Huw Merriman speaks with authority as a former youth worker, and one listens to him with great attention, but I disagree with his conclusion that the proposal before the House is the best way forward. I want to suggest alternatives that I hope he will consider.
There is no doubt that action on knife crime is needed—that fact unites us all—and a lot of the action will involve spending money, whether on policing, including community policing, or on youth workers. There may have been a lot of youth workers when the hon. Gentleman was active, but when I look around communities today I do not see many youth workers or community police officers, but we will need them to implement these orders. We will need to spend money if we are to have the people in place to give those young people alternatives and protect them. We as a Parliament have to recognise that the public health approach is not a cheap option.
Do we need another legal power? The Government argue that, despite the panoply of powers already on the statute book, we need a new one, which is why the House is right to scrutinise the proposal; I only wish it had more time. Will the proposal work? We have some evidence from the past. As you will remember, Madam Deputy Speaker, we have had many debates in this House, in previous Parliaments, on how to tackle antisocial behaviour, and we have seen policies such as antisocial behaviour orders, on which, I believe, these knife crime prevention orders are modelled. My noble Friend Lord Paddick in the other place has pointed out some of the major problems with ASBOs that we believe knife crime prevention orders will also have.
I want to be constructive, however, and to support the Minister in her work to tackle knife crime. I hope that she will agree to meet me to discuss the Liberal Democrats’ proposal for what I have named anti-blade contracts—linked to the ABCs, or acceptable behaviour contracts, of the past—which could be far more effective in preventing young people from carrying knives in the first place. I would also make the case for other similar initiatives, such as what I call knife crime prevention injunctions, which would have the benefit of not resulting in criminal records for young people.
First, though, I will make the case against the Government’s proposal. The fundamental problem is that these will be pre-conviction orders—as opposed to on-conviction orders—which means that young people as young as 12 could be handed a court order on the grounds that, on the balance of probability, they may have carried a knife. That ought to alarm every colleague. Guilty before anything has been proven—that is a shocking legal principle. I am surprised that a lawyer as distinguished as the Minister feels comfortable about young people getting court orders even when it has not been proved that they committed a crime.
The Minister’s mitigation is that this is a civil offence, but if the order’s conditions are breached, it becomes a criminal offence. A condition may, for instance, be a requirement to notify. A young person who fails to notify the police of a change of address within three days will be in breach of the order, and could be imprisoned.
This legislation has no link to real life—to the chaotic lives that some of these young people lead. The idea that they will remember to notify a police officer within three days that they have changed their address because they have moved from one parent or carer to another, thus avoiding a prison sentence, is total nonsense. Why do we need to criminalise young people who have not committed a crime? Where is the evidence that that will tackle knife crime? Prisons are overcrowded, and there are high levels of self-harm. Is this really a sensible approach?