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5.30 pm

In a parliamentary question in June this year, I asked the Secretary of State how many people had been found guilty of wounding someone with a knife in each of the past five years and how many had received a prison sentence. I received the answer:

That answer was about the offence of actually using a knife, whereas we are discussing what will happen to those convicted of carrying a knife, but I argue that we need to understand and measure the effect of the new measures. I ask the Minister to ensure that we are able to track accurately who gets a prison sentence and what other punishments are meted out to those found guilty of carrying a bladed weapon in public, so that we can judge what difference the Bill makes to re-offending rates by individuals and the general incidence of the wider offence.

The increased length of sentence gives the offence of carrying a knife in a public place a more appropriate weight. We need to be concerned, above all, with the victims of knife crime and their families. Whenthe media move on, the families are left to deal with the aftermath of the death—often of a young person. I hope that the lengthening of sentences for the offence will send a clear message about how seriously we take the issue and will have some effect on the prevalence of carrying.

The longer sentence for the offence of carrying a knife is welcome in my constituency and others, but what will ultimately protect the public most is a reduction in the number of those carrying knives. The Minister referred to a wider package of measures, which I welcome, in the Labour manifesto that were aimed at reducing knife crime. I encourage the Government to pursue the wider agenda vigorously.

Every new tragedy brings a spate of concern and coverage, but it is clear that young people carry knives for three reasons. First, they are afraid that if they do not carry a knife they will be vulnerable to other young people who do so, especially when out of their territory. Secondly, some young people who carry knives have few life chances, but they feel that if they carry a knife at least they will not be “dissed”. Thirdly, and ludicrously, knives are fashion accessories. We need to address those causes through all the agencies—schools, youth work, police work and parents.

We need to do a lot of work listening to young people and learn what we have to do to make them feel safe enough not to carry a knife. We need to learn what will disabuse them of the idea that it is in any way cool to carry a knife. The answers include diversion, care and attention, aspiration, education and life chances. The amendments would add deterrence and punishment to that list. Change will not be quick or easy, and it certainly will not be cheap, if we are really committed to it. The Bill will help if it is administered, enforced, measured and followed through, but I am sure that hon. Members recognise the mountain that we still have to climb if we are to change the knife culture on our streets.

The Liberal Democrats are happy to support the amendments on weaponry, which further the intention of the Bill to address the dangers of imitation firearms, without stopping those who have legitimate reasons to use realistic firearms, for re-enactment or theatrical purposes.

During our proceedings on the Bill, we have all come to know and understand more about weaponry in general, and airsoft in particular, than we might ever have thought necessary. I agree with the hon. and
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learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews), because I, too, see no compelling reason for airsoft guns to look realistic. As he said, there are dangers in the quantity of such guns that could be available. It is said that if the gun does not look realistic it spoils the airsoft experience, although that is not something with which I particularly empathise. However, whether or not the decision is for a realistic gun, I cannot imagine that the sport would not survive.

The real mischief is that imitation firearms prove deadly when converted, or even when mistaken for real. A police officer does not have the chance to make that distinction, so exact are the replicas—nor would the man in the street or a trader in a store—but I hope that the Bill will halt that mischief.

The Bill has achieved an appropriate balance and includes a range of exceptions and defences, which will not inhibit or ban unnecessarily but will curtail activities where necessary. I am glad that the Government have listened to representations and the Liberal Democrats are content to support them.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I want to say a few words about amendment No. 48, which relates to knives. As the Minister knows, I sit part-time as a Crown court recorder and as a district judge in courts across London. The single most prevalent crime, which is growing and growing and growing, is that of carrying a bladed article in a public place.

In Committee, just over a year ago, I quoted some horrifying statistics from a Youth Justice Board survey carried out in 2004, which showed that 1 per cent. of pupils in England and Wales aged between 11 and 16 had at some time in the last year carried a knife in school for offensive reasons, and 2 per cent. for “defensive” reasons. That means that 60,000 of our children had carried a knife in school at some stage during the previous 12 months, which is horrific.

If Members went to the courts where I sit they would realise the prevalence of the offence of carrying a bladed article in public. They should listen to the witness who says that he or she was so terrified by the glint of the steel thrust at them in the street late at night that they had nightmares for months on end, and dared not go out into the streets for fear of coming across a possible attacker.

The House has not got properly to grips with the issue of carrying knives. I say to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) that it is all very well to focus on help, guidance and education, but tell that to the person whose life has been ruined by being threatened in the street with a nasty looking knife.

Although the amendment, which would double the possible sentence for carrying a bladed article in a public place, is welcome, have the Government really got their eye on the ball? They are increasing the sentence from two to four years. Terrific. So shall we now be sending everybody to prison for more than two years? No. The number of people sent to prison for carrying a bladed article in public is extremely low. In the last year for which figures are available, of the 5,000 to 6,000 people convicted for that offence, a paltry10 per cent. went to prison. Almost 90 per cent. of people who carry knives in public know that, if they go
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to court, they will not lose their liberty. Furthermore, many of that paltry 10 per cent. probably received a sentence of about two, three or four months.

Why is changing the maximum sentence from two years to four years suddenly considered to be a piece of magic that is the answer to the problem? It is not the answer; the answer to the problem is to enforce the existing law much more thoroughly, and, respectfully, in my view this Government have failed to do that.

About a year ago in Committee, we talked about knives in schools, and nobody could deny my figure of 60,000 schoolchildren carrying knives, so I asked a parliamentary question: how many prosecutions had there been for carrying knives in schools? Does anyone know how many there were? Out of, perhaps, 60,000 a year, there were only about 12 prosecutions. Is that a sufficient proportion?

What about the power that the Government gave themselves in the Bill to give teachers the power to search pupils, as if that is a panacea? Teachers have already for many years had powers to bring in the police and say, “I suspect that pupil of carrying a knife, so please search them.” The fact is that that is another aspect of the law that was simply not enforced. Much of our criminal law would be improved if we in this House legislated and spoke less, and saw to it that the police enforced the current law more strictly and forcefully.

However, let us examine what happened when I suggested a year ago that we should harshen-up the penalties for carrying a bladed article in a public place. As it happened a year ago, I forget if it was me who did that, and I shall be corrected if I am wrong—although I know that I am right. It might have happened in Committee in October last year, or it might have happened on Report, when I was carrying my party’s response to the Bill. The Government absolutely rubbished my suggestion that there should be tougher penalties. Let me inform the House of what was the best answer that the Government could give to my suggestion at that time, by repeating a statement by a Minister on knife crime. The Government’s approach—and I gently suggest that this will not carry the day—was as follows:

I would love to be able to say to some poor complainant in a court who has had a knife shown at them, “Don’t you worry, member of the public, because the Government are going to fund a few initiatives and a few training programmes.” No: that is not the answer to this problem. Why on earth did the Government rubbish my approach a year ago—especially as they are, of course, now coming back to it? That is a great shame.

I have one final message for the Minister. He is a man of the world and a reasonable man, and he knows about the world outside—I know that he does—so he understands that knife crime is a terrible threat. Therefore, he must also understand that we cannot cure this great evil by simply having a little education here, and a little help there, and a doubling of the sentence
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as well. He must understand that the real way to deal with this problem is to get the police and the schools to operate a zero-tolerance approach to knives. There must be a tough, harsh attitude. We must make it clear to people that knives are wrong, and that if knives are present, they will be punished. Anything less than that simply will not do.

Bob Spink: I congratulate the Government on introducing the measures, particularly those concerning the carrying of knives, but like my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), I suspect that we will have to revisit and increase the maximum sentence for carrying a knife in due course.

5.45 pm

I want to make two points. First, would the Minister care to join me in congratulating those in this country who take part in the sport of target shooting, wish them well in international events, particularly the Olympics, and find ways to ensure that they can train and compete on at least equal terms with those in other countries who practise the sport? We have a great tradition in it, and great prospects.

Secondly, I agree with what the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) said about airsoft. However, how can we ensure that innocent children with toy guns do not fall foul of clauses such as clause 35, which deals with the specification for imitation firearms? In other words, how can we ensure that the police, in applying these new laws, use a certain amount of common sense?

Mr. Walker: As one who was relieved of his walkman 25 years ago by someone claiming to have a knife, this issue is rather close to my heart. He did not actually show me the knife, but I was not going to hang around to see it, so I passed over my Sony Walkman and went home and had a good cry to my mum. However, it was a fairly frightening experience at the time.

We are told by politicians from all parts of the House that we must be more robust in challenging youths in hoodies when they are preying on our communities, but one reason why people are scared to do so is the fear that they will produce a knife. Given what I have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), we have every reason to fear that they will. Knives are a huge concern.

Bob Spink: Is my hon. Friend aware of last week’s survey showing that people in this country are only half as willing as people in other European countries, such as Germany, to challenge those involved in antisocial behaviour? The reason for that is the stupidity of political correctness, which means that victims and people who challenge youths committing antisocial behaviour are more likely to be brought before the courts by the police than those youths themselves.

Mr. Walker: I certainly did see that survey, and much of the problem stems from the fear of what might happen if we intervene. There have been some well-publicised cases in the past few months of young men and others with a community-minded spirit
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challenging local youths and ending up dead. There is also the fear that if one gets into a shoving match with such youths, one might well be arrested by the police and carted off, so better to walk on the other side of the road. However, I welcome the Government’s willingness and desire to increase the maximum sentence for carrying a knife from two to four years. It is then up to judges to ensure that that maximum sentence is implemented.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woking made some very important points about schools. If I heard the Minister correctly, a school can intervene if it has reason to believe that a young person is in the possession of a knife. I hope that that does not preclude initiatives such as that in my constituency, where the police have purchased a portable knife scanner. Funnily enough, they do not catch many people with knives going through the scanner, but they do catch a lot of people who see the scanner and leave very quickly in the opposite direction. I hope that, where there is a perceived problem in a school, the police can deploy such a scanner without having to give due warning, so that the school can identify the scale of the problem and ensure that young people carrying knives are identified and the errors of their ways pointed out.

On the question of people having the errors of their ways pointed out, I hope that the Minister can confirm that people caught carrying a knife or other blade will not be subject to conditional cautions, allowed to plead guilty and then receive a fine. These young people need to understand the severity of their actions, and that can be achieved only by their appearing in front of a county, district or magistrates court. We have got to send a clear message.

Mr. Malins: My hon. Friend mentions the subject of knives in school. He probably knows of the case in which Greenwich council was forced to pay £11,000 to a boy who was expelled for taking a knife to school. The council was ordered to pay his mother compensation because of the anxiety and uncertainty that she felt, and to pay £6,000 for home tuition. Is that not the world gone mad?

Mr. Walker: That decision was clearly nonsense, and I would expect everyone on either side of the Chamber to regard it as such. The law is brought into disrepute by such cases. I ask the Minister to ensure that, when people are caught carrying knives, they appear before a judge or magistrate, and that prison sentences are given, so that the public can be confident that the new law to double the length of sentences is being used as a deterrent to stop people carrying knives.

Mr. McNulty: First, I thank the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) for his full and generous welcome for the amendments. I shall try to ignore what were, in general, rather flaccid and petty attempts at making party political points. They were entirely unnecessary, given that the House broadly accepts all the measures before us.

I tell the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who is a recorder, and the hon. Members for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), and for Castle Point (Bob Spink), that we are not talking about the demonisation of all our children and young people—and I do not say that to seem politically correct in any way. If the hon.
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Member for Woking assumes that any of the provisions are a panacea or silver bullet—I hope that that is not mixing metaphors—he is profoundly wrong, and no one on the Government Benches has said that they are. We simply say that although awareness, education and initiatives such as knife amnesties are important, they work alongside the existing law and the improvements being made to it by the Bill. Without wishing to be churlish, I suggest that he has a word with his brother judges, when such cases come before them, about the leniency, or otherwise, that he alleged. We can tackle the scourge of knives only if all those matters are considered duly.

As to the petty party political points, everyone in the Chamber knows that there has been significant public and other political debate on the subject in the period between the Bill leaving the Chamber and being considered in the other place. It is only right and proper that a responsible and reflective Government should take account of those— [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) laughs, as though the matter were trivial. This is a serious matter, which should be dealt with accordingly—and it has been dealt with in that way.

I shall ignore some of the other points made, which could best be described as rambling sophistry, if that language is not unparliamentary, particularly those made by the hon. Member for Woking. These are serious matters that should be dealt with in a serious way. On the serious point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews), regulations are not simply put before the House and rubber-stamped. I understand that there will be scope for both Chambers to discuss airsoft and other matters when the regulations come before the House. I do not share his overall doom-and-gloom position on the integrity of the Bill, in terms of what we do following consultation on airsoft. People will have a chance to return to that subject and others when those regulations come before the House—that will be sooner rather than later—once the Bill secures Royal Assent. With that, I commend the Lords amendments to the House.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 34 to 66 agreed to.

Clause 46

Sale and disposal of tickets by unauthorised persons

Lords amendment: No. 67.

Mr. McNulty: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 68, 69, 71, 73, 74 and 79 to 118.

Mr. McNulty: As was the case with the last clutch of Lords amendments, although this grouping has the broad heading of “Miscellaneous and minor amendments”, some of the amendments in it deal with important matters. Lords amendments Nos. 67 to 68 and 105 to 110 simply close loopholes in the legislation on ticket touting that are apparently being exploited by touts. Lords amendments Nos. 69 and 79 are on the
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power to enter and search the homes of registered sex offenders. In both cases, we agree with the Lords in their amendments.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): Proposed new section 96B(10), which would be inserted by Lords amendment No. 69, says:

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