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Does my right hon. Friend agree that the perception that knife crime is a serious problem drives many young people to carry weapons where they might not otherwise do so? Although screening, stop and search and deterrent sentencing have an important role to play, prevention must lie at the heart of the response. In my constituency, which incidentally includes St. Georges school where Philip Lawrence was tragically murdered 10 years ago, we are currently seeking charitable funding for a major project that will
work with schools and youth clubs to get to the root causes of why so many young people seek to carry weapons as a result of fear and as a way of resolving conflicts. Will he urgently work with the DFES to see whether ways can found to ensure that projects are available in a range of constituencies to work with young people to make prevention a priority?
John Reid: Yes, I certainly will do that. It is important that, along with other measures, we educate young people out of the idea, which is no doubt fashionable and attractive, that if someone carries a blade or a knife it will somehow defend them from attack. In fact, in many cases it will provoke, and may even be used against them. Education is an important aspect, as are prevention and prohibition. We are also considering banning samurai swords and other weapons used in violent crime. Sanction is important as well, so I confirm to the House that in reviewing sentencing options, I am giving serious consideration to the suggestion that the maximum sentence for having a knife or a blade in a public place should be increased. We intend to make a decision on that before the Violent Crime Reduction Bill is debated on Report in the other place.
Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): Given that it is possible to receive a lengthier jail sentence for stealing a bicycle than for carrying a deadly weapon in the form of a knife, can the public really have confidence that the Governments priorities are right when it comes to tackling violent crime?
John Reid: I think that the hon. Gentleman would want to be as honest as possible on the length of sentence that one can get for possessing an offensive weapon, which in the case of a knife could be up to four years. However, there is an incongruity in that in other circumstances the sentence for having an article with a blade or a point would be limited to two years. I am considering that with a view to possibly extending it. Of course, someone who uses a knife in pursuit of another crime can receive up to a life sentencefor instance, in the case of murder with the use of a knife.
Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): When my right hon. Friend is reviewing sentencing policy, will he also consider the Governments approach to working with young people and acknowledge that the carrying of knives seems to be closely related to gang culture and the organisation of gangs among young people? For all the effort that we have put into working with young people, there is very little focused work by the police or other agencies to tackle and to break up gangs. Perhaps when the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), goes to the USA, he could look at some of its experience in tackling and busting gangs to see whether that can have any effect on the predominance of knife-carrying.
My right hon. Friend speaks with considerable experience, both ministerial and from his position as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. I certainly will consider that. I would not like people to think that we have done nothing in this direction. First,
in May 2004, we set up the Connected fund to provide grants for small community groups. It now supports more than 200 local groups working on gun crime, knife crime and gang-related issues. I accept that that was a start, but it was a substantial start.
Secondly, we have to deploy a range of measuresfor instance, the amnesty that we are carrying out at the moment. The previous amnesty brought in some 30,000 knives. As we announced last Friday, in the first week of the amnesty about 17,700 items were handed in to forces in England and Wales. I do not pretend that that deals with the whole problem, but it is another aspect of tackling it. People should understand that if they are found in possession of such weapons after the interlude during which they can be handed in, they will be tackled robustly.
Given what has been said in questions from both sides of the House, and given that the Home Secretary himself said that he is considering extending the penalty for carrying knives, why did his own Government oppose this exact proposal from the Opposition in November of last year?
John Reid: The hon. Gentleman is asking me the same question[Hon. Members: Right hon.] I beg his pardon. The right hon. Gentleman is asking me the same question, through a slightly different prism, that he asked a fortnight agothat is, how I could vote on something with the Government a few months ago. I think that he has served in government, and he will know that there was a different Secretary of State then. [Interruption.] Just as I, as Secretary of State for Defence, made different judgments from those that the current incumbent will make on some matters the nature of Cabinet Government is collective responsibilityso I have now reached a new position. I have considered what has been said and, rather than being completely focused on the process whereby we reach decisionswhich is a legitimate subjectI hope that the right hon. Gentleman will also be interested in their substance. I am prepared to consider extending the sentence in one of the examplesindeed, I will go further and invite him to discuss the matter with me. I hope that that process will not upset him unduly.
David Davis: I promise not to be upset when I discuss with the Home Secretary the sentencing options, which are currently before the Lords, of three, four or five years under the Tory agenda. I am sure that he will accept one of them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) made a powerful point about the length of time that the issue has been before the Government and, indeed, the previous Government. Three years have passed since the massive public outcry over the brutal stabbing of the schoolboy Luke WalmsleyI am sure that everyone remembers that. There was a great deal of tough talk from the Government then but little effective has happened since.
Since the Government have been in power, the number of knives in schools has doubled yet the
convictions for selling knives to minorsunder-16srun at an average rate of six a year. That is how seriously the issue has been taken. Let me therefore bring the Home Secretary to a practical point about knives, youngsters and schools. When will the Government ensure that all at-risk schools have the resources and facilities to screen all their pupils to ascertain that they are not carrying knives?
John Reid: First, I take it that the right hon. Gentlemans response was an acceptance of my invitation to discuss the matter. The public are more interested in that than point scoring about the process.
Secondly, I would not like the House to be misled inadvertently. As I said, with the exception of homicides, the recorded crime statistics do not separately identify all crimes that involve knives and sharp instruments. I therefore took the trouble to examine the incidence of the use of knives in homicides. The figures have stayed roughly the same for the past five or six yearsbetween 29 and 33 per cent. That is around 230 out of 820 homicides. I do not want to give a sensationalist portrayal of the use of knives. Nevertheless, there is great public concern about it and I believe that it should be a cross-party issue, which we ought to discuss with an open agenda to ascertain how we can deal with sentencing. I am more than willing to discuss any related issues, including schools, at the same time.
The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Mr. Tony McNulty): A series of alcohol misuse enforcement campaigns have targeted public violence and disorder caused by binge drinking since 2004. We believe that the success of those campaigns has contributed to reductions in more serious violent crime. For example, during the third campaign, police and local authority partners visited some 27,000 licensed premises, dealt with about 33,000 offences, made 25,000 arrests and issued approximately 8,000 fixed penalty notices for alcohol-related offences. In addition, it is important that the alcohol industry plays an important role in improving standards, especially with reference to binge drinking.
Barbara Keeley: Trends in recorded crime due to alcohol are higher in large cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and, to a lesser extent, Salford. We have happily experienced some improvements in Salfordindeed, 11 local authorities in the north-west have experienced a fall in recorded crime. However, does my hon. Friend agree that local authorities and the alcohol industry need to crack down on the matter, which is a genuine quality-of-life issue in our urban areas, to accelerate those improvements and try to make them more even throughout our regions?
I agree: it is only through such partnerships that these matters can be dealt with
successfully. This is as much about education and awareness in schools as it is about licensing regimes, the police, and the crime reduction strategies in each local authority. Partnership is the key to dealing with this issue.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Did the Minister notice the tone of censoriousness that crept into the answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), when she said that many children obtained alcohol from their parents? Does the Minister not agree that the best place for children to learn to use alcohol moderately and sensibly is in their family?
Mr. McNulty: Strangely or otherwise, I do agree, although not about the censorious nature of my hon. Friends response. The hon. Gentleman will know from a recent survey of drinking patterns that abuse of alcohol is more often than not started by parents giving drinks to their children at an unduly early age. However, he is right. As a starting premise, education and the awareness of a balanced use of alcohol must start at home with the family.
Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): I congratulate the Government on the steps that they are taking to tackle binge drinking, but much more education needs to be given to our young people about its effect on not only their health but their safety while they are out. What discussions has my hon. Friend had with the Department for Education and Skills? Experience suggests that, while our young people are given a great deal of education on the effects of illegal drugs, they do not always get very much on the effects of over-indulgence in alcohol.
Mr. McNulty: I agree, and the Home Office, the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Health and others are talking far more readily about all these matters in order to address the issues. Local government and the alcohol industry are also participating in the rounded partnership to which I referred in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley). Every aspect of the issues must be covered, as the way in which we deal with them is multi-faceted. I will ensure that the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) are passed on to the DFES and to the Department of Health, as well as to the Home Office.
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid):
I remain of the view that strategic mergers are the right way to improve protective police services. However, I am keen to continue the discussion and dialogue that we have begun with police forces and
police authorities on the best way to get to that destination. Accordingly, I do not propose to lay any orders for enforced police force mergers before the summer recess. I hope, however, that it will be possible to press ahead with laying the order for the voluntary merger of the Cumbria and Lancashire forces.
Mr. Goodwill: I thank the Home Secretary for that response, especially in relation to my own region. I understand his wish to kick this issue into the long grass; I hope that, in the case of Yorkshire and the Humber, it will be elephant grass. As a rule, the Government are keen to have a big conversation with the British people. Will the Home Secretary assure me that in the case of enforced police mergers regional referendums will be held before any such measures are imposed?
John Reid: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is complaining because I have listened and responded to the feelings of many people in the House and outside. Let me make it absolutely clear that I do not believe that the status quo is an option. The destination that has been outlined, particularly in the study carried out by Denis OConnor and others in Her Majestys inspectorate of constabulary, is the correct one. It will be better for the strategic-level protective forces and will supplement efforts to put more police on the streets in our neighbourhoods in a visible, accessible and responsive fashion. This will mean that, when a major crisis occurs, we will not have to pull them out to deal with it.
I accept, however, that people want to discuss in greater length and detail many of the questions arising from these proposals. I have therefore decidedalong with the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, whom I have asked to deal with this issuethat this merits further and slower consideration. I cannot promise a referendum but I can promise discussion, dialogue and listening throughout.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friends statement, which will be extremely popular in north Wales. Will he ensure that each merger that takes place in due course is tested rigorously against the criteria set down by Denis OConnor in the report? I believe that when that test is made in respect of Wales, the proposal originally made will be found wanting. Will there be close and rigorous analysis relating to the proposal for an all-Wales police force?
John Reid: Yes, that is one area where discussion will take place. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety has already opened discussions and has conducted the beginnings of a public debate in Wales.
I repeat that the strategic direction and the ultimate destinationwhere we are goingare correct and will be illustrated in most cases to be correct, but I am responding to the will of the House, the police authorities and many outside the House to conduct matters in a way that meets the anxieties not only of members of the police service but of local people who
want to ensure a degree of local accountability, neighbourhood policing and police on the streets, as well as a sense of their still owning their own police services locally. Those are perfectly legitimate aims and are therefore a perfect arena for further discussion.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I thank the Home Secretary for his thoughtful answer and for listening. Will he perhaps bring before the House, before we rise in July, a realistic, measured timetable that allows for proper, full consultation throughout the country? This is the biggest change to the police force, certainly for 50 years, and arguably for a century or more. May we please take proper time and do it methodically?
I have already made it plain that there is no need for anyone to panic over time, because I will not lay orders on enforced change. Where there is voluntary agreement and willingness to go aheadI hope that that is the case in at least one examplewe will lay an order, but the timetable and details will be part of our discussions with people such as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack).
Frank Cook (Stockton, North) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend knows of the statements that the Prime Minister has made in the Chamber on these issuesthat adequate time be provided, that the opinions of the communities involved be taken into full account and that all options will be considered, including the co-ordinated co-operation of neighbouring police forces.
John Reid: Of course, all those items will be aspects of the discussions, but I do not want to mislead my hon. Friend into thinking that I start with a blank slate. I am persuaded that the status quo is not an option and that the experience brought to the study by people with many years of operational experienceDenis OConnor and Ronnie Flanagan are but two of themis sufficient, along with the coherence of their argument, to convince me that the destination that we want to end up at, which was identified by my predecessor as Secretary of State, is the right one.
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