Offensive Weapons Bill
Sir Edward Davey Excerpts
Tuesday 26th March 2019

(11 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Home Office
Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins - Hansard
26 Mar 2019, 3:24 p.m.

I am about to come to the framework for these orders, because I am conscious that in an ideal world we would have had the measure in the Bill when it was first laid before the House in early summer last year. However, the police came to their view and alerted us to their thinking at the end of summer, and although we have frankly acted pretty quickly, we could not by definition have put the measure in the Bill before the police asked us to. We are doing this in response to the express wish of the police; in fact, the Mayor of London wrote to the Home Secretary in December asking that the orders be inserted in the Bill.

I do not know whether the hon. Lady has had a chance to speak to the Mayor of London, but the reason we are introducing these orders is that we want to try to help local communities to tackle knife crime. They are one measure. We do not pretend that they will solve all knife crime, but they are about preventing young people from getting ensnared in criminal gangs or getting into a situation where they think that carrying a knife will protect them. This is about trying to wrap services around those children before they become criminalised.

I know that concerns have been raised about the age at which the orders can be imposed. The orders apply from the age of 12 upwards because the police tell us that the age at which people carry knives is getting younger. We also know from hospital data that younger children are victims and perpetrators. That is why we have chosen that age. If we are serious about tackling knife crime on our streets, the measures that we take must apply to young people and children.

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins - Hansard
26 Mar 2019, 3:24 p.m.

I will give way, but then I must make some progress.

Sir Edward Davey Portrait Sir Edward Davey - Hansard
26 Mar 2019, 3:25 p.m.

I think the whole House is with the Minister in the determination to tackle knife crime and to try to prevent young people from getting into it, but can she tell the House what other mechanisms, orders or contracts the Government looked at before concluding that this was the right way forward? I have spoken to her privately about antisocial behaviour orders, which in the past did not work, whereas acceptable behaviour contracts, which worked with the young person, did work. Have the Government looked at those?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins - Hansard
26 Mar 2019, 3:25 p.m.

I think the right hon. Gentleman and I talked about that last week. As I have said to him, I will happily look into those. We looked at whether gang injunctions are appropriate, but as Members across the House will know, not every child carrying a knife is a member of a gang. We also looked at criminal behaviour orders, but both those measures are contingent on a child being convicted of a criminal offence. With knife crime prevention orders, we want to try to reach those children before they are convicted of carrying a knife. The orders are also available upon conviction, because we want to wrap services around children if they are convicted and serve a detention training order. We wanted an extra structure around children to try to tackle the issue.

Sir Edward Davey Portrait Sir Edward Davey - Hansard
26 Mar 2019, 3:25 p.m.


Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins - Hansard
26 Mar 2019, 3:25 p.m.

If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I must make some progress.

The order may impose such requirements or prohibitions on a person as a court considers necessary to protect any person from risk of harm or to prevent the commission of an offence involving a bladed article. A KCPO that imposes a requirement must specify a person who is responsible for supervising compliance with that requirement. Again, I emphasise that this is about protection and prevention. It is not about criminalising children. The order is a civil order. We do, however, accept that the breach of an order is, in itself, a criminal matter. I know that some have argued that it would be better to go down the antisocial behaviour injunction route, which applies to children as young as 10. The argument is that having a contempt of court rather than a criminal offence for a breach would make the orders more palatable, because it would mean that children did not get a criminal record. The advice from the police—it is advice that we must listen to very carefully—is that making it a criminal offence to breach an order is important if we want these orders to be taken seriously.

Break in Debate

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman - Hansard
26 Mar 2019, 4:10 p.m.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; YOTs will be consulted. I do not agree with the idea of having a more specific order, because that would tie the whole process up in knots, whereas this needs to be a fluid process. YOTs would indeed be consulted, and then appropriate adults—youth workers—would supervise any requirements under the order.

These interventions can help people turn their lives around. I spent five years working in a youth organisation that was trying to turn young people’s lives around and stop them making these mistakes. We helped with their education and encouraged them to put their energy into sports, performing arts, environmental projects, and so on—something that could turn them away from a life of crime and give them something more interesting, exciting and exacting to work on. That said, we have now regressed. Far too many young people are being attracted by gangs and carrying knives either because of the glamour or as protection. We need to do something now to turn that around and save lives.

Sir Edward Davey Portrait Sir Edward Davey - Parliament Live - Hansard
26 Mar 2019, 4:11 p.m.

The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (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?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins - Hansard
26 Mar 2019, 4:16 p.m.

The point of the orders is that there is information suggesting that these children have been carrying a knife on two or more occasions. The criminality, if we are talking in those terms, would be in the fact of the possession, and a magistrates court or a youth court would consider that very carefully. A child who is carrying a knife may well get into terrible trouble with the police because he or she has used it against someone, and we are trying to get to children before that happens.

Sir Edward Davey Portrait Sir Edward Davey - Hansard
26 Mar 2019, 4:16 p.m.

There I have sympathy with the Minister, and I want to propose an alternative which addresses that very point. However, she was beginning to suggest—I am not sure that she meant to—that a criminal test had to be passed, and that is not what is in the Bill. It is not a criminal test that must be passed; it is a civil test, which could then result in a criminal record. I think that the House should think very carefully before going down that road.

Let me say a little about the alternative model that I want the Minister to consider. I am proposing what I have called “anti-blade contracts”. The idea is that a police officer, along with the parents or a carer, or possibly a youth officer, would sit down with a young person and require them to sign a contract saying that they should not carry a knife and that there would be consequences—for instance, fines or community sentences —if they were caught doing so. Crucially, however, linked with the public health or prevention approach would be positive elements. Young people could, for example, contact a named youth worker or police officer if they were concerned about their safety. There could also be a package of other support, which might involve access to youth services.

That is the way to change behaviour. That is the way to prevent a young person from ending up on the pathway to more crime. People who go to prison often see it as a college of crime, and we must try to avoid that. The approach that I am suggesting would do what the Minister wants: it would meet her objectives, but without the cost and without the potentially damaging impact that her orders would have.

Bob Stewart Portrait Bob Stewart - Hansard
26 Mar 2019, 4:18 p.m.

Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that all young people should sign such contracts? That has a certain appeal to me—the idea that everyone at school, say, is given a lesson and then signs a contract, so that they understand what they are doing. Is that what the right hon. Gentleman is proposing?

Sir Edward Davey Portrait Sir Edward Davey - Hansard
26 Mar 2019, 4:18 p.m.

Not in the first place. The idea—and this goes alongside the Government’s proposal—is not that every young person would be open to the process, but that it could be offered to young people who were thought to be in danger. I am not sure whether we would want it to be applied to every young person, although it could go further and be part of an educative process as well. Given the lack of resources in the police and youth services, I think that we should target those who are most at risk in the first instance.

The crucial part of my argument is that I am putting forward something that is based on evidence. The evidence from the Home Office, in its reports on the difference between antisocial behaviour orders and acceptable behaviour contracts back in 2004, and the evidence from the National Audit Office in a 2006 report, suggested that ABCs were far more effective in changing young people’s behaviour, which is what we want to do. More important—or, at least, as important—was the fact that they were cheaper. They took less time. Orders that need to go to court require considerable police resources, and we do not have those resources. They also take up the time of magistrates, which is already rather stretched, so we are putting forward something that goes against the evidence from the past and that we know is going to be more expensive and more time consuming. This is an urgent problem, and our proposal based on evidence does not need even this place to legislate. We could get on with it; we could issue guidance. Why on earth are we doing this? The situation is far more urgent than the Government seem to think. The Minister’s proposal would take so much time and money when we know that is not available.

I implore the Minister: I am pleased that she has nodded from a sedentary position to indicate that she is prepared to meet me to discuss our proposal—

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins - Hansard
26 Mar 2019, 4:20 p.m.

I confirm that I am.

Sir Edward Davey Portrait Sir Edward Davey - Hansard
26 Mar 2019, 4:20 p.m.

I am very grateful to the Minister for doing that, but I hope she will reflect on this.

I will be supporting the Labour amendments in the name of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) tonight, which are well tailored. The Labour proposal requiring this House to vote on a report on the evidence from the pilot is a good compromise; it is an example of this Parliament working together to make sure that what we do is evidence-based. The good thing the Minister could do if she goes down my route is proceed with my anti-blade contracts while those pilots are going on, because an anti-blade contract does not need to bother this legislature.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones - Parliament Live - Hansard
26 Mar 2019, 4:20 p.m.

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) and I agree with much of what he said. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (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.

In 2010, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), described ASBOs as a

“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.