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Conservative Members feel strongly about new clause 2 and I hope to test the opinion of the House on it. New clause 7, which the Liberal Democrats tabled, is roughly along the same lines. I hope also to speak briefly about amendments Nos. 20 and 21.
As was said in an earlier debate, knife crime has rocketed in the past eight years. Recent reports show that knife crime in England and Wales has leaped by as much as 90 per cent. in two years in some areas. Figures that were released not long ago under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 show a total of nearly 25,000 knife crimes last year logged by the 30 police forces that supplied figures. The highest rise in knife crime was recorded by Nottinghamshire police. In Nottinghamshire, offences involving blades increased from 338 in 2002 to 650 last yeara rise of 92 per cent. The number of muggings that involve knives has shot up. That worries us all, including the police. The assistant chief constable of Devon and Cornwall, Tony Melville, who is the Association of Chief Police Officers' spokesman on knife crime, stated:
I have some experience of our courts sitting judicially. The offence of carrying a bladed article, which is contrary to section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, is not only prevalent but increasing. It is a terrifying experience for a complainant or victim to witness somebody in the street taking out a knife. Far too many people carry knives for offensive purposes. Doctors report a marked increase in the number of patients who
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arrive at accident and emergency with stab wounds. Such crime is not only on the increase but deadly serious and must be stamped out.
I have listened to witnesses who gave evidence in criminal trials and recounted with terror how they felt when someone in the street drew a knife. They suffered nightmares for months afterwards. The amount of knife crime has undoubtedly increasedthere is a culture of the blade. Many young people believe it is brave to carry a knife. In truth, it is cowardly. However, the number of prosecutions against people for carrying knives and the level of detection remain abysmally low. The courts do not pass sufficiently stiff sentences. They seem sometimes to have forgotten the importance of deterrence.
I strongly commend new clause 2 to the House because it would send a signal to the knife-carrying fraternity that we want to see them severely punished. Under section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, it is an offence to carry a bladed article in a public place. There are certain defences, including having a reasonable excuse or lawful authority, but that is the basic offence. It applies to knives with a blade of 3 in or longer. Earlier today, the prevalence of knife-carrying in schools was mentioned, but it is happening not only in schools but out on the streets. I suggest that the police, if asked their opinion, would say that knife-carrying is one of the fastest-growing offences at the moment. It is therefore essential to give the courts the facility to sentence people on indictment to more than two years in prison for this quite dreadful offence.
Some statistics might be of interest to the House. Charges relating to bladed articles have run at between roughly 4,500 and 6,500 a year over the past five years. In 1999, about 4,500 people were proceeded against for carrying a bladed article, of whom about 3,500 were found guilty. In 2003, about 6,800 were proceeded against, of whom 5,311 were found guilty. One might have thought that more people would go to prison for such a serious offence. Being confronted at any time, but particularly at night, by someone carrying a blade in the street is the most terrifying experience.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Will my hon. Friend confirm that the wording of his new clause provides for an increase only in the maximum sentence for such offences, and not the minimum? The courts would therefore still have full discretion to impose a lesser sentence if they felt that the circumstances of the case warranted that.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The new clause would simply give a different maximum sentence, not a different minimum. By giving the courts that power, the Minister would permit them to retain the flexibility that they sometimes need. It would not at any stage prevent a court from imposing the sentence that it thought fit, be it considerably less than five years or even less than the current maximum of two years. As my right hon. Friend says, however, it would permit the heavier sentence of five years to be passed in the worst cases. Critically, it would also send a signal to the
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knife-carrying fraternity that we will not put up with them and that Parliament is beginning to take notice of this increase in crime.
As I said, 5,311 persons were found guilty of the offence of carrying a knife in a public place in 2003. How many of them were actually placed in custody? We might think that 50, 60 or 70 per cent. ought to have been placed in custodythese figures include repeat offendersbut the truth is that only 755, out of well over 5,000, faced a custodial sentence. That means that the people who carry knives on our streets understand that their chances of being caught are very slim, that detection rates are dropping, that they are unlikely to be prosecuted and that their chances of receiving a custodial sentence on conviction are only about one in seven. Times have never been better for the knife carrier, and it is high time that Parliament sent a message to the knife carrier that times are going to get worse.
It is clear that knife crime has increased dramatically in the past few years, but I shall not go further into the figures. I shall simply repeat the fact that it is a terrifying crime. I cannot see any reason for the Government to object to new clause 2, which simply says that the maximum penalty for carrying a bladed article should be increased from two to five years. Such a sentence would not have to be imposed in every case. The advantage of such a measure is that it would send a signal to the courts that Parliament takes knife-carrying very seriously. It would send a signal to the people who carry knives that the maximum sentence that they could face had been increased from two years to five. It would also send a signal to the victims of knife crime that we take their side and want the courts to be much more robust in dealing with those who carry knives.
I have no criticism of the Government for introducing this measure; indeed, I would go further and say that it is much to be valued as a tool in our armoury against people who are part of the knife culture. The amendments are designed to tease out from the Minister whether bladed articles are included in the description "dangerous weapon" in clause 24.
It is not entirely clear to me that section 141A actually applies to a bladed article, although such an offence is covered in section 139 of the Act. Will the Minister explain whether minding a weaponwhich, under clause 25, carries a sentence of up to four yearsincludes minding a bladed article? For example, if it is an offence to mind or look after a knuckle-duster, a sword or some other weapon that is undoubtedly an offensive weapon per se, and the offender is liable to up to four years in prison, I can understand and readily accept that. However, the purpose of my two probing amendments is to determine whether a bladed article is covered by the description "dangerous weapon". If it is, we shall find ourselves in a slightly odd situation.
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The maximum penalty for carrying a bladed article in public is at present two years in prison, but if I were to ask someone to look after that bladed article off the street, it would be an even more serious offence, carrying a four-year prison sentence. That would be slightly odd. Frankly, it is more serious for me to carry a bladed article in the street than to ask a friend to look after it in case I wanted to carry it in the street next week. The friend would thereby keep it off the street. It is strange, if I am right, that I am liable to four years for the second of those activitiesasking my friend to look after itbut liable to only two years if, in effect, I am carrying it on the street.
If bladed articles are included, can the Minister cover what appears to be an odd situation in terms of sentencing powers? If they are not included among dangerous weapons, can she tell us whether it is an offence if I ask somebody to look after a bladed instrument on the basis that I might shortly need to take it out on the street for offensive purposes? If that is not an offence, why not? The culture of the knife is on the up and it is vital that Parliament recognises that and sends a signal to the criminal fraternity, the world at large, the judiciary and victims of knife crime that we recognise how terrible it is and propose to give the courts a higher sentencing option in relation to the dreadful offence of carrying a bladed article in a public place. I can see no arguments from the Minister that can possibly resist my proposition in the new clause.
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