Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


27 MARCH 2007

  Q1 Chairman: Minister, thank you very much for coming back so quickly after your appearance here a couple of weeks ago. The issue of knife crime is one that has been of concern to the Committee for some time. As you know, we fixed this session several months ago in response to a request from Mr Russell who dealt with a tragic constituency case. You will also know that just under two weeks ago two of my constituents were found stabbed to death in Southampton, and sadly in the past few weeks there has been a rash of high profile cases. I do not believe anybody would underestimate the importance of the issues that we have asked you to come here to discuss today. Perhaps you would like to introduce your colleagues and we will then get under way.

  Mr Coaker: Simon King is Head of the Violent Crime Unit and Vanessa Nicholls is Director of the Crime and Drugs Strategy Directorate of the Home Office.

  Q2  Chairman: Perhaps I may start with a very general question to which we will return in detail fairly soon. I know that you chair a task force to look into a range of different crime issues. Just explain to the Committee when that was set up and its remit.

  Mr Coaker: I start by thanking the Committee for its inquiry into knife crime. As you said in your introduction, it is a very important topic. The Home Secretary at the time launched what is called the Round Table on Guns, Knives and Gangs. This involves a wide range of stakeholders and different governments departments: the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Health, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Home Office. It also has on it representatives of the police. There are various ACPO leads on gun, knife and violent crime, but, importantly, it also has a number of voluntary stakeholders who represent a wide range of faith and community organisations so they can feed into the deliberations of the group.

  Q3  Chairman: Is that a group which continues to work and do things or at some point will it produce a new strategy or paper either on knife crime specifically or on a range of issues?

  Mr Coaker: What the working group has done is allow people to come together, because obviously one of the things that is often said is that there is a need for people to have the opportunity to come together to discuss issues of mutual concern. But at the last meeting we considered the drawing up of an action plan with respect to guns, knives and gangs to try to draw on the various kinds of expertise. I think that is an important step forward for the group, but we must also be careful that the action plan that we draw up is consistent with other action plans that have been drawn up, for example that concerned with firearms. There is also a draft document setting up good practice for police forces across the country drawn up between the Home Office and ACPO with respect to knife crime. We need to ensure that although that group may say these are the tasks that it believes are important it links into the other work that is being done. I do not want to give the Committee the impression that nothing was being done. The point of the group is to try to build on that work and accelerate progress in some areas. The bringing together of that group emphasises that the solution to these problems and work on them is not one policy or the other. It is about law enforcement, which is why the police are there, and about legislation, which is why the politicians are there to hear what people have to say, but it is also about prevention and working with schools and communities and listening to what they have to say about what more should be done in their own areas to tackle these very real problems. If it is helpful I shall ask my officials to send a copy of that draft to the Committee. This is very much work in progress and we expect to publish it in June.[1]

  Q4  Chairman: That is very helpful for the purposes of the background to today's session. I am sure that the Committee, following today's session and having looked at some of the evidence submitted by organisations, would very much like the opportunity to comment on it. Perhaps I may take you back a few steps. Can you start by helping the Committee to sort out the statistics which are sometimes confusing? To what extent is knife crime a growing problem? We all have the perception that it is, but is it a growing problem?

  Mr Coaker: It is very important to preface my remarks about statistics. We need to debate the statistics and develop that. In a moment I shall say a little about the work that we intend to do to try to get a better understanding of the extent of knife crime. I should like to put on record that all of us recognise, as did the Chairman at the beginning, that whatever the statistics say there are individual tragedies and families who have been devastated by what has taken place. I do not want to diminish that in any way. For myself, I know that that is so in Nottingham. The British Crime Survey figures show that knife crime as a proportion of all violent crime has remained relatively stable. The statistics show that 6% to 7% of all violent crime is knife-related. The number of homicides involving sharp instruments, which could be not just knives but screwdrivers or broken bottles, is again broadly stable at about 29% to 30%. It may be helpful if I give you a couple of statistics. Homicide has risen and peaked in 2002-03. Taking 1997-98, there were 608 homicides and of those 202 involved the use of sharp instruments. In 2002-03 there were 953 homicides, of which 266 involved the use of a sharp instrument. In 2005-06 there were 746 homicides and the number involving the use of sharp instruments fell to 212 homicides. It has been broadly stable with respect to homicides and the use of sharp instruments. In a moment when you think it appropriate I shall mention the way forward and the fact that the Home Secretary has pointed out the need for us to gather more information on knife-related crime, because clearly those figures refer to homicide and not other statistics. Many other knife-related offences are not separately identified at the present time; they are contained in other offences such as violence against the person or wounding. But from April 2007 we shall require police forces separately to identify knife-related crimes according to certain categories.

  Q5  Chairman: We shall come back to the detail of the statistics but for the moment I want to concentrate on the picture. Those figures suggest that despite these terrible and high profile cases in recent weeks and months there is not a clear upward trend in the number of people being murdered with knives. Can you say a little more about the wider issue of knife crime, or at least knife-carrying, and the extent to which you believe there is a trend for knives to be out in the community which may be used in crime or may simply be there as a potential dangerous weapon?

  Mr Coaker: Having given the qualification that the identification of knife-related crime is difficult because it is subsumed, one way to try to get an idea of what is happening is to look at emergency hospital admissions. There is no doubt that such admissions as a result of assault by a sharp object have risen to 5,961 in 2005 from 5,281 in 2002 and 3,500 in 2000. Therefore, there is some evidence of an increasing trend in the use and availability of knives. It is difficult, but there are a couple of statistics that may give the Committee some other evidence. The 2005 Crime and Justice Survey found that 4% of 10 to 25 year-olds said that they had carried a knife in the previous 12 months. The 2004 Safer London Youth Survey found that 10% of inner London school children aged 11 to 15 reported carrying a knife in the previous 12 months. It is right to point out that whilst the BCS figures with respect to homicide have stayed broadly stable there are some issues to do with the carrying of knives and their use. We need to have a better set of data in order to try to quantify that more easily. That is what will happen from April 2007.

  Q6  Chairman: You have touched on statistics about young people carrying knives. If we look at the generality of media coverage of this youth issue, my two constituents were in early middle age. Other people die in knife crimes which are not committed by teenagers or young people. To what extent should we regard this primarily as an issue of public concern because of the involvement of young people, and to what extent should we be taking a much broader view and understanding all of the different situations in which people are being killed or wounded with knives?

  Mr Coaker: We need to recognise that there is an issue with respect to young people and knives, but it tends to be a broader issue than, for example, gun crime. From the information we have, knife offences cover an age range. People up to their thirties are involved in knife crime, so it is not just specifically a young people's issue, though that tends to be a lot of the focus; it is a much broader issue than that. We know that, for example, in domestic violence knives are sometimes used. As to general availability, we all have knives in our homes and so on; there are knives in the House of Commons. Because of general availability knives are much more likely to be available to people of all ages in all circumstances rather than guns which thankfully are much rarer.

  Q7  Mr Browne: As chance would have it, yesterday I was talking to another older Member of Parliament who recalled that in his youth when at university he had broken up a fight in a street. He said that he would not do it now because he would not know whether or not the people had knives on them. Do you believe that the public perception about the likelihood of being a victim of knife crime is exaggerated and out of proportion to the statistics and the prevalence of the commission of such crime?

  Mr Coaker: I think people have a general concern about crime today and sometimes it does not reflect the statistics. One of the things that we as a government often point out is that crime has been falling by the BCS measure but the perception of the level of crime and fear of crime have not fallen along with it. Clearly, there are issues to do with the perception and fear of crime and the level of crime. As an individual as well as a Minister I am aware that people are concerned about the consequences of becoming involved in incidents in the street and so on. All I can say is that in statistical terms the proportion of offences in terms of homicide has remained broadly stable. As to possession, the figures indicate some concern, but I understand people's real fear.

  Q8  Mr Browne: Unless I am mistaken, crime overall and the irritating and less serious offences, such as having one's car broken into, have reduced but violent crime has increased over the past decade, has it not?

  Mr Coaker: Overall, crime has gone down but serious violent crime has risen as you point out and people have that concern. That is why the Government is taking a series of steps by way of the introduction of legislation and other preventative measures.

  Q9  Mr Browne: You covered some of the areas that I wanted to touch upon in your earlier remarks. Would you care to speculate about the social trends that underlie this development? Why do you believe there has been a rise in violent crime and why is there increased prevalence of knife-carrying particularly in cities and among young people?

  Mr Coaker: Interestingly, one piece of research about safer communities—I have forgotten the name—has looked at the reasons people give for carrying knives. One reason is that there is almost kudos, in the sense of bravado, attached to carrying it, so for some young people it is almost a symbol of something or other. Alongside that, some young people say that they do it to protect themselves; they are concerned about crime and it is about protection. Part of the problem of carrying a knife is that you may think you protect yourself but it makes it more likely that you will become a victim. There is no doubt that some young people carry them in order to commit crime, so there are a number of reasons. Because there are a number of reasons why people carry knives it is also important to have a number of strategies that do something about it on a broad level rather than just one particular policy objective. I have now found the reference. The Communities that Care Safer London Youth Survey 2004 looked at the various reasons people gave for carrying knives. But if we are to do something about this we must look at family intervention and build up strength in communities with peer group pressure with respect to some young people and determine what is effective in terms of law enforcement. We are concerned with all of those things working together to try to overcome the problem.

  Q10  Bob Russell: You are probably aware that on Wednesday I presented to the House a petition of 5,000 signatures collected by my constituent Mrs Ann Oakes-Odger. The area of that petition will be covered by my colleague Mr Prosser in connection with the comparison between knife and gun crime. I should like to concentrate in particular on young men who carry and use knives. Why do you think so many young men do carry knives?

  Mr Coaker: To repeat the answer I gave Mr Browne, I believe that a number of reasons have to be looked at. Research shows that a number of young people use them because they believe that they help to protect them on the street. A lot of the work that we have been doing is about trying to debunk that myth and to show that it makes you more vulnerable. The whole point of the campaign that we ran in the summer of last year with the Association of Chief Police Officers in relation to the amnesty campaign was that if you carry a knife it can be turned on you. Another area is peer group and increased pressure on some young people in some communities to carry a weapon. It is almost a symbol of membership of the gang and those sorts of things. For a very small minority of young people it is carried as a weapon that they might use.

  Q11  Bob Russell: Following your earlier answers to Mr Browne, are we therefore in a vicious circle where crime and lack of confidence in the police cause knives to be carried and so more knife crime results?

  Mr Coaker: As always with these things, if a particular problem arises one must try to understand why it is happening. I have given some explanation as to why I believe there has been a problem with respect to knives and the carrying of them. If one then identifies what one believes to be the issue, whether it be a problem within the community, the family, in school or peer group pressure on the individual, one then asks: what is to be done about it? With respect to law enforcement and activity on the street, the police take it very seriously. We have improved and increased the legislation with respect to that. We are working in communities to try to tackle this issue with respect to young people and with a number of voluntary and community organisations. They say that if you want to tackle the problem you cannot just do it from the aspect of law enforcement, the community or school; it is all of those things together. This is a very real problem in some parts of our communities. We need to keep it in perspective without belittling the problem.

  Q12  Bob Russell: I understood from one of your previous answers that the evidence showed that nationally one in four young people had carried a knife and in London it was one in 10. Did I hear that aright?

  Mr Coaker: When I was quoting the figures for carrying knives, the London Youth Survey found that 10% of inner London school children aged 11 to 15 had reported carrying a knife in the previous 12 months.

  Q13  Bob Russell: In all your answers I have heard the word "family" mentioned only once. Everybody else has been mentioned. To what extent is knife-carrying due to inadequate parental supervision or skills?

  Mr Coaker: I tried to make sure that I included everything. Obviously, family is extremely important. Where there is a problem in a family and it is dysfunctional clearly it will, among other things, contribute to the possibility that young people may be influenced by others, because the socialising impact of the family will be weaker when set against the possibility of "Why don't you join the gang?" or "Why don't you participate in this?" But one must also say that some people who are involved in knife crime also come from very strong model two-parent family. It can be a contributory factor and it is something that we need to look at. One of the other policies that we are pursuing with DfES is family intervention projects and programmes, working in some of the most difficult areas to ensure that work goes on to support families and parents where there are difficulties. From my own experience as a teacher—I am sure other members of the Committee have the same experience—sometimes it is not just bad parents who need help but very good parents work extremely hard but have difficulty controlling usually their young son or, increasingly, their daughter. A mixture of work needs to be carried out, but certainly work to strengthen and support the family must be one of the other policy planks that we pursue.

  Q14  Bob Russell: But is this predominantly a young male problem?

  Mr Coaker: Yes, but not exclusively.

  Q15  Gwyn Prosser: This morning you have given us a number of statistics, but one thing we have been told is that over the past 10 years there have been three times as many knife-killings in the UK than killings by guns. That is a pretty stark statistic. With that background, how do you respond to the suggestion that government has given far too much priority to gun-killing, which hits the headline all the time, at the expense of the work it should be doing to curb knife-killing?

  Mr Coaker: We have not tried to prioritise guns. Gun crime is extremely serious and over the past 10 years the Government has taken its responsibility with respect to guns very seriously. Knives are also an extremely serious issue. We have also taken our responsibility in that regard seriously. One of the matters we have tried to do is ensure that we develop our work through the Round Table and Association of Chief Police Officers. If one looks at the number of convictions for possession in public they can be either a good or bad news story. If we want the police to clamp down on knife crime and the possession of these weapons in a public place without lawful reason those possession and crime figures will go up. I have to tell you that if that means getting on top of knives on the streets that is a good thing, because in the short term it means that tough police action will result in the crime rate going up. We have to be mature about it and argue the case. If one looks at it over the past few years, taking 2000-01 there has been a 70% increase in convictions in England and Wales for the possession of an article with a blade or point in a public place. I believe it shows that the Government with the police and courts is taking that extremely seriously. Where appropriate, I want to see people who do not have a lawful reason for possessing a knife on the street—if they are not chefs, for example—brought before the courts and prosecuted. If that means in the short term that those figures will go up that is something we need to say and explain. I believe that it is something which the British public would expect because it shows that somebody is trying to get on top of this problem. All I say is that guns and knives are a serious issue. The fact that we have toughened the legislation with respect to guns and are now doing likewise with respect to knives, given the one statistic about the increase in convictions for possession of an article with a blade or point in a public place, demonstrates how seriously we take it and shall continue to take it.

  Q16  Gwyn Prosser: In your memorandum you set out the variety of approaches to tackle knife crime including legislation, police activity and community work. Obviously, you have to strike a balance across those three areas. How do you strike that balance? Do you think you have it right, and how do you measure the effect that each may have?

  Mr Coaker: I believe that the easiest way to answer that is to use a practical example. I think that if any of our constituencies, or any part of the country, suffered from a particular problem with knife crime in the short term there must be tough law enforcement. You cannot talk about what is to be done in the longer term to rebuild the social glue of society. Therefore, there must be tough law enforcement as a first priority if there is a particular problem. People must then know that there will be a serious consequence for what is happening, which was why I referred at length to the point about convictions. Therefore, tough law enforcement must be a key part of what you do. People must know that there is a possibility of going to gaol if they possess knives on the street without lawful reason and, alongside that, if they use them they can be charged with other offences. That is a crucial part of it which I believe retains the public confidence but is the right thing to do. If one talks to communities one knows that on its own it will not deal with the problem and underlying issues. It is about physical regeneration. If one goes to many areas where billions of pounds have been spent that is a good thing to improve the physical environment, but it is also about how to strengthen families and create the community spirit and environment that people want to see around them. How do you strengthen community organisations and create role models? Everywhere I go people say particularly with respect to black people but also white working-class lads: what sort of role model can they give them? How can they be given mentors or positive role models so they can look up to somebody who has worked hard and achieved? We have to find a better way to do that. Whilst we are at it, part of it must be to demolish the negative role models of young people and others who strut around in our communities and clearly have obtained money from ill-gotten gains. We need to strip that away from them through a more proactive use of proceeds of crime and other measures so they have positive role models. I cannot give you an answer which says that it is 20% on that and 50% on that. All I can say is that they are all of equal value. If we are to be successful in further tackling this issue we have to pursue all of these issues with a degree of dynamism, positive activity and enthusiasm.

  Q17  Gwyn Prosser: This morning you have touched on some of the new measures announced on 19 March by the Home Secretary. How significant are those new measures? Are we to assume that that is just work in progress with regard to knife crime and there is a lot more to come?

  Mr Coaker: I think there have been significant changes in legislation which should help. Perhaps I may repeat them for the benefit of the Committee. Clearly, a major change was the increase in the maximum sentence for possession of a knife in a public place without lawful reason from two years to four years. That has been implemented. The raising of the age at which somebody can purchase a knife from 16 to 18 will take place in October. Giving school staff new powers to search pupils where appropriate is I believe another valuable measure. Alongside that, there is the new offence of using somebody to mind a weapon which will apply obviously to guns, as I mentioned two weeks ago. Clearly, it applies also to knives. I believe that that will help with respect to this. The other matter that I think will make a significant difference when talking about legislation and requirements is the move announced by the Home Secretary on 19 March to require police forces across the country to collect data with respect to knife-related crime according to certain categories. That has not been a requirement up to now. It is also worth pointing out that that was something decided on in April 2006. We consulted ACPO and various others. We got agreement from ACPO which took place as we went through the year. Although it was announced by the Home Secretary on 19 March 2007 it was work in progress for nearly a year in order to bring that about. I believe that that will help us with respect to the policies that we have pursued, because the categories of knife-related crime data to be collected will include: attempted murder, wounding with intent to do GBH, wounding or inflicting GBH, robbery of business property or robbery of personal property. The collection of that data will make a big difference to our understanding of what is happening. In terms of review, we shall work with ACPO through the year to see whether anything more needs to be done with respect to the collection of data. Obviously, we shall always keep legislation under review, but we have just made those changes. In addition to changing legislation we need to look at what we have got, how effective it is and that we use all of it.

  Q18  Mr Streeter: I think the Government is wise to collect separate statistics on knife crime and also to talk to accident and emergency departments of hospitals. In Plymouth, which one may perhaps regard as a sleep community, my information is that in recent months there have been more and more incidents where people attending accident and emergency units have suffered knife wounds of one kind or another. Perhaps it is due to domestic violence. I think that you will get a fuller picture by looking at that information, and I commend you for that. Obviously, the Government places great store by public service agreements with various departments. You mentioned earlier that if the police enforced law on knife crime more rigorously the numbers of people caught in possession would go up and so the crime statistics would go up. First, why have you not introduced a PSA in relation to this issue, because there is not one at the moment? Second, why would not the expected rise in the level of knife crime provide an encouragement to the police to go out there and be more effective in enforcement?

  Mr Coaker: First, I believe that the police do enforce the law rigorously and I am sorry if I gave the impression that it did not. That was one of the reasons I quoted the possession figures. I have spoken a number of times to Alf Hitchcock who is the ACPO lead on knife crime. We work very closely together. He does an excellent job. As to A&E data, we are looking at how to make better use of it to get a fuller picture of what is happening. We want to pick up what is unreported as well as reported. Clearly, that gives us an indication. We need to work with A&E staff about protocols and how we do that, so that is work in progress. At the moment the Metropolitan Police is running a pilot to record anonymous data in A&E departments on what it calls penetrating injuries to try to get a fuller picture of that. We need to learn from it and perhaps replicate it in other areas. We are currently looking at PSA targets. We are considering whether we should have a PSA target that relates to serious violent crime which obviously includes knives.

  Q19  Mr Streeter: Perhaps I am wrong, but from my youth I remember the mods and rockers. You cannot remember them; you are far too young. I recall that they carried knives as part of their identity. The then government passed a law banning flick knives and the whole thing fell away. It is a serious point. I just wonder whether we can look back 40 years and learn anything from it. There was something going on culturally among young people then. Is there something similar going on now culturally with young people of which we may not be fully aware? That was not the question I intended to ask, but it is a very interesting point. You have talked about working with other government departments, and obviously that is crucial; there is not a magic wand that can be waved here. Are you absolutely confident that other government departments are fully signed up to effective action here, particularly DfES with its access to young people and the kind of educative responses that we want it to have?

  Mr Coaker: I am absolutely convinced that all government departments recognise the seriousness of the issue. All government departments recognise the need for them to contribute to the solution of this particular problem. With respect to DfES, a huge amount of work goes on in schools which that department alongside us support in order to try to help young people. That is done at both national and local level. DfES together with the Home Office are also working on a whole range of measures with respect to early intervention which is clearly crucial in this area. From my teaching background, there is an awful lot going on in schools to try to tackle violence—knife crime and gun crime—and all of these issues. Whether it is drugs, guns or knives, we need to get a better understanding of the most effective way to do it. In some schools the most effective way to do it is to bring in ex-offenders to talk to young people. Other people do not find that appropriate, but I just think that we need to look at and research in a bit more detail how we can make a difference in a school. What is an effective way for a school to tackle this? Clearly, that is part of the solution and it is working hard to deal with it. If we look at the Be Safe project and the work that lots of organisations do in schools—DVDs that now go into schools are made by a whole range of bodies, for example the UK Youth Parliament and Met Police—a huge amount of effort is being made. What all of us are searching for is: what is it that will make a difference to a young person, whether it be in a school, in the street, a youth club, the scouts or the church, who may be tempted to go down this route or may even be involved? What is it that will make that difference? All of us are searching for that. All government departments and all sectors—everyone—are signed up to try to work together to overcome what we know is a real problem. It is only by working together that we will deal with that.

1   See Ev 26-27 Back

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