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My Lords, I welcome this debate and declare an interest as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime. The incidence, and to a lesser extent the nature, of crime may vary from place to place and from generation to generation, but crime is something that all communities have to come to terms with and devise appropriate strategies for in their own way. Over the years, we have learned much about the underlying causes of crime and had a good deal of research into the effectiveness of various responses. Overall, most research has tended to refute rather than confirm hypotheses about the causes of crime and the effectiveness of punishment and treatments. In essence, public and political mood is conditioned more by hunch, gut feeling and media hype than by outcomes of detailed research.
Knife crime has achieved much publicity in recent times. There is a widespread public perception that our society is becoming increasingly lawless. This is supplemented by statistics of offences recorded by the police. Austerity, and the subsequent cuts in public services since 2010, has contributed to this phenomenon. A reality we fail to appreciate is that not all crimes are reported. Public expectations of the police’s ability to solve crimes are far greater than the service’s ability to deliver. The grim statistics of rising knife crime are well known and well publicised, as are the tragic consequences of knife crime for victims and their families. Last year the number of recorded offences involving knives was at its highest since comparable data became available.
What can be done to stem and reverse this alarming trend? For any approach to tackling knife crime to be effective, we must stand back and look at why young people decide to carry knives. One study summed up the reasons in the phrase “fear or fashion”. Fear, because many knife crime offenders say that they carry knives for their own protection. They have the misguided belief that it will make them safer, as they can use their knives to defend themselves if they are attacked. In fact, the truth is the opposite. All the evidence shows that offenders who carry knives are more likely to end up in a violent confrontation in which they are stabbed with a weapon—either someone else’s knife or their own—as well as being more likely to end up causing the tragedy of injury or death to someone else. Fashion refers to many impressionable young people carrying knives because they see it as part of a macho self-image.
Drug misuse and dealing is also an important part of this picture. It is unrealistic to think that we can ultimately solve the problem by punitive approaches to this issue. In recent years the proportion of knife crime offenders receiving custodial sentences has sharply increased, partly because the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 introduced minimum sentences for a second offence of carrying a knife of four months for juveniles and six months for those aged 18-plus. However, this has not stopped knife crime rising; nor have increases in the stop and search policies we have adopted. Study after study has found little correlation between the use of stop and search and the rate of knife crime or violence generally, and the resentment the heavy-handed and racially disproportionate use of stop and search produces in young people all too often drives them into the arms of gangs, rather than achieving the opposite.
We need to look at more constructive solutions to the problem. Custodial sentences are inevitable for offences that have caused death or serious injury, but I see little point in passing short custodial sentences on young people apprehended for carrying a knife. Short custodial sentences are commonly agreed to be the most pointless and ineffective sentences courts can impose. They have much higher reoffending rates than any other form of sentence. Their containment effect is very short-lived. They are not long enough for any sustained attempt at rehabilitation in custody, as they do not provide enough time for an offending behaviour programme, a drug treatment programme or a vocational training programme. However, they are long enough for offenders who have stable accommodation to lose it, for those who have jobs to lose them and for those involved in education or training courses to lose the chance of completing them. This means that, on release, these offenders are more likely to be homeless, jobless and not involved in training or education—all things which increase rather than reduce the likelihood of reoffending.
Moreover, young offenders can all too often react the wrong way to a short spell in custody, deciding they have to live up to a hard image in front of their peers. For all these reasons, short custodial sentences often do more harm than good. A demanding community sentence is much more likely to provide the opportunity for intensive work to tackle the attitudes that lead offenders to carry knives, yet the use of community sentences has been falling. The approaches most likely to change young people’s attitudes to carrying knives are programmes or interventions that show young people the real consequences of this misguided way of thinking.
Many of the most effective interventions are those that involve former offenders who have now matured and seen for themselves the awful, negative consequences of carrying weapons. These ex-offenders can often act as credible and positive role models for young people, particularly if these interventions are combined with practical help with education and training, which can equip young people to lead a more constructive lifestyle. Any available funding to tackle knife crime would be far better spent on funding more interventions of this kind than on any other approach to the problem. This approach would be more likely than any other to reduce the number of families whose lives are blighted by the appalling consequences of young people’s willingness to carry knives.