Monday 25th March 2019

(5 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Lord Austin of Dudley Portrait Ian Austin
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I commend my hon. Friend for her work with the all-party group. I understand her point but, in the end, if someone has been caught with a knife 21 times, or has been convicted of 33 assaults, I think they should be in prison. Frankly, as I will talk more about in a minute, there should be strong sentences and tough deterrents. Of course, we also have to have all those other things going on in society to prevent people from being sucked into crime, as she has talked about in the all-party group and I will go on to talk about as well.

When people use knives and behave violently there should be tough sentences. Society needs to send out a strong message that that is completely unacceptable. Although the number of people being imprisoned might have gone up recently, it is fair to say that it certainly fell in the previous few years under this Government.

According to Ministry of Justice figures, 1,182 people were cautioned or convicted by the West Midlands police for the possession of a knife or offensive weapon in 2018, but just 347—29%—went to prison. That represents a 7% drop on the previous year and is under the national average. Across the region, 326 knife criminals were handed a community order, 256 were given a suspended sentence and a further 99 were fined or discharged from court without a sentence.

One in four criminals cautioned or convicted were children. It is a tragedy that children are going out with knives.

Rory Stewart Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Rory Stewart)
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For the record, we have gone from approximately 40,000 people in prison in 1995 to 82,000 people in prison now. In that period, the British population grew by about 15%, but the number of people in prison doubled. We have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, so we have to be cautious about the idea that we are somehow soft on justice in this country.

Lord Austin of Dudley Portrait Ian Austin
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I am sure the Minister will quote all sorts of figures as to why the knife crime epidemic is not the Government’s fault, is not the result of not sending enough people to prison, and is not because they have not kept the promises they made before they were elected eight or nine years ago—I will come to that. It is all well and good for the Government to claim that people caught with a knife are more likely to be jailed now than at any time in the last 10 years, but that is because the number of people being jailed fell after they came to power almost 10 years ago, despite all the promises they made so loudly and frequently in when they were in opposition. The promise was clear: anyone caught carrying a knife would go to jail.

In 2008, the then leader of the Conservative party gave an interview to The Sun, which said that:

“anyone caught carrying a knife will be jailed under a Tory Government, David Cameron vows today. The Conservative leader declares automatic jail terms for carrying a dangerous knife is the only way of smashing the current epidemic gripping broken Britain”.

He repeated the pledge to relatives of high-profile victims, such as the father of Damilola Taylor and the former EastEnders star, Brooke Kinsella, whose brother was tragically murdered. The police and crime commissioner for the west midlands says that the courts are still failing to hand out sentences that reflect the public’s demands for justice after criminals have been arrested and charged.

Despite a lengthy police investigation and a court case, nobody has been convicted for the death of Ryan Passey, the young man I mentioned earlier who was tragically killed on a night out in Stourbridge. That is a source of huge public concern in Dudley and the Black Country, and there has been a big campaign by his family and friends. Will the Minister meet me and the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), with whom I have been working, and the people campaigning about that case, so he can examine it in detail?

Of course we need schools, youth services, police support and more opportunities for young people, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling said, but people in Dudley also want to see more police on the streets, tougher sentences and proper punishments to prevent people from going out with a knife in the first place.

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Rory Stewart Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Rory Stewart)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for introducing the debate and to the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) for the compassion and empathy of his speech. In a debate that has lasted for two and a half hours now, I cannot help but reflect on how committed all hon. Members are to the issue. As a Justice Minister, I have learned an enormous amount, from many different angles. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) for the extraordinary passion with which he spoke about victims in his area, and to the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who is a real firecracker—he made a great speech with huge energy and passion, and I am sure that the issues can only ever be gripped in the way that he described.

I have picked up the sense of frustration around this Chamber. The situation is very disturbing and has been getting steadily worse, so I completely understand why people feel infuriated and frustrated and want more action more quickly. I can reassure hon. Members on one particular question by confirming that the Prime Minister will hold the summit at Chequers next week. In her defence, there is a reason that in the past two weeks she has found it difficult to organise a meeting there: Brexit has not stopped everything else happening in the Government, but it has stopped many of the things that might otherwise be in her diary.

To get a grip on the situation, we have set up an inter-ministerial group on serious violence, which meets regularly and is chaired by the Home Secretary. I am a member of that group and we are making a lot of rapid progress; as the hon. Member for Gedling implied, such a Cobra-style approach is vital to bringing everybody together. In thinking about the problem, we need to be realistic and, above all, practical. The Government’s serious violence strategy contains any number of ideas—probably 200 or 300, all of which are good and all of which make a difference.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones
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Interestingly, knife crime prevention orders are not part of that strategy. A lot of the organisations that I have spoken to suspect that the orders were partly a knee-jerk response to show that the Government were acting, and that they were never part of the strategy that the Minister is talking about, which is comprehensive in its diagnosis—if not in setting out a solution.

Rory Stewart Portrait Rory Stewart
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I will come back to knife crime prevention orders. The interesting thing about this debate is that although we all share a horror of knife crime, not everybody in this Chamber agrees on the particulars, such as knife crime prevention orders, sentence lengths or whether courts should have discretion. In a sense, the debate in this Chamber is a reflection of the debate among the public.

The core question is which of the dozens of suggestions in the serious violence strategy will make most difference as quickly as possible and be most effective. There may be many individual initiatives that are fantastic at a community level, but others may be even better, and those are the ones that we need to focus on. I want to focus on four areas in particular. The first is sentencing—this is a debate on sentencing, and I am here as a representative of the Ministry of Justice to talk about sentencing. It is true to say that following on from the 2015 two-strike rule, more people are now going to jail for knife possession offences, and they are going there for longer. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) raised the question whether we have got that balance right, and it is a difficult balance.

The hon. Member for Gedling, a very experienced ex-Policing Minister, asked exactly how these exceptions are defined. They are defined quite closely. Some 82% of people found in a double possession will find their way towards a sentence. Who are the 18% who are not getting sentences? The guidelines stipulate very clearly what the mitigating factors are and lay them out. In extreme cases, it could be somebody with learning difficulties, mental health problems or a serious medical problem, or it could be somebody who has co-operated with the police—all these things are mitigating factors that might lead to someone not receiving such a sentence.

Lord Coaker Portrait Vernon Coaker
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The Minister talks about 82% of people being given a sentence by the court. Does he mean suspended sentences as well as custodial sentences?

Rory Stewart Portrait Rory Stewart
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I am including suspended sentences as well as immediate custodial sentences. In the case of a suspended sentence, if somebody breaks their licence conditions, they will be recalled to court for the remainder of their custodial sentence.

Lord Austin of Dudley Portrait Ian Austin
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What proportion of the 82% get suspended sentences, and what proportion receive immediate custodial sentences?

Rory Stewart Portrait Rory Stewart
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Out of that 82%, approximately 22% of the cohort do not receive a full custodial sentence. All that goes to the core of what the mitigating and aggravating factors in the judge’s hands are. As the hon. Member for Gedling pointed out, this is absolutely standard in any legislation that we bring forward—we leave some discretion for the judges.

One of the questions at the core of this issue has been raised again and again by the hon. Members for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) and for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova): deterrence. In order to be practical, we need to focus on the fact that the main thing that the evidence suggests makes a difference to somebody who is considering committing a crime is their chance of being caught. Their receiving a six-month, nine-month or 12-month sentence, or even a five-year sentence, is much less likely to motivate their behaviour than the chance of being caught. In burglary, for example, it is almost certainly the very low rate of conviction, rather than the length of sentence, which has made the difference. If someone feels that they have a 3% chance of being caught, it does not really matter how long the sentence is, which is why most of our focus is now going into putting another £100 million behind the police to focus on knife crime, rather than on increasing this form of sentence length.

There is another reason that we have to be cautious in response to the suggestions for a 25-year sentence for using a knife and a 10-year sentence for possessing a knife: any sentencing needs to balance with other forms of sentencing, otherwise victims and their families will feel that justice has not been done. What do I mean by that? If someone gets a 25-year sentence for using a knife in any way—cutting somebody with a knife—while the minimum custodial sentence for murder is 15 years, it would be very understandable that a family would look at somebody getting 15 years for murder and wonder why somebody else was getting 25 years for using a knife. The same would be true if someone got 25 years for using a knife and another person got 25 years for killing somebody with a knife; the family would understandably ask, “How come this person is getting 25 years for using a knife to wound, when here is another person getting 25 years for committing murder with a knife?”

It is a fundamental principle of our law that we look at the consequence of the crime and the culpability of the criminal; we do not look at the weapon used. We do not determine whether somebody used a crossbow, a gun or a knife; we look at whether it was murder or grievous bodily harm. What form of offence was committed? That is really important, because if we start introducing offences based purely on the type of weapon that is used, we will end up with injustice being felt all the way through our legal system. That does not mean that we cannot look at sentencing, but this particular proposal does not make sense.

Let me address the proposed 10-year sentence for possessing a knife. Currently the minimum sentence for possessing a firearm is five years. The public would feel a deep injustice if someone were to get 10 years for a knife and another person got five years for a firearm—it simply does not make sense. In thinking about sentencing, we cannot think about just one type of offence; we have to think about the effect on the whole system.

I shall move on quickly, because I am aware that we have trespassed on your patience for a very long time, Mr Davies. I want to discuss early intervention and prevention, supporting communities, and effective law enforcement, which are the three central planks of any response to knife crime. On early intervention and prevention, the hon. Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and for Croydon Central made very eloquent interventions and speeches. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for—given Scotland’s extraordinary success in this area—a very modest and charming speech. I thought it was a very intelligent speech, which demonstrated that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution and that we can learn from Scotland without replicating their approach. I pay tribute to what Scotland has done and the spirit with which the hon. Gentleman approached this debate.

Clearly we have to look at risk factors. The key risk factor in an individual involved in knife crime is the individual themselves. As the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has pointed out, that could mean an acquired brain injury, or neglect, or abuse in the home. The second factor is the family context, which is central. In a recent study, 47% of people who had committed homicide had been in care—almost half of them. The third factor is the community context in which people operate. Living in a deprived neighbourhood makes someone much more likely to commit knife crime.

Another important factor is the school that someone attends. Serious risk factors include an individual being caught up in bullying at school or playing truant, and we need to do more to work with schools. Schools are quite good at picking up on children who are victims of domestic abuse, but are they good enough at identifying people who are being sucked into knife crime? Should we be working with Ofsted to try to assess schools on how good they are at identifying people who are being sucked into knife crime?

Someone’s peer group—the people with whom they spend their time—is the fifth biggest risk factor in determining whether they get sucked into knife crime. We can respond; this is not just touchy-feely nonsense. We can prove that a targeted approach, not a universal approach, is most effective. It is about being really smart with public money. The answer is not to lecture every child in the country on knife crime, but to ensure that we target those who are most at risk with the most serious support. The likelihood of a child going on to commit a violent offence can be reduced by 25% by bringing in a therapist with a case load of five or six children and ensuring that the therapist spends time with the family once a week. That one thing makes a huge difference. As we begin to build up these different things, we can begin to address some of the underlying causes of knife crime.

The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East spoke eloquently about supporting communities. We need a multi-agency public protection arrangement-style approach, which is something that, again, the hon. Member for Gedling referred to. We need to think about comms and how we get a proper media approach. We need to think about how that could be a digital media approach. How do we communicate to people the dangers of knife crime? We need to think about what we do with retailers who sell knives, which involves bringing in trading standards. If we are going to wrap up different bits of Government, we need trading standards to get under-18-year-olds to try to buy knives online. We need under-18-year-olds to go into shops—even small retailers—to try to buy knives and then report back to the retailer if somebody on the shop floor has sold a knife to someone who is under age.

We need to think about victim support, as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) said. The answer to her specific question is that anybody who witnessed the attack is entitled to victim support. They do not need to be related to the victim. I am very pleased that she champions that issue.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West
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Does the Minister agree that victim support is inconsistent? It is very good in some places but not so good in others. What measures are the Government putting in place to monitor where it is not good, and what are they doing about it?

Rory Stewart Portrait Rory Stewart
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The answer is that we have just published a victims strategy, and we are investing more in victim support—more than £90 million a year—as part of a broader spectrum of support. We now have £200 million going into a youth endowment fund, which is directly driven by the strategy and responds to the public health approach pioneered in Scotland. We have another £22 million going into an early intervention fund to respond to the stuff that we have been talking about in relation to schools and families.

That brings me to effective law enforcement, where my hon. Friend the Member for Romford is pushing us. He makes a very interesting point about the way in which community policing does or does not overlap with ward boundaries. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) also spoke in some detail about community policing. We need to balance that with very specific stuff on knife crime, which means ensuring that there are plain clothes officers in hot spot areas. Hot spot areas are central. In Peterborough, we discovered that taking a hot spot approach, getting the right data and finding where the problems are coming from reduced violence by 37% without displacing it to any other area, so hot spot policing is central.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones
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The Minister is making a very thoughtful speech. Although we do not agree on everything, he is talking a lot of sense. A piece of work on that has just been done in Croydon. There are 10 areas in Croydon where most violence outside occurs. It is in the places we would expect, such as outside the supermarkets. He is absolutely right that targeting them with effective policing would be an incredibly sensible way to spend public money.

Rory Stewart Portrait Rory Stewart
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The answer to everyone in the Chamber who spoke about law enforcement is that community policing plays a part. There is a 10 am meeting of the violent crime taskforce every day in Lambeth, where it gets the intelligence from the previous 12 hours about where people have gathered and where the weapons are moving. It then targets its intervention for the day. It has its own team of uniformed officers who back up the plain clothes officers on the ground. They go in and do weapons sweeps and community weapons sweeps. They use section 1 orders to go after individuals and section 60 orders to go after geographical areas. They go after habitual knife carriers. They conduct searches with search warrants, based on drug suspicion in houses. By doing that, and through Operation Sceptre, through which we have 42 police forces across the country doing this at the same time for week-long periods, we are able to hoover up astonishing quantities of knives.

The community part is the real key to that, because it is the local community leader, the head of the local boxing club or somebody who wants to speak for the community who is out there doing the community sweep, finding the knives concealed in hedges and cars. That is far more effective than police officers just doing it on their own.

Julia Lopez Portrait Julia Lopez
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I am curious to know, in the light of those kinds of activities in boroughs such as Lambeth, whether the Minister has seen any displacement activity. Does he see people move into neighbouring boroughs, or does it have a real impact on knife crime over a much wider area?

Rory Stewart Portrait Rory Stewart
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Strangely, the experience is that there has not been displacement activity. We have looked at that very carefully, and it seems that, by targeting those areas, we grab it and do not push it on to neighbouring areas. There are different theories about that. One is that some of this is gang-related, and some gangs are geographically limited, so it is not likely to be displaced into other areas.

At the core of all this is crack cocaine and crack cocaine gangs, although the innocent victims have nothing to do with crack cocaine. Although drug use in general is coming down, crack cocaine use is going up. It went up 18% between 2016-17 and 2017-18. County lines, which are an incredibly important part of this, are also contributing. The same gangs are involved in both. That means that we have to get on top of mobile phones. We have had to bring in new ways of intercepting mobiles, which are central to the way that county lines gangs operate. We have set up a new National Crime Agency taskforce to focus on county lines, and we have had to be much smarter about data. In partial response to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), who made a very good speech about that, one of the things we are learning is that our data has not been good enough. For example, we have not been coding knife crimes properly. Setting up smart software that allows us to pick out as knife crime something that was simply registered as grievous bodily harm makes a huge difference to our ability to target hotspot areas.

All the stuff that I have been talking about so far is about preventing somebody from being dragged into these gangs from early childhood onward. Then it is about the violent crime taskforce moving into an area to make sure that if somebody picks up a knife, we get them as soon as possible, particularly on possession. Then—God forbid—if somebody is convicted or uses a knife, we move on to the question of what happens in the courts, prisons and probation. There, too, we have to look at all these other issues. We have to take on board the fact that the real protection for the public is ensuring that the person who has offended once does not reoffend.

Statistically, we are doing a bit better on knife crime than on other crimes. Generally, short-term offenders reoffend at a rate of nearly 60%. Knife crime offenders reoffend at about half that rate. Half that rate is still too high, so we need to address addiction issues, get them jobs and help them into accommodation.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West
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I thank the Minister for giving way a second time. Does he agree that the current approach to drug rehabilitation services in prison is not robust enough? Not enough people have access to those crucial treatments and are cured of drug and alcohol issues.

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Rory Stewart Portrait Rory Stewart
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Yes, that is absolutely right. We should do much, much more on addiction. Shoplifting is a big problem. We have a lot of shoplifting, and the majority of people get short sentences of less than six months. The highest single offence is shoplifting by a very large margin. Of those offenders, 76% are crack cocaine or heroin addicts. The real way of dealing with the problem is to deal with their crack cocaine or heroin addiction.

Lord Coaker Portrait Vernon Coaker
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The Minister has given a very thoughtful, measured and informed response, and people listening to it will say, “That’s great. How will the Government and Parliament make that happen?” As part of that, will he tell the House that he will go back, wake up the people who need waking up and introduce regular statements to Parliament, every single week at least, about what is happening, what progress is being made and what is or is not being done? It should be a regular statement to Parliament, not a response to an urgent question.

Rory Stewart Portrait Rory Stewart
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I have enormous admiration for the hon. Gentleman, and I would be very proud to have him as part of our team dealing with this. I am sure he would deal with it very well. I am not in the business of committing colleagues in the Home Office to making statements, but I assure him that we take this very seriously. I have not spoken enough to the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), but we are putting another £100 million into policing, particularly driven by violent crime and knife crime, in addition to our investment in the youth endowment fund.

Action is not just what happens in Parliament. It is not just about the inter-ministerial group that has been set up and the meeting that the Prime Minister is holding next week. It is about setting up the violent crime taskforce and that 10 am meeting every morning in Lambeth, and about ensuring the money and resources begin to flow in behind this. I believe that this will make a significant difference, but I absolutely agree to sit down with the hon. Member for Gedling. The only way of doing this or anything in Government is with urgency, grip, imagination and passion. Above all, it should be rooted in realism. I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool very much indeed for this incredibly informative debate.