It is a pleasure to follow Sir Edward Davey and I agree with much of what he said. Huw Merriman put his finger on it when he said that these knife crime prevention orders are a roll of the dice. That is absolutely the point we all want to make, and while I completely disagree with the conclusion he has come to, this is what we are doing in this House: we are rolling a dice and there might be unintended consequences that we do not know yet. That is what I want to speak about today. I shall speak to the amendments I added my name to: 7, 9, 10, 12 and 23.
I chair the all-party group on knife crime, and yesterday we hosted an event on knife crime prevention orders. We heard evidence from the Magistrates Association, lawyers, academics, charities, and youth offending teams who work with children and young people involved in knife crime. There was resounding agreement: they all want to stop knife crime and protect young people, but they all believe that these orders are not the answer. I think they are a knee-jerk reaction to a moral panic and they risk exacerbating, not diminishing, the problem. Lawyers, magistrates and youth offending teams are all in agreement that, far from being preventive, as the name of the orders suggests, the orders will have unintended consequences that could criminalise a generation of young people and actively work against the Government’s stated aim of reducing knife crime.
This final stage of the Offensive Weapons Bill is the first opportunity MPs have had to have our say on whether or not these orders should become law. This is indicative of the Government’s approach of late: rushing through ill thought-out plans so they can appear to be doing something without actually listening or engaging with experts or allowing parliamentary scrutiny. No real consultation took place other than some rushed consultation within the police—although we heard yesterday that even the senior police representative for children and young people was not asked about these knife crime prevention orders.
As far as we can tell, the orders are the result of a few behind closed doors conversations between the Home Office and a few senior Met police. They have not comprehensively been thought out, and they were not a part of the Government’s own serious violence strategy. This is not the proper way for the Government to create laws, and it is an example of how bad, ineffective policy is created.
As we have heard, these are civil orders which would be placed on children as young as 12 who are suspected of carrying a knife. They could place severe, lengthy and potentially unlimited requirements and restrictions on the person subject to the order. If the requirements are not all met, a breach will be punishable by up to two years in prison. We have a situation in which somebody—a child—who may never have carried a knife and never have broken the law will end up with a criminal record and potentially a prison sentence for an order placed on them just on the basis of probability, rather than a criminal standard of proof. This leaves room for subjective decisions being made and for many young people to feel unfairly targeted.
The Government should be seeking to draw people away from the criminal justice system, not pushing children into it. And for solutions to be effective, they need to target the underlying cause of the behaviour. Sending children to custody does not work and is not an appropriate or proportionate response. Vulnerable young people must have access to education and employment so that they have routes away from drug gangs and the like. Criminal records and other criminal sanctions will disrupt lives and further marginalise young people, locking them out of mainstream society and exacerbating the root causes of violence. Children and young people have told our all-party parliamentary group many times that many are picking up knives out of fear. They feel that it is a necessary form of self-protection because everyone else has one and the police are not there to help them. Knife crime prevention orders will not deter children from picking up knives. They would rather be in prison for carrying a knife than be stabbed to death.
Another thing that was clear from our meeting yesterday was that the orders are neither necessary nor new. Magistrates and lawyers who are involved in children’s sentences have not called for more sentencing options. There are already intervention options available that could be promoted and developed. Many youth offending teams have programmes to address knife carrying, and if they had the money to do more outreach, they could help more children in this way. Conditional cautions can place requirements on children and young people, such as having to see their youth offending team and attend education programmes. These have lower reoffending rates than other more punitive responses, and they deal with behaviour outside the court system. Likewise, there is the triage system, where a young person who is arrested in a police station can be directed to appropriate intervention without being unnecessarily over-criminalised.
The similarities between knife crime prevention orders and the old antisocial behaviour orders are clear. The author of the Youth Justice Board report on ASBOs told us yesterday that they were disproportionately used on children, and that they were breached in over two thirds of those cases. The use of ASBOs petered out over time because the courts and other agencies became increasingly concerned that they were counterproductive. Children had come to view them almost as a badge of honour and to define their identity around them. ASBOs were actually encouraging the behaviour they were designed to discourage. Over a nine-year period, more than 5,500 children were sent to prison for breaching their order. The bottom line was that they were not effective, because the kids kept coming back.
A number of other concerns have highlighted how little time has been given to the detail of these orders. Who will monitor them? Who will be responsible for reporting breaches? It seems that charities running programmes with young people would be expected to tell on their young people if they did not turn up. That would betray all the trust those organisations had carefully built up and would undoubtedly affect engagement. If the orders are imposed on the basis of probability, will not the victims of crime be more resistant to going to the police in case they get an order slapped on them, too? If school exclusions are already a big problem and a driver of young people becoming involved in violence, what impact do the Government expect the orders to have on access to education? A school will not want to take on a child who has been issued with a knife crime prevention order.
Finally, young black boys are already disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, and there are real problems with trust and community relationships with the police. The imposition of restrictive orders such as these, especially when someone is only suspected of carrying a knife, will feed into those young boys feeling disproportionately targeted or harassed by police, their feelings of marginalisation and alienation, and their feeling that they are being treated less fairly than others by the justice system. This will be a major setback.
“top-down, bureaucratic, gimmick-laden approach”.
She said that they were
“too complex and bureaucratic…they were too time consuming and expensive and they too often criminalised young people unnecessarily, acting as a conveyor belt to serious crime and prison.”
The Government should listen to that now. They should also listen to the wide coalition of professional bodies and organisations that have come out against these orders. They should listen to concerns raised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights and to the Justice Secretary himself, who has highlighted a lack of evidence that the orders will be effective. They should also look at the evidence of what works to tackle violent crime. They should consult, and they should work out the actual impact of the policy before imposing it.