Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)|
COAKER MP, MR
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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 communitiesI have forgotten
the namehas 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 teacherI
am sure other members of the Committee have the same experiencesometimes
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
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 streetif they are
not chefs, for examplebrought 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 violenceknife crime
and gun crimeand 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 schoolsDVDs
that now go into schools are made by a whole range of bodies,
for example the UK Youth Parliament and Met Policea 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
sectorseveryoneare 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