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House of Commons

Monday 23 May 2005

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Members Sworn

The following Members took and subscribed the Oath, or made and subscribed the Affirmation required by Law:

Robert John Blizzard, for Waveney

Right honourable Peter Bruce Lilley, Hitchen and Harpenden

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Knife Crime

1. Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): What plans he has to tackle knife crime. [1]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Clarke): The Government published proposals in December 2004 in the light of which we propose to introduce legislation, announced in the Gracious Speech, to raise the minimum age at which a young person can buy knives from 16 to 18; to provide for a power for head teachers and other members of staff to search pupils for knives, and a range of other measures.

Mr. Brown: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I am sure that he, like every other hon. Member, saw during the election campaign the recognition that crime rates are falling. However, there is serious concern in our communities about violent crime, especially the use of knives, which is deeply worrying. Will my right hon. Friend reassure all communities in this country that he is determined to eliminate knife crime, which impacts so savagely on not only the victims but their families and neighbourhoods?

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is right. The possession of knives by young people is one of the matters of greatest concern. That is why the measure will introduce the power for head teachers in relation to schools. We are determined to eliminate the abuse of knives and we believe that our proposed legislation will help to do that. I hope that other parties in the House will support us in trying to achieve those aims.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): Does the Home Secretary have plans to hold any sort of
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amnesty for handing in knives? That has proved successful in other countries. Could the Metropolitan Police Commissioner in particular be encouraged to hold such an amnesty?

Mr. Clarke: That is often positive. The London borough of Enfield, which comes under the command of the Metropolitan police, has recently held such an amnesty, which was extremely successful. I visited the area and talked to the police officers and others involved. There is a case for it, but it needs to be introduced at the right time and led by the police in relation to the measure that I described.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): The Home Secretary knows that the current sentence for carrying a gun in public is seven years, but the maximum sentence for doing the same with a knife is only two years. Given that both are weapons and can kill, will the Home Secretary consider increasing the maximum sentence for carrying a knife as part of his proposals?

Mr. Clarke: I will be pleased to consider proposals to that effect when we debate the Bill that was mentioned in the Gracious Speech and examine specific measures. A knife is not the same as a gun, but the hon. Gentleman is entirely correct to say that we need to compare the two and ascertain whether they should be brought more in line.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Samurai swords are an especially nasty and vicious type of knife, which has unfortunately been used from time to time to commit ghastly crimes. Will the Home Secretary examine how the proposed knife legislation will apply to samurai swords? Is he considering any further restriction on the sale of such awful weapons or of people's ability to possess them?

Mr. Clarke: It is already an offence to market a knife in a way that indicates that it is suitable for combat or is otherwise likely to stimulate violent behaviour. The police also have powers to stop and search for knives and other offensive weapons in certain circumstances. The kind of weapon that my hon. Friend describes is obviously covered by that kind of definition, but we are certainly ready to look at other measures that could help to deal with such offences.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Should not the Home Secretary reflect on the fact that there is already a whole body of legislation on the statute book that deals with the carrying and purchasing of knives? Will he not also bear in mind that every house already has an arsenal of knives, particularly in the kitchen, to which people have recourse? Surely he would do much better to focus on enforcement than on new legislation.

Mr. Clarke: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right about the need to focus on enforcement, but his question illustrates a fundamental divide in the Conservative party—[Interruption.] This is a very important point. He has argued consistently, with honour and integrity, against further legislation in areas such as this, saying that such legislation represents an
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infringement of civil liberties. We, however, argue that there are certain types of freedom that need to be constrained for the greater freedom of everyone else in society. Some Conservative Members also accept that. There is a big division among the Conservatives on these issues, and I look forward to hearing what the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) has to say on the matter.

Police Officers (Pay and Conditions)

2. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): If he will take into account regional variations in the cost of living when considering national terms of pay and conditions for police officers. [2]

The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality (Mr. Tony McNulty): The terms and conditions of service of police officers recognise variations in the cost of living through a system of regional allowances. We intend to discuss pay with the police negotiating board later this year, and we will give consideration to any proposals for adjusting the present arrangements.

Tony Baldry: Is the Minister aware that the Thames Valley police recruit about 350 new officers each year? Each year, however, in addition to those that it loses through retirement, it is haemorrhaging an average of 112 officers to other forces, mainly the Met, where they can earn up to £6,000 a year more and even get free travel from the Thames valley area up to the Met district. The cost of living in many parts of the Thames valley is considerably higher than in many parts of the Metropolitan police area. Please will the Minister work out a way in which police officers in the Thames valley can get fair pay and a fair cost of living allowance, in recognition of the very high cost of living there? Otherwise, we shall simply continue to haemorrhage experienced officers.

Mr. McNulty: In answer to the hon. Gentleman's first point, we are more than aware that Thames Valley police is now recruiting record levels of police, as are most forces in the country under this Government. That is a point of real celebration. I take his point, however, that the situation has changed. Up to a few years ago, there was significant leakage, particularly to the Met, but that is changing following the introduction of the special protected payments and other retention methods, and the levels of leakage are now at their lowest for some time. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree, however, that we need to keep a watch on the situation all the time.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Does the Minister recall the flight of officers from Essex to the Metropolitan police, particularly in the late 1990s, because of the large discrepancy between the allowances in the two areas? Although there has been some improvement since then, does the Minister have any proposals to increase the allowances for the Essex police so that the gap between the two forces can be minimised?
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Mr. McNulty: It is interesting that we have only got to Question 2, yet the hon. Gentleman is already seeking higher levels of public expenditure than those proposed by his party during the election—

Mr. Burns: Answer the question.

Mr. McNulty: The answer to the question is simply that, in the first instance, it is a matter for the negotiating body to deal with these matters. I take the hon. Gentleman's point as seriously as I took that raised by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). The balance between the pay and conditions, and the recruitment and retention, in the home counties forces around London and in the Met are kept under constant review. That applies to the Essex force as well as to others.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Why do we not ensure that, when the Metropolitan police recruits officers who have been trained in the counties around Greater London, it pays a premium to the constabularies in those counties? After all, those constabularies have trained those officers. It could be done on a sliding scale, but there ought to be some penalty or cost to the Metropolitan police when it recruits people whose training has been paid for to some extent by the council tax payers in the counties around Greater London.

Mr. McNulty: If such a serious suggestion were put to the negotiating body, it would be taken very seriously. However, I am not entirely sure whether it would be appropriate to establish an internal market or a sort of football transfer scheme between our forces. Nor am I sure that the flow is simply one way. There are a number of Metropolitan police officers, trained by the Met and paid for by London council tax payers, who spend much of their career outside London.

Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Why is the Minister being so complacent about retention in the Thames Valley force? Does he not understand that there are huge numbers of police officers moving to the Met for precisely the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) outlined? When is the Minister going to do something about it? The Government have had plenty of time to do so.

Mr. McNulty: I simply say to the right hon. Gentleman that he needs to listen. We recognise that this is a serious matter, but Thames Valley police currently has a record strength of 4,160 officers. There is still sleakage out to the Met—[Interruption.] I cannot blame anyone else for that—it is not in the brief, but entirely my gobbledegook, for which I apologise. That leakage is nothing like it was two or three years ago. Members should not charge us with complacency when the matter is being dealt with, and should not paint such a picture barely a week into the new Parliament. As I have said to the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues, we keep matters constantly under review. Let us be clear: the Thames Valley force has record numbers of police, and as a Thames Valley MP he should congratulate us on that.
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