Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 620 - 639)

TUESDAY 13 MARCH 2007

RT HON BARONESS SCOTLAND OF ASTHAL QC, MR VERNON COAKER MP, MS HELEN EDWARDS CBE, MS URSULA BRENNAN AND MR SIMON KING

  Q620  Mr Browne: So you can actually measure whether there is a disproportionately large or disproportionately small amount of gun crime perpetrated by black people or white people, or neither?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: We will be able in the future to know that with a greater degree of precision through C-NOMIS, Ursula Brennan has been dealing with some of that.

  Q621  Mr Browne: To be clear, you said that at the moment you have no way of knowing that at all. In your earlier comments you said you have no way of knowing. In fact, it might be solely attributable to one ethnicity.

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: No, that is certainly not what I said. I said that the data we currently have that we have collected does not indicate a bias towards one ethnic group or another. At the moment, there is not information which would say that this is more of an issue for the black and minority ethnic community than in relation to white. That information is going to continue to be collated. We will be reviewing it. I think what was being put to me by the Chairman was that this was a significant issue in the black community with black young men. What I was responding to is: I understand that may have been said, I understand that it may have been said in relation to London. I understand that that was information the Committee had been given. But if you look across the country, the figures across the country that we are getting, we have no data which would verify that this is more an issue for the BME community than it is for any other community. That is what I am saying.

  Q622  Chairman: Minister, if I could follow up Mr Browne's questions and it is really quite central to some parts, what further data are you able to share with us at this stage? We have found in this inquiry that often the Home Office says, "We have no data" and we have had data from the Metropolitan Police or other major police forces which have tended to show something different from what the Home Office is saying. I am not sure whether the position is that the Home Office has data that counters that information or just because the Home Office has no data, it is saying you have nothing to go on.

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: We have data, as I have told you, which indicates that there are a large number of victims who are black. The data that we do have does not indicate that a great number of the perpetrators are black. For instance, we have crimes recorded by the police in which weapons, including air weapons—so it is not just bullets—were reported to have been fired and caused fatal or serious or slight injury in England and Wales. There were 25 Black or Black British fatal inquiry victims for these crimes in 2004-05 and 19 in 2005-06. So we can tell you about the victims, that there are more black victims, but we have no indication across the country data which tells us that the perpetrators are more likely to be black than white.

  Q623  Chairman: I am grateful for that. The Committee would welcome receiving whatever information you can give us.[2] I have a further question which is simply this. Would you be confident, Minister, that bringing together gun crime involving guns that fire bullets with air pistols in one category is a satisfactory category of crime for analysing this problem?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I think we have to look at all gun crime. Unfortunately, they are coming now in different species. We are looking at how to do that.

  Q624  Chairman: That is to separate them?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: It is to better understand them. You have air weapons of course, which are used in one way, quite often used by young people inappropriately, and you have other guns, which tend to be used in more serious forms of criminal activity.

  Q625  Mr Browne: I was going to ask about the five-year minimum mandatory sentence for firearms. As I understand it, and correct me if I am wrong, recorded firearm offences have approximately doubled in the last decade and this is one of the responses that the Government is attaching particular significance to. Does the Home Office believe that the five-year minimum mandatory sentence is having a big impact, what impact does the Home Office anticipate it will have in terms of reducing firearms offences, and particularly whether it will have the effect of encouraging children below the minimum age for the minimum mandatory sentence to apply to carry firearms rather than young adults?

  Mr Coaker: It is fair to say that we all recognise that there has been, as you say, a more than doubling of firearms offences in the last eight or nine years. This is relevant in answering Mr Browne's question. If you look at the most recent figures, there was a levelling off between 2004 to 2005 and 2005 to 2006 where there was only an increase of 0.1%. The latest figure that we have is that there is a 14% fall in total firearms offences in the 12 months to September 2006. The relevance of me quoting the latest statistics, the levelling off in the rise and then the reduction in firearms offences, is that of course they come after the introduction of the minimum five-year sentence. I am being frank with the Committee because exchanges need to be frank just to move forward, which is what we all want. I do not have the evidence for that. All I am saying is that in 2004 the minimum legislation came in and then we have started to see a reduction in firearms offences. Clearly, that is not the only reason. There has been a lot of other policing activity and community activity, et cetera. That is one perhaps possible point that could be made. With respect to the other points Mr Browne made, it might be helpful to the Committee, because people read this, to say that the current sentencing position as we know is that if we talk about younger children, we are clarifying the position with respect to 18 to 21 year olds, in answer to Mr Winnick's question. The order will be laid to clarify that situation. For 16 and 17 year olds, the current legislation is a minimum of three years' detention with a maximum of 10 years. For 10 to 15 year olds, the current sentencing position is that there is no minimum sentence but there is a maximum sentence of 10 years. Young people below the age of 15 can currently, should the court choose to do so, taking into account all the circumstances, impose quite a serous sentence on those young people for a possession offence. The point was made about whether the reduction of the minimum age, clarification of that to 18 and consideration of it being younger, will drive younger offenders down. I think Cressida Dick, the Deputy Assistant Commissioner, made the point that the Metropolitan Police, as well as other police forces, are worried about younger people becoming involved. Again, it is something we have to do in terms of reviewing the legislation as to whether more needs to be done with respect to that. I would also point out that there will be a new law which comes into effect in April, next month, from the Violent Crime Reduction Act, which will make it an offence to mind a weapon for somebody. So we think that may help as well with respect to the younger age group, who, again anecdotally, we understand are being used more as minders and carriers of weapons, which my barrister friend will tell you, there is clearly a difference between possession and minding. But we are already taking action, and in order to address the problem that you raised, Mr Browne, it may be that the minding offence will help because obviously that is applicable to younger people and it is already something that will become law next month.

  Q626  Mr Browne: As you have just mentioned, Mr Coaker, we had Cressida Dick, from the Metropolitan Police, in front of the Committee a couple of weeks ago and she said—and I quote—"The introduction of the five-year mandatory sentence has led to fewer five-year mandatory sentences being applied than we had expected." It is a bit like life sentences, mandatory has a different meaning from the dictionary as it applies in the Home Office. Mandatory does not, as one might expect, mean that it applies in every case. As I understand it, five-year minimum mandatory sentences for the possession of an illegal firearm have been applied in 40% of cases; the majority of people appear not to have received the mandatory sentence. Can you confirm that that is the case and is the Prime Minister's gun summit at Number 10 going to increase this figure or is it completely irrelevant and a one-day wonder?

  Mr Coaker: I read the evidence that the Deputy Assistant Commissioner gave and I have no reason to believe that that is not accurate. I think the legislation does say that there is a minimum mandatory sentence, but there are exceptional circumstances which the court can take into account. We announced, as a result of the Prime Minister's summit, and indeed the round-table that we have had subsequent to that where we have involved large numbers of community groups, the police and others working in this area, that we are looking at all of the legislation with respect to gun crime, to see whether there are changes that need to be made, and part of that review will obviously be looking at all of this.

  Q627  Mr Browne: But Minister is there not a slight fraud being perpetrated on the public, that they see on the news and on the television all of these people going into Number 10 Downing Street, specially invited to have a summit on cutting gun crime, and there are big headlines in the newspapers saying that there will be a five-year mandatory sentence. I think most people, if you stopped them, would assume that that meant if you were caught walking down the street with a firearm concealed on you, and you were caught by the police, you would go to prison for five years. Yet what we find is that the exceptional circumstances are not the exception, they are the norm; the exception is the mandatory sentence actually applies. We can have an argument about whether that is good policy or just bi-captured initiative, but at the moment people are being told that one thing is happening and actually the reality is quite the opposite.

  Mr Coaker: Obviously the court will make judgments on that and that is why we are reviewing the legislation as well, to see whether more needs to be done. I have to say, however, that I do not think following the terrible events of the last few weeks that people would see the summit as a fraud; I think people would want to see the Government looking at what is happening and doing, as this Committee is doing, trying to understand how the legislation impacts on all of this; what more needs to be done with respect to communities; how we involve communities more in what is happening; what is effective and what is not effective, and that is what was done at the summit. A series of actions came out from that and I think that is what the public would expect. What they would also expect is to see, as you rightly say, that that is not just something that occurred then and that is why we have a round-table at the Home Office, which the Home Secretary chairs, which draws in all of those people, and that is why we have set up an action plan to take all of this forward, to ensure that not only have we been doing good work, which we have been, but that we carry that on and we look at what we are doing to see if it is as effective as it can be.

  Q628  Chairman: Can I just say, Ministers, that I am more responsible than anybody else for the fact that we have made relatively slow progress this morning, but I am going to be a bit more disciplined and I am going to ask Members of the Committee and Ministers as well if we can give shorter answers and questions. It is my fault that we have only got to where we have. Bob Russell.

  Q629  Bob Russell: Lady Scotland, our inquiry has shown today, as confirmed, that the Home Office has a lot of statistics and data but in the jigsaw of life not all the pieces are available. Is it correct that the Home Office currently does not collect data on the ages of suspects involved in firearms offences?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I think we are able to collect ages now in terms of the new system we have put in place. One of the problems that you will understand, Mr Russell, is that in order to make those statistics stack up we have had to go back and look at all the data. So it is very difficult at the moment to say that we would be able to give an age profile of those who currently offend. We also have, of course, a different system in the adult estate than we have in the juvenile estate; the juvenile estate collates their data differently. So what we are trying to do now in building the data, and the C-NOMIS is the adult, ASSET—is the approach used by the juvenile estate and we are trying to put those two together so that in the future we will be able to have those figures accurately and more precisely understood.

  Q630  Bob Russell: So the age data is now being collected. When did that commence?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: It is collected in terms of the information that is being put in is the name, age, offence with which the individual is charged. So in the future I would hope that that information would be capable of being disaggregated in a way that we would be able to use it as a management tool. One of the things we have had in the past is that we have collated data but that data has not been very easy to disaggregate so that you can use it to help you understand what is happening in the criminal justice system. The new system should enable us to do that.

  Q631  Bob Russell: So to a certain extent you are making decisions without the historic data—you are now collecting it but you do not have the historic data?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: We have incomplete data; that is one of the problems. So the juvenile estate will tell us, of course, the figures in relation to what is happening there. Some of the juveniles, of course, will be in the adult estate and some will be in the juvenile estate. Ursula might want to comment further on that, as to how we are trying to merge these two together.

  Ms Brennan: Could I just comment on the data. Data in the criminal justice system is collected by all the different agencies using five bar gate systems, bits of paper, IT systems, collected for their own purposes. When the Chairman said that sometimes the Committee has had information from the Met, and so on, which maybe seemed to contradict the data that the Home Office had, or maybe the Home Office had said it did not have data, one of the things that the Home Office has been doing in the past 12 months is to be much more rigorous about its data. One of the things we have done previously is to collect a lot of data and then realise afterwards that the quality control on the collection of it was not always as accurate as it should be. In relation to ethnicity data we were not collecting consistently the same standard of information about ethnicity to enable us to be able to look at issues around race and the criminal justice system. We did a root and branch review of the data and the statistics and we have set out a minimum data set now. All the agencies across the whole of the criminal justice system will collect that data and we will be able to get consistent data, but at the moment sometimes there is a bit of a sense of, if you want sentencing data, for example, the courts have probably picked up ethnicity data from what the police might have recorded and that is not always picked up thoroughly and if it is picked up in the courts it is not always entered on to the courts' systems. So there is a case that data is collected in some cases but we have not had the ability to track it through the system and that is what we are now trying to put in place.

  Q632  Bob Russell: Thank you for that. If I could move on to another area that concerns me, and that is killing by sharp instruments—I used to call them knives—which accounted for three times as many deaths overall as killing by shooting, although I acknowledge that within our inquiry the numbers are more equal. Nevertheless, knife crime is responsible for three times as many deaths as gun crime, so what is the Government doing to tackle knife crime amongst young people?

  Mr Coaker: If I could answer that. We have taken a number of steps with respect to that. If you look at the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, and this obviously—

  Q633  Chairman: Minister, I am also going to say to the Committee that we are going to have a full session with the Minister on knife crime, so if you could summarise it.

  Mr Coaker: Again, the three approaches that we take, as I mentioned to Mr Salter, with respect to drugs. Tough enforcement of the law; through the Violent Crime Reduction Act we have raised the age that somebody can buy from 16 to 18; increased the maximum sentence for possession from two to four years—so tougher enforcement with the law. Alongside that, education and alongside that community engagement, so those three issues, which perhaps, Chairman, we can explore that fully when we return.

  Bob Russell: We will return to that in two weeks' time, but I wanted to put on the record today that there is more to deaths than just gun crime. Can I just leave my final point with a plea to Lady Scotland, please do not demonise the word "gang" when the legislation is being framed. It used to be a word of endearment, and I certainly would not want the Scouts' Gang Show to be abolished!

  Chairman: Just to explain to the press and the public, the Committee is having a one-off hearing on knife crime with the Minister in a couple of weeks' time, which is why we are moving rather rapidly over that important issue. Changing tack now, Karen Buck.

  Q634  Ms Buck: Thank you. Can I bring you back to the discussion about the more constructional causes of criminality, and ask you particularly some questions about education because there has been a very strong theme in the evidence that there is an issue about young black children's educational under-achievement and a strong impression given by witnesses that that problem in schools, from whatever cause it stems, is itself a driver of disaffection and can lead, in some cases, to young people's failure and therefore being on the street, whether that is because of not being able to look forward to employment prospects or simply an alienation from the system. Firstly, do you accept that evidence?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: We do accept that educational attainment is a real criminogenic indicator for people committing offences later. We also accept that there has been for quite some time an issue in relation to the number of black young people who are excluded from school, and the correlation between those two seems to us to be important and something that must be addressed. The Committee may know that in July of last year I set up an inter-ministerial group on reducing re-offending. The reason we did that is because the levers to change some of the criminal behaviour in our streets does not just rest with the criminal justice system; it rests with the issues that we are seeking to engage in education. It also rests with the parenting issue and the way in which we are seeking to support parents to deal with some quite difficult and entrenched problems that they have with young people. So Phil Hope and I are working really hard—you will see in the Education Green Paper on how we are trying to move this agenda forward. We are working too on the Safer Schools Partnerships. So, for instance, Vernon and I had a meeting last week with Lord Adonis and Tony McNulty to talk about how we could better promote Safer Schools Partnerships. How do we weave this issue into the plans that we have because getting an opportunity for children to complete their education, understanding what may oblige teachers to think that they have to exclude young people is going to, we believe, have a dramatic effect. And if you look at those schools which do have the benefit of a Safer Schools Partnership their ability to keep children safely in school has been enhanced; their ability to keep children safe has been enhanced. There is a lot of work for us to do and we are doing it.

  Q635  Ms Buck: Can you explain to the Committee exactly what constitutes a Safer Schools Partnership and what is its measure of success?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: One of the things that the Safer Schools Partnerships bring together is schools, together with the police, together with the Crime Reduction Partnerships to look at the sort of factors which are causing criminal behaviour or dysfunctional behaviour. Some of it is a group of kids getting out of control when they leave. What that means is they come together, they have a plan and some of those plans will involve having a designated police officer in the school or a community support officer to work with the school and the children, to build relationships, to garner intelligence and therefore to interdict this sort of behaviour early because we really do understand that early intervention works, and in those schools where they have had that plan they have worked very well. We all know that two or three years ago, when we started to talk about Safer School Partnerships, many head teachers were antipathetic to it; they did not like the idea of a police officer coming in. That has radically changed. If you talk to head teachers now they are not talking about the fact that they do not want them but many schools are saying, "Why do I not have them because I think this would make a dramatic difference?" So what Lord Adonis and we are trying to do together is to see how we can better support the initiatives that are happening in local areas, but you will know that this initiative has to come from the Chief Constables; it is within their budget. We cannot oblige them to do it, but what we can do is to share with them what works and demonstrate to them that in fact where we have these Safer Schools Partnerships we have had a reduction in crime, we have had a reduction in anti-social behaviour and we have had an improvement for the schools in the number of people who remain at school and a drop in the number of children who are excluded because of poor behaviour. That has a material impact because the kids are not on the street, they are not getting into trouble and they are keeping safe.

  Q636  Ms Buck: Does it worry you that there appears to be evidence of increasing polarisation in schools, not least on grounds of ethnicity?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: Of course if that is happening that would be extremely worrying, but you will know too what the Department of Education is trying to do to address that—almost a twinning is happening with schools to bring schools together, to share facilities, to get to know each other better. These issues, of course, have been done by education. But of course we are worried if this polarisation is happening because polarisation brings conflict.

  Q637  Ms Buck: On this issue of the inter-ministerial working group that you have talked about, what are the success measures and what is the timescale?

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: In terms of outcome we want to see a reduction in re-offending. It is to support the seven pathways out of offending, and each department you will see working together with the Department of Work and Pensions because there is the whole issue as to how we get people into work; working together with DCLG and that is about accommodation, which we know has had a significant impact; working with Health in relation to mental health and drugs strategy.

  Q638  Ms Buck: But this is not specifically geared at school age children.

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: It is geared at all offending, so the Youth Justice Board will sit with us on the inter-ministerial group.

  Q639  Ms Buck: So there is not a specific process by which you liaise with the Department of Education on—

  Baroness Scotland of Asthal: There is because we have the regular meetings through the inter-ministerial group, and the reason I set up this inter-ministerial group in July is that we had an officials inter-departmental group driving this safer communities programme forward and reducing re-offending, and if you look at the London Reducing Re-offending programme that is really the sort of model; but we thought that we needed the departments, the Ministers to better support that so that we could drive it in each of our departments.


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