are very interesting, but all sorts of implements have sharp points, and we will never find a technical fix for that. Does my right hon. Friend accept that we have to focus on the people who use them rather than the instruments themselves?

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I take my hon. Friend's point.

My penultimate point concerns the stakeholders. On Tuesday, we took evidence in the Home Affairs Committee from the supermarkets and representatives of the alcohol industry. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington was there; he spoke extremely well and asked some searching questions. I am not convinced that the alcohol industry understands the role that it plays in crime. Forty-six per cent. of crimes are alcohol-related. I do not have the statistics for knife-related crime and alcohol, but I believe that they would be of a similar order.

We have heard about pre-loading, whereby people get tanked up—if that is not an unparliamentary term—before they leave their homes. We have heard about happy hours, when people who buy a drink can get another one free. We have heard about discounted prices for drinks. We have heard about loss leaders. The alcohol industry and those who sell alcohol in supermarkets—Asda, Sainsbury's, Morrisons and Tesco—are unaware of their responsibilities. It is irresponsible of supermarkets to sell alcohol as a loss leader, trying to compete with each other so that, as the hon. Member for Hornchurch said, in some cases it is more expensive to buy water than beer. The Government need to address those issues. I know that there is a review of the subject. It is of great interest to the Select Committee, and other Members will no doubt want to make their comments. We need to act quickly if we are to make progress.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

The right hon. Gentleman is making an extremely valid point. However, as with the issue of the sharpness or bluntness of the point of the knife, we can find ourselves moving away from the reason why someone decides to leave their house or flat with a knife in their pocket in the first place, before they have even bought a can of beer. The supermarkets are in a difficult position, because were they to get together and agree that prices should be set at a certain level they would hit problems with the Competition Commission, as did the milk cartel that ended up getting fined. While alcohol plays an important part in knife crime, it needs to be tackled in several ways. I, for one, would like more emphasis to be placed on role models such as the father or mother—the people who can set an example and say, "You do not need to leave the house with a knife in your pocket in the first place."

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and he brings me on to my last point. I noticed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you raised your eyebrow and looked at the clock, and to me that is almost a rebuke.

There is a huge responsibility on parents to ask what their children are doing, where they are going and what they are carrying. If their teenager comes in and asks to borrow the kitchen knife, it is reasonable for them to ask, "Why do you need a kitchen knife when you leave the house? We understand that you need it if you want to chop up the carrots, but do you really need it if you're going down to the local playground?" However, it is not only the parents' responsibility—it is part of the shared responsibility that we all have in making progress in this area.

I am glad that the Government were able to highlight the problem with their advertisements last week, although I do not know whether that is the best way of getting through to parents. Far more shocking are some of the real life examples of teenagers being killed. That kind of crime will shock any parent, because it could be our child. I hope that in placing an emphasis on enforcement, the Government will place equal emphasis on prevention and on education and awareness of parents, which is one of the keys to tackling the problem of youth crime and ensuring that we solve this problem.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Olympics and London), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Olympics and London) 1:26, 5 June 2008

It is a pleasure to follow Keith Vaz, who leads the Home Affairs Committee so admirably.

I regret the necessity for this debate, as, I am sure, do all other Members, but it is necessary because of the prevalence of knife crime in some of our communities, particularly in London. I should like to start by expressing my condolences to the families and friends of the latest victims of stabbings—Arsema Dawit and Pat Regan—as well as to the Navaneethan family, residents of Carshalton in my constituency, two of whose children died at the weekend. Clearly, those families will never recover fully from those tragedies.

I enthusiastically endorse the Minister's comments about how the overwhelming majority of young people play a very positive role in society. Like many other Members, I have a steady stream of young people coming from local schools, colleges and universities doing internships or work experience, sometimes in their summer holidays, and they all make a fantastic contribution.

Statistically speaking, it is probably true to say that there is not yet an epidemic of knife crime, but among young people something is clearly amiss. The number of teenagers gunned down, stabbed or beaten to death in the capital has risen from 15 in 2005 and, if current trends continue, could top 35 in 2008. The Government's response has included some very positive measures, including increasing the maximum term from two to four years—although, as a senior police officer said to me a few days ago, what is most important is for young people to know that they risk being caught carrying the knife, not necessarily to know about the term.

As regards the Prime Minister's announcement of the presumption of prosecution for people of 16 years or older, could the Minister tell us what assessment has been made of the impact of that in terms of police and court time, and what safeguards will be put in place for innocent young people? Let me illustrate that with an example. A couple of years ago, an American friend of mine in his early 20s came to visit me in Westminster. He was carrying a lock knife. That is not illegal in the US, but when he came here he could have been caught under that legislation. He had no intention of using it, and if he had done he would not have chosen to carry it into Parliament. We need to hear more from the Minister about that.

Obviously, intelligence-led stop and search is essential, and I support Operation Blunt 2, which has worked well in my constituency—four arrests followed an operation a couple of days ago in Sutton—and the use of metal-scanning arches. Catching those carrying knives is just part of the solution. A bigger part of the solution, which I hope the Minister will have more time to talk about when he responds because his opening speech was very much about enforcement, is finding out why young people are carrying knives in the first place, what is effective in preventing them from doing so, and whether more can be done to educate them better about the lethal nature of knives.

This last point was put to me by a senior police officer. He did not want to overemphasise it, but he felt that some young people were using knives not knowing that the consequences could be fatal if, for instance, they stabbed someone in the leg. The publicity campaign is clearly part of educating young people better. We also need to consider what is being done to reassure young people that police are out and about in areas of highest risk. I hope that the Minister will also be able to give us an update on the progress of the roll-out of the youth centres that will be delivered as part of the dormant funds proposal. We have heard a lot about that, but so far I have not seen much youth work that has been paid for by that route.

My final point concerns the most recent victim of youth crime, Arsema Dawit. I shall not comment on her case, but reports suggest that she was the victim of a crime involving a stalker. Partly prompted by an officer who has made this suggestion, I would like to ask the Minister about the work being done by the Met and other forces to review stalker cases, particularly those involving young people. How many cases are being reviewed and when does the Minister expect those reviews to be completed? We need to know that that matter is being examined fully.

We all agree that we cannot stand idly by while knife crime takes the lives of our young people. We need more research into the causes of knife crime, better deterrents, better detection, more enforcement and tougher sentences. The Government will have our support as they struggle to control the rise in these fatal attacks.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent South 1:32, 5 June 2008

This debate is very important. In my constituency knife crime has almost remained stable. In 1997, there were 202 knife crime incidents in London, and in 2007, there were 212. What has become more prevalent is that the victims and perpetrators are younger and younger. We have a problem, and we must realise that it is not just knives and guns that kill people—it is people who kill people, and we have to go to the roots of the problem.

I thank the Minister for attending a packed Committee Room 14 this week. About 80 per cent. of the people in that room were young people, and I remember the Minister raising his eyebrows at talk of postcode wars. That phrase is probably unrecognisable to many of us, but it is a serious issue. Young people feel that they are not able to go into other postcode areas because they fear for their lives. The Government will not be able to resolve that issue; we have to connect with young people in order to eliminate that interpreted fear. There are also road codes, to which we will never be party; they are the code of the road, and unless people live on that road, they will never know what the code is.

What the Government can do—and they have been successful in it—is give money to young people so that they can have events to resolve those issues. The youth opportunity fund and the youth capital fund, which has now been extended, have enabled young people in my constituency to hold street parties. Young people from all over were able to gather and party together, which eliminated some aspects of the postcode wars. We cannot just throw out legislation, however, and the Government should not be criticised for the work that they are doing, because we have to recognise the effect that it is having on the ground.

There is a lot more work to be done, but in the work that I have been doing with young people, they have come up with recommendations, some of which will be presented to the Minister next week. One of the issues is policing. As well as giving respect to the police, young people would like to be respected by them, and part of that respect is manifested in police accountability. I implore the Minister not to get carried away by the idea of taking away the accountability involved in stop-and-search. That was a fundamental part of the Stephen Lawrence report. It also came about after the sus laws were used, under which police would randomly stop black people in the streets, which resulted in the Brixton riots. We do not want to get to that stage again. Stop-and-search accountability is important, and the Flanagan report suggests the use of electronic devices to make data inputting easier; there is a trial at the moment. I spoke to some police officers in Brent who told me that they prefer to fill in paperwork themselves, rather than give it to a clerk, because of mistakes that might be made that will affect their case later on. It is important that the police are still given the opportunity to record and register that information themselves.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

Does my hon. Friend disagree with the giving out of hand-held machines to the police as a way of speeding up the recording of information?

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent South

No, it is absolutely a good idea to use technology to speed up the process. I am concerned, however, that we should not eradicate that process. Stop-and-search accountability should be there to stay because it exists for a specific reason. It was introduced to counteract a problem that came about because that accountability was not there from the beginning. If we took it away, we would cause further problems, and we should not be short-sighted in our approach. I wonder whether the Minister could expand on the £1 million campaign that the Government are going to roll out shortly to stop the glamorisation of crime.

Finally, there are lots of relevant voluntary groups and religious institutions. My right hon. Friend Keith Vaz mentioned the From Boyhood to Manhood Foundation. There are also Boyz 2 Men, Not Another Drop, Reallity and Respectism; there are hundreds and hundreds of voluntary organisations. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend Phil Hope, who is the Minister for the third sector, has been working hard with those organisations, but I wondered whether we might be able to get some of them together so that we can further explore the invaluable work that they are doing in our community. I agree with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Mr. Coaker, when he says that we have to reach out to all these voluntary organisations to help us resolve the situation of the crime on our streets today.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence) 1:38, 5 June 2008

Today's debate is called a topical debate, but knife crime has been growing year on year for at least the last two decades. Indeed, on 27 March last year, the Select Committee on Home Affairs had an inquiry on the matter, and the Minister gave evidence. That followed several months of asking the Committee to do it, and in February last year, I said to the then Prime Minister at Prime Minister's questions that the simple fact was that knife crime is three times more prevalent than gun crime. I challenged the Government to do something about it, and I truly welcome what the current Prime Minister is doing, but more should have been done a long time ago.

In March last year, I presented to the House a petition of 5,000 signatures in the name of my constituent, Mrs. Ann Oakes-Odger, whose son Westley had been killed in Colchester in September 2005. I want to read out the petition because it summarises what the debate is about. It states:

"We are appalled by the number of people killed through the use of guns and knives; we are further appalled that although the number of people who are killed by knives is three times higher than those who are killed by guns, the legal system treats knife crimes less seriously than gun crimes.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Home Secretary to introduce legislation so that the carrying of knives and the use of knives, and sentencing policies, are treated on the same terms as gun crimes."—[ Hansard, 21 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 918.]

I do not believe that that happens now or that the Government's proposals will complete the journey, although they move in the right direction. My constituent said that, since she has begun talking to young people about the consequences of carrying knives, she has noticed this:

"They really have no idea. Television programmes and computer games which feature violent crime hardly ever show the devastation felt by victims' families. Young people don't realise so many lives will never be the same again."

I would like to say much more, but I appreciate that others wish to speak, so I will draw my comments to a close as quickly as possible. Since my constituent's son was murdered while he was drawing cash from a machine outside a supermarket in the afternoon in broad daylight, she has taken her anti-knife campaign into the classroom. Her goal is for information on knives, guns, drugs and violent crime to become statutory in all the UK's secondary schools and later in primary schools. She has packaged the information into "Westley's Weapons Awareness", which has Home Office approval.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, as a fellow Essex Member of Parliament, you will know that we are not considering just an inner-city problem. It is also to be found in the towns around the UK. In my town, Colchester, which is dubbed the safest town of its size, knife crime is increasing. In the year finishing at the end of January, 94 knife crimes occurred in the Colchester area. The figure for the previous year was 53. My plea to the Government in today's brief debate is to raise knife crime and its treatment to the same level as gun crime.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Opposition Whip (Commons) 1:42, 5 June 2008

I welcome today's debate and the rational and reasonable way in which it has been conducted. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend James Brokenshire, who made an excellent speech and highlighted the issues and failings in the fight against crime in the past few years. I also praise Keith Vaz, the Select Committee Chairman, who made constructive comments. I noted with interest that investigations are taking place and his appraisal of the position.

I am pleased to make a short contribution because the subject is of genuine and growing concern in my constituency and my borough of Bexley. Traditionally, Bexley has been the safest borough in London, and it remains a tremendous place in which to live and work. However, this year three murders—one in each of the three parliamentary constituencies—involving knives regrettably occurred in my borough. In April, a man was stabbed to death in the Barnehurst area of my constituency. In January, a stabbing occurred in the constituency of my friend and neighbour John Austin. More recently, a tragedy occurred in Old Bexley and Sidcup, where a promising young actor was stabbed outside a bar. In each case, Bexley police responded extremely well and I praise them for their actions in trying to allay the fears of residents in the borough. Of course, they must catch the perpetrators and we hope that people will be brought to justice in all those cases.

Constituents regularly contact my office because they are increasingly concerned about safety and especially violent crime. I intervened on the Under-Secretary to underline the concern of many young people about their personal safety and security on public transport when going home late in the evening and so on. We must tackle the fear factor among young people. They are frightened that they will be the victims and, regrettably, the statistics show that that is happening.

I welcome the appointment of the new Mayor of London, who made tackling crime a major component of his manifesto. He has already started work on that and we welcome his appointment of Deputy Mayor Ray Lewis, who will be directly responsible for young people and opportunities. That is crucial.

Several hon. Members highlighted the fact that we are considering a concerted effort. It involves the Government, and we want them to do more. I have not had time to examine the details of this morning's proposals by the Prime Minister and the Government because of my duties in the Chamber. However, I will read them with great interest to ascertain whether they get to the nub of the problem—I hope that they do.

The concerted effort involves not only the Government and the police, but local councils and communities and, of course, parents and education. The latter are fundamental: education and parents must play a vital part. We want the perpetrators to be apprehended and punished and to ensure that our streets are safe and that law-abiding citizens can work, walk the streets and go about their normal business without fear, but education must underlie that.

Catching criminals and sending out a strong message is vital, and I hope that we will be united in supporting that. I would therefore welcome measures to increase awareness of the risk of carrying knives. The Under-Secretary responded to my intervention about the advertising and promotional campaign. We welcome it, but it is a small part of the overall picture. It is another weapon that we can use in the fight against knife crime, but we should not push it too much to the fore because other issues are much more important. I tried to make that point to the Under-Secretary.

Violent crime has doubled under the Government and recently horrific incidents have become far too common. I welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch that we need a short-term, medium-term and long-term plan. The Conservative party has it, and we will continue to present our proposals because we must deal with the problem now. If we do not, our society, especially our young people, will suffer even more.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

I hope that Mr. Ellwood will not find it intimidating if I intimate to him and the House that I hope that the Under-Secretary will have at least five minutes to wind up the debate.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 1:47, 5 June 2008

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and appreciate being able to catch your eye. Again, I apologise for arriving late.

It is a pleasure and a privilege to participate in this important debate. However, I am sad that it is tacked on to the end of the week, on a day when there is a one-line Whip. I fear that the number of hon. Members in the Chamber reflects not the importance of the subject, but the timing. The subject is so important and emotive that perhaps we could hold an annual debate on knife crime. Let us have an annual report from the Government and the Select Committee outlining the progress that has been made in the previous year to tackle something that is high on everybody's agenda—the agenda of parliamentarians and legislators, of parents who are worried about their children and of young people, as hon. Members of all parties underlined so eloquently. May I request, through the Under-Secretary, regular feedback on progress on tackling the blight of knife crime, which has increased?

Ideas have been presented for making knives blunt and removing them altogether, but we need to ask what encourages an individual to go out with a knife before even having a drink. A knife is perceived as a badge of honour, something that must be had to be part of the gang. It is seen as something that must be carried to feel proud and part of the pack. There is something very wrong when our society has moved to a point at which children grow up believing that that is right. Somewhere along the line, someone has failed in their duty to get across the following message to those youngsters as they grow up: "This is wrong; this is not the way of the society that we want to live in; this is not the sort of community and safe environment that children should be growing up in," and which we perhaps enjoyed.

Let me talk about the deterrent. Police powers are important. In Bournemouth and Dorset, one crime a week is committed involving a knife or a blade. That is unacceptable. The police require more powers to stop and search, and to ensure that the message gets through that those who carry such implements are likely to get caught. We must also talk about prevention, and this is where role models are important. I intervened on Keith Vaz and talked about role models. He said—I think in jest—that he could not participate in the online youth discussions.

I would argue that older people have more of a responsibility to participate in the wider debate. Who are the role models we enjoyed when we were young, compared with today's role models? In a broken family, where the father figure has disappeared, where does little Johnny, aged five, six or seven, look for aspiration? Today's role models are different from those that I grew up with and absolutely different from those that my parents and grandparents grew up with. We lack those people in society who can guide those fragile and impressionable children in the way that they should be guided. That is why children end up joining gangs—so that they can feel part of a cohesive unit, because their family no longer provides one.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Opposition Whip (Commons)

I apologise to my hon. Friend and to the House for arriving even later for this debate than he did. On his point about role models, does he agree that one place that the young boys without father figures whom he describes look to for a male role model is either the sports industry or the music industry? Is it not a good idea for those seen as role models in those fields to send out precisely the right messages not just about gun crime, which they have done, to their credit, but about knife crime?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

My hon. Friend makes a powerful argument. It is difficult for parliamentarians or the Government to interfere with sports or entertainment, but anyone in the public eye must understand that they have a social responsibility to the country that they live in and the community that they participate in. People watch them and they see how they behave, whether we are talking about Amy Winehouse or the way Wayne Rooney goes up to referees on television and swears at them; we cannot hear the words, but we can see exactly what he is saying.

A four-year-old sees such behaviour and thinks that it is the way to deal with authority. I would like to see a sin bin in football, so that people understand straight away that they cannot get away with challenging authority in that way. Those are, I am afraid, the building blocks that lead to a legacy of crime, which starts either because people do not respect the authority figures around them or because there is simply an absence of authority figures.

This is an important debate. A lot of ideas have been put forward, and I understand that further ideas came forward in the summit at No. 10 Downing street. This debate should not end here. Let us continue our work, rather than pack up our bags at the end of the day. Let us return to the issue in six months or a year's time and see how we have progressed.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction) 1:53, 5 June 2008

This has been a good and important debate. One thing that I have taken from it is that none of the hon. Members who contributed got up and said, "If only we did this and that, all this would be solved." In other words, there is no one thing that needs to happen if the problem is to be dealt with. However, nobody can underestimate—indeed, nobody has underestimated—the seriousness of the issue. We cannot wake up every morning wondering whether somebody will have been stabbed overnight and added to the numbers of those already murdered on our streets. It is incumbent on us all to take action.

I will consider the suggestion that Mr. Ellwood made about ensuring that this is not just a one-off debate. I also take the point that members of the Home Affairs Committee made about its work. We need to keep looking into the issue. I am conscious of the fact that people sometimes think that we see a headline in a paper and we pay attention to it, but then a couple of months later we move on to something else.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

Perhaps I can remind the Minister that his concluding comment to the Home Affairs Committee on Tuesday 27 March 2007 was:

"I shall be very pleased to come back to see what progress or otherwise has been made".

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that—it now seems clear that I will indeed be coming back. The serious point, however, is that Select Committees perform an important role not only in holding Ministers to account, but in considering how we move public policy forward and looking at what is happening. We owe it to the people of this country, and particularly the young people, not to be complacent, but to see what more we can do. I am pleased that hon. Members in all parts of the House welcomed the Prime Minister's statement this morning about the expectation of prosecution of all those over the age of 16 charged with a possession offence.

In the brief time left, let me try to pick out some common themes. In answer to James Brokenshire, who, to be fair, made some reasonable points, I point out that the number of homicides involving sharp instruments has varied from year to year, but there has not been an explosion in the number of such homicides. These are the figures for homicides by sharp instrument as the apparent method of killing in England and Wales, which can include screwdrivers and things other than knives: there were 201 in 1998-99, 213 in 2000-01, 265 in 2002-03, 242 in 2003-04, 250 in 2004-05, 219 in 2005-06 and 258 in 2006-07. It is important to put those statistics on the record, because there are variations from year to year. Of course, we would not want any of those murders to be committed and would rather the figure for each year was zero.

Neighbourhood policing is crucial, and we have committed resources to local police forces. The hon. Gentleman said that he wanted to tell the police how to organise things in their areas, but he will find that his party supports local decision making, and he will have to find a way around that. As my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz pointed out, we have put resources into policing and seen huge increases in the numbers of police on our streets.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East, the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, made a very good and wide-ranging contribution. I want to pick out two things that he said. First, he mentioned the importance of voluntary organisations such as the From Boyhood to Manhood Foundation. As I was trying to say to the hon. Member for Hornchurch, voluntary and community organisations are crucial if we are to solve the problem. They often have a better handle on the problem and a better way of getting to the people affected, as my hon. Friend Ms Butler knows from the work that she has done. We need to work better with such organisations and fully consult young people.

The proposals on 16 to 17-year-olds that Tom Brake mentioned have the full support of the Association of Chief Police Officers and prosecutors. We are trying to roll out weapons awareness programmes and so on. I agree with Bob Russell on the importance of knife crime and the need to recognise that it is far more prevalent. As important as gun crime is, we need to ensure that knife crime has the importance attached to it that it needs.

In the few seconds that are left, let me again thank all hon. Members who have taken part in this debate. As a Government, we are absolutely determined to do all that we can to work with everyone to deal with the problem. It cannot be solved, as hon. Members in all parts of the House have said, just by enforcement. All of us need to work together—

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of the proceedings, the motion lapsed, without Question put, pursuant to the Temporary Standing Order (Topical debates).

C

"We owe it to the people of this country, and particularly the young people, not to be complacent, but to see what more we can do."

But not one of you with all your fine words seams to care a jot about the indigenous people of the country, whom are are accountable, as ALL of you failed to mention the biggest factor in the rise in knife crime. IMMIGRATION.

Yes IMMIGRATION, as its so obvious that a Black Elephant is in the room with you, but non of you right honorable representatives dare mention it! And if you don't mention the link with IMMIGRATION and rising crime, then you are not doing your jobs properly.

Submitted by Christopher Ashley