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Lynne Featherstone: I want to speak to new clause 7, which is not dissimilar to new clause 2, except that our provision exceeds that of the Conservatives by two years. I agree with everything that the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) said, because having a bladed article in a public place is punished with two years' imprisonment whereas carrying a firearm is an offence punishable by up to seven years' imprisonment.

Whether one is murdered by a knife or gun, the result is precisely the same—one is dead. That exactitude of outcome needs to be reflected by an exactitude of punishment, and perhaps more so in the case of knives as the incidence of knife purchase, carrying and use has soared in recent years, as has been said. That needs to be tackled. In response to an oral question from my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), the Home Secretary said that he would examine bringing gun and knife crimes more into line. The Bill provides the ideal opportunity for the Government to address that differential.

I acknowledge that this part of the Bill presents a difficulty, and I appreciate what the Government are trying to achieve in relation to the reduction of knife crime. I fear, however, that one of their measures—raising the age at which one can purchase a knife to 18—might bring the law into disrepute, as it is difficult to imagine how it could be prosecuted. Under the Bill, all knives, however commonly available, would be subject to the offence if purchased under-age. The enforceability and effectiveness of the provision must therefore be questioned. It is ridiculous that people can get married and have children at 16 but not buy their cutlery. Someone under 18 might also legitimately ask a third party to purchase a knife for them, and no satisfactory answer has been given as to the culpability of the third party if a knife so circuitously purchased were used to kill.
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A gun has limited use, but knives do not, so we believe that it would be better to strengthen the law in other areas and to propose restrictions on carrying in a public place and restrictions on what type of knife might fall under the provision. In relation to increasing the sentence for carrying knives in a public place to parity with that for guns, we believe that we are better able to tackle irresponsible and criminal use of knives and the mischief that the Government seek to address if we still allow the purchase of knives where that is done responsibly and for a harmless purpose.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I strongly support my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) in raising this important point. Many of us have seen a growing incidence of knife-based crime in our communities, which is alarming. I am pleased that he is campaigning on the issue and is trying to get the Government to take suitable action to deal with it. I am also pleased that the Government are legislating and I hope that the Minister will explain, if she does not welcome my hon. Friend's initiative, what else could be done to reassure people that knife crime can be brought under control.

6.15 pm

I also hope that the Minister and the Government can reassure us that there is no intention to obstruct the defence to alleged crimes of carrying a knife in a public place that someone has just been to the shop to buy new kitchen knives and is transporting them home, has taken a broken or damaged knife to a repair shop and is taking it home, or is getting a knife sharpened. Of course, it must be a legitimate defence that someone is carrying a dangerous-looking knife in the course of their trade—when people come to fit carpets or other floor coverings they often carry really frightening-looking knives, but they seem effective at doing their job, and such people would not be using them for criminal purposes. Although there is nothing about that in the Bill or in my hon. Friend's new clause, I hope that the Minister will reassure us that that is implied and will carry forward from previous legislation. Some mistaken comments have been made, which are unfortunate. We want a world in which law-abiding citizens, if they need a knife for the purpose of their trade or wish to take new knives back to their home, should be free to do so.

A stronger signal should be sent out, however, that the rising tide of knife crime is unacceptable and that if people are caught in public places with knives around their person for no good reason, very strong action will be taken. Although a person carrying a knife might not go out with a criminal intent, if they get involved in an argument or come under the influence of drink all sorts of dreadful things might happen that could not happen if that person has been persuaded not to carry the knife in the first place.

Hazel Blears: I thank Members for welcoming the Government's legislation on these issues. We are all concerned about the rise in people carrying knives and, in some cases, being prepared to use them. We therefore need strong legislation.

I am afraid that I cannot agree, however, that the maximum penalty for the offence of possession—two years—is inadequate. To set that in context, there is a
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different though related offence—possession of an offensive weapon, under the Prevention of Crime Act 1953—which has a maximum penalty of four years. Which offence people will be charged with, and which offence is fulfilled, is a matter of circumstances. It is sometimes said that the second offence of possession of an offensive weapon is hardly ever prosecuted. I am happy to reassure Members that figures for 2004 showed that around 5,800 people were convicted of the more serious offence, which has a maximum penalty of four years, which is broadly the same number as were charged with the lesser offence of possession of a knife or bladed weapon. It is not a little-used offence, which is why the prosecuting authorities and police consider carefully which category defendants ought to fall into.

An "offensive weapon" means any article made or adapted for use for causing injury to the person, or intended by the person having it with him for such use by him or some other person. Clearly, therefore, the nature of the weapon, and the intention of the person carrying it, are an issue. There are certain key factors that put the offender into one category rather than the other. The first is the weapon itself—there is a whole schedule of different weapons that cannot be perceived as having any innocent use, such as butterfly knives, disguised knives and sword sticks, which are offensive weapons per se. If one is caught with those, one is automatically subject to the offence that carries the higher maximum penalty of four years. An offender can be charged with that more serious offence if he is in possession of, say, a kitchen knife, but threatens others with it—as was mentioned, if he draws it in the night, frightens people with it, or it is shown that he planned to use it. Someone who draws what would otherwise be an innocuous item in a threatening way, with intention to use it, may be judged to have committed the more serious offence, which carries a maximum of four years' imprisonment. The two-year maximum relates to the simple act of being in possession of a knife that is capable of being used non-violently in a public place. As the hon. Member for Woking says, we want to ensure that decent law-abiding citizens can still buy knives that could be used entirely legitimately without falling foul of the law. There is already a defence of having a knife with good reason or lawful authority.

I think we agree that maximum penalties should generally be proportionate, the aim being to indicate the relative seriousness of the crime. New clause 2 would raise the maximum sentence to five years, while the Liberal Democrats' new clause 7 would raise it to seven. I do not think that we are in the business of having a Dutch auction, but a comparator might be the offence of causing actual bodily harm, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Injury caused by that offence can be minor, but it is nevertheless real injury. Someone who simply possesses a knife without any intention of using it or threatening anyone with it could be subject to a higher maximum prison sentence than someone who had actually caused physical injury. That is why we believe that a two-year sentence is adequate for the former offence. Of course those who use knives are subject to penalties for offences ranging from actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm and wounding with
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intent to much more serious offences, such as murder. Obviously severe penalties are available for those who use their knives.

The Sentencing Guidelines Council and the sentencing advisory panel are consulting on the "seriousness" test, in the context of a weapon's use as an aggravating factor. We entirely agree that higher sentences should be imposed on those who use knives in violent crime, but we think that that should be done through the Sentencing Guidelines Council. I hope that neither the hon. Member for Woking nor the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) will press their new clauses.

Government amendment No. 45 merely corrects an error in the drafting of clause 24. We want to make it clear that the definition of "dangerous weapon" does not include air weapons or components thereof.

Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 are a little more complex. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Woking for welcoming some of our proposals, and I hope that I can now be equally generous to him. The amendments concern the definition of "dangerous weapon" in clause 24. In its present form, the clause applies to

Amendment No. 20 would alter the second part of the definition to include section 139 of the 1988 Act, which contains a wider definition than the one in section 141A. It includes articles with a blade or point per se—not necessarily a knife or a bladed weapon. Compasses have been used as an example in the past. Section 141A includes such articles only if they were made or adapted to cause injury to a person.

A screwdriver, for instance, might have been specially sharpened for use as a weapon. It would fall within the section 141A definition of a knife or bladed weapon, because it would have been turned into a weapon. It would not, however, be covered by the wider definition sought by the hon. Gentleman, which would include objects that had not been made or adapted to cause injury.

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