With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 67, in clause 34, page 35, line 34, leave out ‘eighteen’ and insert ‘nineteen’.
No. 159, in clause 34, page 36, line 11, at end insert—
‘(d)for the purposes of official battle re-enactments and similar events including veterans’ fairs.’.
Government amendment No. 303
No. 56, in clause 34, page 36, line 19, at end insert—
‘(6)A court shall, on a person’s first conviction for an offence under Section 139(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Placed article), pass a minimum custodial sentence of 3 months, unless exceptional circumstances exist in relation to the offence or the offender which justify its not so doing.’.
Government amendment No. 106
The lead amendment was tabled to establish the Government’s thinking on the clause. We strongly support the intention to strengthen the restrictions and prohibitions on knives. The increase in knife crime and the number of people turning to knives as it becomes more difficult to use guns for crime is concerning. Only last weekend in Birmingham, tragically, someone was murdered with a knife and someone with a gun. I do not make a distinction—death is death—and I very much welcome the clause. However, we are concerned as to how it will work. How can the law on restricting sales to under-18s be enforced? There is a difficulty with the logic that one can get married at 16, yet not be able to buy a knife for the kitchen until one is 18. The Police Federation says that there is no safe way of policing the measure unless the police stand outside virtually every store that sells knives. Perhaps there should be a specification or description of prohibited knives to make policing a realistic prospect.
The Police Federation is also concerned that a person under the age of 18 may ask a third party to buy them a knife. Should there be an offence of giving a knife to someone who is under 18, or of accepting a knife as a present from an older person? Will that put people in the predicament of having to decide whether that person is responsible? Those are our concerns about the clause. I reiterate that we totally support the idea of raising the age to 18, but are unsure how the Government propose to make the measure work.
Amendment No. 159 raises the re-enactment issue again. People who take part in battle re-enactments and veterans’ fairs tell me that they are not just a hobby, but are educational, and they believe that they should be exempted. Surely, the Government do not intend hinder such events.
I shall focus entirely on amendment No. 56, and have nothing to say on amendment No. 67, which is also in my name. On the amendment paper, there is a slight misprint in the amendment, which would require a minimum custodial sentence for the offence of carrying a bladed article. It reads:
“A court shall, on a person’s first conviction for an offence under Section 139(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Placed article)”— that should read, “Bladed article”—
“pass a minimum custodial sentence of 3 months, unless exceptional circumstances exist in relation to the offence or the offender which justify its not so doing.”
I want to give the Committee a terrifying statistic. The Government have confirmed in a parliamentary answer that no fewer than 20,000 children aged 11 to 16 admit to having carried a knife in school for offensive purposes, and no fewer than 40,000 children aged 11 to 16 admit to having carried in school a knife for so-called defensive purposes—that is 60,000 children.
The culture of the blade is on the up, and I am afraid that it is becoming firmly rooted in our society. Knife crime has rocketed in the past eight years. Recent reports show that knife crime in England and Wales has leapt by as much as 90 per cent. in two years in some areas.
Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 show nearly 25,000 knife crimes last year logged by the 30 police forces that supplied the figures. The highest rise in knife crime was recorded by Nottinghamshire police. There, offences involving blades went up from 338 in 2002 to 650 last year, a rise of some 92 per cent. Muggings involving the use of a knife or blade have shot up. I quote the assistant chief constable of Devon and Cornwall, Tony Melville, who is the spokesman on knife crime for the Association of Chief Police Officers:
“Lots and lots of people are carrying knives in public places. In many parts of society it now seems to be a credible and normal thing to carry a knife.”
Doctors report a marked increase in the number of patients attending casualty with stab wounds. I sit as a recorder in the Crown Court, and as a district judge in magistrates courts, and day after day I see around me young people charged with offences under section 139 of having a bladed article. It is almost as if that is the norm, and nobody understands that it is wrong.
That sort of crime is not only on the increase, but it is deadly serious and must be stamped out. One has only to listen, as I have done, to witnesses giving evidence in cases in which a knife has been taken out and waved at them in public. They recount the sheer terror, and each of us can imagine that. It has never happened to me, but I venture to suggest that those to whom it has happened will never forget the experience of terror.
That is the background. The amount of crime involving knives and bladed articles, or having a bladed article in a public place, goes up and up, but the number of prosecutions is abysmally low, as are the levels of detection in relation to knife crime. As I have said so many times in this Committee and elsewhere, passing laws is one thing, but enforcing the existing law is vitally important. Sadly the courts are not passing stiff enough sentences. We are forgetting the importance of deterrence in our criminal justice system, and relying too much on other—no doubt worthy—approaches.
Let me illustrate what I mean about enforcement of existing law by reference to some parliamentary questions that I have asked, and the answers that I have received in the past six months or so. All the time, let us keep in mind the horrifying statistic that I gave some moments ago—a minimum of 60,000 children carrying knives in school for offensive or defensive purposes.
There is a very important section of our statutes involving people who market knives. The Knives Act 1997, which relates to the marketing of knives and the offence of so doing, is a serious Act of Parliament. I am talking about marketing extremely nasty knives. I asked the Home Secretary how many people had been charged with or convicted of offences relating to the unlawful marketing of knives and of an offence of publication in connection with the marketing of knives under sections 1 and 2 of the Knives Act 1997. The answer was that in the last five years for which figures were available, only 18 persons have been charged with the unlawful marketing of knives under section 1 of that Act, and only five convicted.
What about prosecutions under section 2 of the Knives Act, which states:
“A person is guilty of an offence if he publishes any written, pictorial or other material in connection with the marketing of any knife and that material—
(a)indicates, or suggests, that the knife is suitable for combat”?
In the last five years for which figures are available, only one person has been prosecuted under that provision, and even he—it might have been she—was found not guilty. There lies a statute which has not properly been used.
What about the offence of selling to a person under the age of 16 a knife, knife blade, razor blade, axe and any other article that has a blade that is sharply pointed and made or adapted for use for causing injury to the person? What a heinous offence. It is the sort of thing that Governments often rail at. In the last five years for which figures are available, only 39 persons have been proceeded against under that statute. So much of this is about proper enforcement of the existing law.
I moved on to convictions under section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. Remembering the vast number of offences involving the use of knife-bladed articles, I asked how many persons had been prosecuted for having an article with a blade or point in a public place in the last five years for which figures are available. There were many more prosecutions for such offences but my point is about how the court disposed of those prosecutions.
I agree with most district judges that having a bladed article in a public place is a very serious offence, which must be stamped out. One would expect the courts to take a seriously robust attitude to these offences. In 2003, 6,800 persons were proceeded against, of whom 5,300 were found guilty. The figures for the previous four years were approximately 5,000 a year for two of those years and 3,500 for another two years. I venture to ask the Committee whether it would like to suggest what percentage of those convicted went into custody. The answer is somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent. only. The rest were simply sent away from court with a sentence that permitted them to carry on taking knives around in public places.
We need to take a much stronger attitude towards the carrying of knives, which is why my amendment would impose a minimum sentence of three months on anyone who is caught with a bladed article in public, subject to the usual defences and there is a defence, so ’an innocent explanation is entirely proper. I am thinking of the message that we should be sending to the young people out in the streets who think that going tooled-up with a knife is a great idea and that going into school with a knife is a great idea. I am old-fashioned enough to say that I am depressed with the kind of society in which we live at the moment where too little emphasis is placed on deterrent and far too much on education.
Were you as shocked as I was, Mr Forth, to read the story—the Minister will no doubt tell us of the background—of a council that was forced to pay £11,000 to a boy expelled for taking a knife to school? Greenwich was ordered to apologise to the teenager and pay his mother £5,000 compensation for anxiety and uncertainty, plus £6,000 for home tuition of her son. Teachers reacted with fury: the union said that the boy should have been prosecuted for carrying a blade. The pay-out was ordered by the Local Government Ombudsman. It makes one scratch one’s head in sheer disbelief, if this story is true—is it true that a boy with a knife in school finds himself going to the ombudsman with his parents and getting some taxpayers’ money for the privilege?
Another aspect that troubles me is the approach taken by the Government, who should focus much more on getting the police on the streets where such offences are taking place and arresting, charging and securing convictions in appropriate cases with the courts reacting more strongly. A parliamentary question was asked a year or two ago by the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) to the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) in her then capacity as a Home Office Minister—I like this one:
“To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what steps the Government are taking to tackle the problem of assaults on children involving knives”, which is a pretty fair question. Listen to the answer from the Government—I do not suppose that we would disagree with the first sentence:
“It is unacceptable for young people to carry knives and the Government take their responsibility for public safety in this area extremely seriously. There is a range of legislation and police powers in place aimed at preventing the possession or use of knives and offensive weapons and this is kept under constant review to ensure it is comprehensive and effective”—
Most of the Committee will be asleep already—
“It is essential to educate young people about the dangers and consequences of becoming involved in criminality associated with weapon-carrying”—[interruption.]
All right, perhaps is the quotation is a little long.
The Minister says it is, but when is something going to be done about the problem that is happening on the streets at the moment, in terms of proper enforcement, arrest, conviction and sentence? Where has the old issue of deterrence gone? It seems to be disappearing fast—things are always someone else’s fault. The answer continued:
“It is essential to educate young people about the dangers and consequences of becoming involved in criminality associated with weapon-carrying and the Home Office funds and operates a number of community-based initiatives aimed at encouraging good citizenship and turning vulnerable young people away from crime.—[Official Report, 3 November 2004; Vol. 426, c. 301W.]
So said the then Minister. Well, do we all feel safer as a result of that?
Does my hon. Friend agree that the difficulty is that the Government are trying to give a clear message that carrying knives is wrong; yet that message is mixed by the fact that the result of doing so is inevitably simply a slap on the wrist?
My hon. Friend typically makes a good point. It is all very well to have the headline, “Carrying knives is wrong,” and it is all very well to say that we are trying to educate the public, but go back to the facts of life. The youth justice survey established clearly that in our schools tens of thousands are wilfully flouting the law. There will be a debate on that issue under the next clause. I have purposely mentioned schools very little.
We face a culture in which there is no guilt and no one says, “That is wrong. You will be punished”. That is the dangerous slope along which we are sliding. It is time for us in Parliament, not to grab the headlines, but to say that we have existing law at the moment and why on earth is it not being enforced? There is a compelling case for a minimum sentence for this appalling offence. The Government seek to have minimum sentences and the precedent is well established elsewhere.
However, if the Minister cannot satisfy me that there is no case, I believe that I speak on behalf of the vast majority of law-abiding people who want to feel safe when they walk our streets at night. They will feel a lot safer if they know that the person with a bladed article will be sent to jail for a first offence unless there are exceptional circumstances. Our duty in this House should be more to the law-abiding than to the law breakers.
I come back to amendment No. 158, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green moved. My question concerns those who are training in the hotel industry, as I did. One of the first things that one is asked to do when one works in the kitchens is to purchase a set of knives. Typically, that will include a long-bladed knife for chopping, a boning knife and a paring knife. Each individually would fall within the scope of the legislation. What provision will there be for those entering apprenticeships or studying for qualifications at colleges to continue to practise their trade without falling foul of the law?
I shall resist amendments Nos. 158 and 67, because they seek to lower the age to 16. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green seeks to lower to 16 the age at which knives can be bought. I appreciate that her aim is to probe as to how the law would work in practice, but her amendment reduces the age to 16. It should be an offence to sell a knife to a young person aged under 18. That would be practical to enforce; it is the same age limit as for alcohol and the age at which people can obtain a credit card. Requiring payment by credit card is one way in which respectable sellers of knives by mail order ensure that customers are aged 18 or over. That is an important cut-off point.
The measure should not unduly interfere with the legitimate use of knives. The sale is an offence rather than the use. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross has raised the issue of people who undertake catering courses and trainee chefs. People in such circumstances will have to get somebody aged over 18 to buy their initial set of tools for them. That is not an onerous requirement—presumably tutors already play a role in advising young chefs about which knives are best to purchase, so I do not think that that represents a practical impediment.
We are trying to ensure that young people under 18 cannot buy knives. That sends out a clear message. Significant problems are caused by young people who carry knives, and it is important to have a range of measures to address them. The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) made much of enforcement, yet he will note from the letter that I sent him last week that the figures on prosecutions for people carrying a blade or point in a public place are high—6,589 people were prosecuted in 2002 and 6,839 in 2003 for having a bladed article in a public place, of whom more than 5,000 were found guilty. The police do not turn a blind eye to the fact that people carry blades in public.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross takes issue with the sentences imposed by the courts. I shall come to those in detail shortly. However, I do not think that he can fairly say that the laws are not being enforced when more than 6,000 prosecutions have taken place.
Goodness me; the hon. Gentleman is a lawyer. In order for there to be an offence, there has to be a prosecution and a conviction. From more than 6,000 prosecutions, 5,281 resulted in conviction.
The Minister has missed my point. If 60,000 children carry a knife in school, and only seven or eight prosecutions take place against them, that is low. I suggest—can she say the contrary?—that the 6,000 prosecutions under section 139 represent the tip of the iceberg of the number of people who are offending.
I do not accept the phrase “tip of the iceberg”. The figure of 6,000 shows that there is a pretty robust enforcement policy and that the police are out there on the streets trying to ensure that young people are not carrying knives. Inevitably, the numbers who engage in this activity will be greater than those who are prosecuted, convicted and sentenced, but I was seeking to make the point that 6,000 prosecutions shows that the police are not ignoring the problem.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. That will be an extra power that head teachers, schools and the police will use to bear down on knife crime and to make our communities safer.
I shall resist amendment No. 159. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green wants to put a defence into the Bill for use at official battle re-enactments and similar events, including veterans’ fairs. The weapons currently listed on the offensive weapons order are dangerous weapons and the Government consider any exemptions carefully. I have not received representations from those taking part in battle re-enactments that the current law presents them with problems.
However, I can understand the concern of those groups that weapons that are used in battle re-enactments may be added to the order. In that case, we would consider a defence or exemption for the specific weapon. The law is currently inflexible and Government amendment No. 303 should rectify that. We need flexibility when adding weapons to the order, so that those who are involved in their legitimate manufacture, sale or hire are not caught. What “legitimate” means will vary from weapon to weapon, so any defence or exemption could be specific to the weapon in question.
Government amendment No. 303 is framed in such a way that the defence or exemption could apply only to some, and not to other, offensive weapons listed in the order. It could apply for battle re-enactments. Regulations will follow the affirmative resolution procedure, so Members of both Houses will be able to debate any such proposed defences or exemptions. We will consult before adding further items to the offensive weapons order.
We are currently considering adding Samurai swords to the offensive weapons order. Government amendment No. 303 would allow us to ban their sale, manufacture and hire, except in certain cases such as legitimate martial arts operations. Police officers in my constituency have told me time and again that the damage inflicted by people using Samurai swords in a criminal way is absolutely horrendous. One of my chief superintendents told me that it is almost a rite of passage for some people when they enter the criminal fraternity to get a Samurai sword. I recognise that, if we add such swords to the offensive weapons order, there needs to be flexibility to ensure that legitimate users are not unduly penalised.
I come to amendment No. 56, tabled by the hon. Member for Woking. I welcome him back to his place, but it is perhaps a little unfortunate that he was not present when we had the debate on minimum mandatory sentences for gun offences that was led by the hon. Member for Huntingdon. There appears to be some confusion between those two hon. Gentlemen about their approach to this important matter of principle. We have a mandatory prison sentence for people who possess guns. We wanted to extend that to people who use children to hide their guns and weapons. We thought that that was the correct thing to do. That provision was opposed in the most strenuous terms by the hon. Member for Huntingdon on the basis of principle: he said that it was interfering with judicial discretion. In his role as a part-time recorder, I am sure that the hon. Member for Woking holds the principles of judicial discretion close to his heart. We were castigated by the hon. Member for Huntingdon, who said we were taking an authoritarian, illiberal approach by shackling and fettering the judges’ power to make decisions. We were denounced in the most extreme terms.
The Minister is happy to have a mandatory sentence for the possession of firearms. Given the damage that is done by knives, why is the same principle not accepted in that regard?
Indeed. I shall come to that matter.
I had thought that the Opposition opposed mandatory minimum sentences in principle—but now I am not quite so sure. The Government have never said that we oppose—or propose—mandatory sentences as a matter of principle. We have said that we will use them when we think that it is appropriate. I will give some reasons why, particularly in relation to the proposals made by the hon. Member for Woking, we do not consider them to be appropriate in this case. However, there seems to be a fundamental and serious disagreement on those matters between the hon. Members for Woking and for Huntingdon.
There are some technical deficiencies in the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Woking. It does not consider the position after custody plus is brought in, when a three-month sentence will not be a possibility. The minimum custodial sentence will be 28 weeks. It does not consider whether, or how, juveniles would be included. The minimum custodial sentence for a juvenile is a four-month detention and training order, so the three-month sentence would not apply.
I also have some more general concerns about the amendment. Mandatory prison sentences tend to be reserved for very serious offences. I do not say that carrying a blade in a public place is not a serious offence, but I believe that in this case mandatory custody would escalate a great many offenders, many of whom are juveniles, into the prison system. I do not want that to happen.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the figure of 20,000 children. I do not accept that we would be prosecuting 20,000 children, but we should consider whether, in the case of a first offence for someone—particularly for some of the children to whom the hon. Gentleman referred—who pleads guilty to having possession, they should automatically receive a mandatory prison sentence.
Will the Minister then comment on an authoritative report in relation to the then Home Secretary, now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who apparently was clear that he wanted to introduce a minimum sentence for carrying a knife on the street? Can the Minister deny that? I may be wrong about that, but she will have spoken to the former Home Secretary, and I should like to know what his views were. Has he expressed that view?
I can only say to the hon. Gentleman that we published in our election manifesto a commitment that we would consult on introducing more serious sentences for people who commit serious crimes using knives. That is a matter of public record, and that is what we mean to do.
It is our view that in this case we should be looking to the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which we set up last year, to devise the guidelines. The council is currently looking at the issue of seriousness, and its guidelines on seriousness treat use of a weapon as an aggravating factor. We expect the council’s new guidance on violent crime to reiterate that, if a weapon is used, that increases the seriousness of the violent crime, and to prescribe robust penalties for those who commit violent crimes using a knife.
The council published its consultation paper on offences against the person last month, and we expect a guideline to be published next year.
I am just having a look back at clause 24, entitled, “Using someone to mind a weapon”. I think that its provisions include knives. Minding a weapon does not just refer to guns; it could include getting someone to mind a knife.
If an under-18-year-old gets someone to mind their knife, I think that there is a mandatory sentence of not less than three years. I understand the Minister to say that there should be discretion in the sentence if an under-18-year-old holds the knife himself, but not if he gives someone else the knife to hold for him.
What I meant to say is that, when someone is in possession of a knife, that should be a matter for the courts, guided by the Sentencing Guidelines Council. There is no mandatory sentence under clause 24 for knives. There is a maximum sentence. Clause 25(2) states that, where the dangerous weapon in respect of which the offence was committed is a knife or bladed weapon,
“the offender shall be liable, on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 4 years or to a fine, or to both.”
That is the maximum sentence, and I hope that that is of assistance to the hon. Gentleman.
I think that it might help the Minister as she gropes back through the Bill to try to find the answer if I ask whether I am right to say that line 19 refers to a minimum sentence of not less than three years? Is that not mandatory?
I can only reiterate what I have said. That relates to prohibited firearms and not to blades. The provision on sentences for blades is in clause 25(2) and sets a maximum prison sentence of four years. The hon. Gentleman is referring to entirely the wrong provision and I hope that that clarification is of assistance to him. [Interruption.]
I think so. I entirely accept the apology from the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford.
I do not have anything to add. The Sentencing Guidelines Council will prescribe robust penalties for those who commit violent crimes using a knife. We think that that is the appropriate way forward and I have to say that I would love to be present at the discussion between the hon. Members for Woking and for Huntingdon when they try to reconcile their different positions on mandatory sentences.
Government amendment No. 106 is a technical amendment that deals with the repeal consequential to Government amendment No. 303.
I was simply seeking reassurance from the Minister that raising the age to 18, which I heartily support, would be sustainable in law. I still have some concerns about the ability of shopkeepers to administer that with an ID scheme such as that used for alcohol, and I also still have some concerns about the example of cooking knives raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. The Minister suggested that under-18s could use a third person to help them to purchase such knives. If, God forbid, that person were to commit an offence with that knife, would the third party have some responsibility? I have some concerns, to which I want to give further thought, but for the time being I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment made: No. 303, in clause 34, page 36, line 16, at end insert—
‘(11D)The Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument—
(a)provide for exceptions and exemptions from the offence under subsection (1) above or from the prohibition in subsection (4) above; and
(b)provide for it to be a defence in proceedings for such an offence, or for an offence under section 50(2) or (3) of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979, to show the matters specified or described in the regulations.
(11E)A statutory instrument containing an order under this section shall not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House.’.—[Hazel Blears.]
I just want to express publicly my disappointment with the Minister’s reply. There was nothing in what she said in response to my speech on knives, which reflected the real concern of many members of the public about the vast increase in knife crime. Nor was there a message from her to the judges to deal with the crime more harshly. I found her response a little self-satisfied, and I am very sorry to have heard it.
As for the Minister’s attempts to draw a distinction between me and my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, she rightly points out that I was not in Committee at the appropriate stage, although that was not through any lack of courtesy on my part. I understand that my hon. Friend outlined his arguments with great skill. The purpose of my amendment was to draw the Government’s attention to the disgraceful situation with regard to knives, and to send a message to the Government that it is time that they recognised it, rather than sat back and felt complacent about it.