Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)


27 MARCH 2007

  Q20  Chairman: I completely understand that no single course of action will solve the problem, but when you said that you could not say whether it was 20% this and 20% that you rather gave the impression that all of these things were important but you could not say which were most important. The difficulty always is that if everything is a priority nothing is a priority. If we look at the things that you have mentioned in the past 10 minutes or so we may say that we should have the police doing far more stop and search, using metal detectors outside clubs or something of that sort, or we might say that targeting these negative role models in local communities will have the biggest impact in the effort we put in, or that we really cannot deal with knife crime per se until we have dealt with all the problems of social exclusion and poverty in communities where that is most prevalent. If one does not have ways to assess the effectiveness of different impacts does one not rather end up with a lot of people doing bits and pieces here hoping that it will amount to a solution to knife crime without having any idea whether or not it will work?

  Mr Coaker: To say that we need a better understanding of what works in communities is fair comment, but my view of this in the time I have been around and the people I have spoken to is that clearly there must be a tough police response to this activity. The other crucial factor alongside it is to work in those areas where there are problems with the community organisations. I have been massively impressed by the work I have seen in Peckham which is not related just to gun crime. I refer to the Boyhood to Manhood Foundation and other initiatives.

  Q21  Chairman: We have seen many of these organisations in our inquiry.

  Mr Coaker: I am referring to empowering and working with the Damilola Taylor Trust and those sorts of organisations.

  Q22  Chairman: My question is: how do you know whether or not they are working? What would be your test to tell you whether or not they are working? Would it be to have fewer woundings or young people saying that they carry knives? In the communities where you say that good working is going on do you have systems rather than the occasional ad hoc survey to monitor what is happening on the ground? We have met many of the organisations that you have talked about and have been very impressed by their inputs. It has always been very difficult to measure whether or not they are producing the results we want.

  Mr Coaker: That is why we need to get a better understanding of what works and measure it. When you ask me what I want to see I should like to see a reduction in woundings and knife crime and more achievement at school. What we have to do is to get better at measuring those and that is part of the change that we are making to the collection of data by police forces. The Youth Justice Board and others do a lot of good work and carry out surveys and so on to try to understand it. It is important that we measure it. But when you ask me what I believe to be the most important things I say that community-type action is the key because it strengthens families and the community and gives a positive message that knife crime is not acceptable in our community. It establishes community values and sets those values against the values of individuals and maybe some of the gangs in a small minority of cases. I also agree that we need to get better at measuring that in a quantitative and qualitative sense.

  Q23  Chairman: I turn to moving young people away from the use and carrying of knives. From the Mayor of London we learn that 13% to 14% of knife crime in London relates to incidents of domestic violence. Clearly, there are situations where older people take and are prepared to use knives in conjunction with burglaries and other types of property theft. There are other incidents which may involve people with personality disorders or severe untreated mental health problems, which I know the Government is trying to address through the Mental Health Bill. Does it make sense to talk about a strategy to deal with knife crime in all of those different circumstances, or do we have to get to the underlying problem of domestic violence, for example, which we try to tackle by a number of different strategies? I am trying to get clear in my own mind whether we should take all those different types of knife crime and have a specific strategy to deal with them or whether we should say that there is an underlying type of crime which is to do with how we handle people with personality disorders or how we tackle domestic violence.

  Mr Coaker: Interestingly, this is one of the matters that distinguishes it from guns in a sense. Guns are illegal—full stop—and one cannot imagine any circumstances in which one has a handgun. Obviously, knives are much more difficult and widely available and people have them for perfectly lawful reasons. Probably within that one has an overall knife strategy where one looks at particular categories, because obviously there are different circumstances in which that knife crime would occur. You mentioned domestic violence. You will know that the Government has taken a whole series of measures to tackle domestic violence which is an appalling crime. Do we need an overarching knife crime strategy? Yes, we do. Within that we need to recognise that in different circumstances different parts of that policy will apply, whether it be mental health or domestic violence. With respect to domestic violence and the recent Bill, the independent domestic violence advisers, specialist courts and all those things are part of dealing with that problem. If you like, it is more a victim-centred approach than the approach that one might adopt with respect to knives in other circumstances.

  Ms Nicholls: We are working on an overall violence strategy with the Association of Chief Police Officers and others within which knives would obviously be one issue, but things like alcohol are big drivers of violence overall. We are working on that through the summer along a similar timetable to the development of a potential new PSA on more serious violence.

  Q24  Chairman: Clearly, at the moment we are all at the edge of our knowledge in terms of evidence, but when we look at the other circumstances in which knives are used, not involving young people and gang culture, has the Home Office any work under way, or will it have with the new statistics, to see whether it can pin down more precisely what of the other knife crime that takes place is domestic violence, what is accounted for by knives carried by older people committing crimes and what is related to other circumstances so that there is at least as good a picture about the use of knives in other areas of life as one begins to develop in relation to the use of knives by young people?

  Mr Coaker: We are looking to do that in the new data collection arrangements particularly with respect to domestic violence. There will be a flag next to some of the statistics where domestic violence is an issue with respect to that. When you say "the edge of our knowledge" you make an important point. That is absolutely right. We need better to understand where knives are being used and in what circumstances. We are doing it with respect to domestic violence, and we probably need to do that with other categories so that we build up a picture of what is happening and can properly tailor our policies to deal with that.

  Q25  Chairman: I should not abuse my position as Chairman, but certainly in terms of my recent constituency case it would be enormously useful to be able to answer some questions about whether that sort of crime was a one-off or fitted into a pattern of other crimes. If you could extend your work beyond domestic violence to other areas where knives are used it would be very helpful.

  Mr Coaker: We need to do that and will do so in due course.

  Q26  Martin Salter: We have no shortage of legislation governing knives. Just looking through our briefing, we have the Prevention of Crime Act 1953; the Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959; many sections of the Criminal Justice Act 1988; the Knives Act 1997; the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994; the Offensive Weapons order, a subset of measures under the Criminal Justice Act; and, more recently, the Violent Crime Reduction Act which, amongst many other things, I am pleased to say increased the maximum sentence from two to four years for the offence of having a knife with a blade or point in a public place or on school premises. We have also received memoranda from the Police Federation and others saying that there is a confusing plethora of legislation which in certain circumstances makes it more difficult for police officers to secure a quick, effective and efficient conviction, because if a suspect is arrested for one of the other dozen available offences and the paperwork is not processed in the right way he may be released on a technicality. How do you feel about the suggestion of the Police Federation that we need to cut through all this nonsense and bring all the legislation together so it is sharply focused, if I may use that pun, in an overarching knives and offensive weapons bill to simplify the process? Surely, it is about time that is done.

  Mr Coaker: I am not sure that we will have one bill that brings it all together, but one of the things that we are trying to do is ensure that activity in this area is co-ordinated and effective. That is one of the points of the Round Table that the Home Secretary has established, and from memory one of the other actions is to try to make everyone on it aware of the legislation that is available and ensure it is used effectively and that where there are issues with respect to it we simplify it. The Home Office is working with Deputy Commissioner Alf Hitchcock on a knife crime best practice guideline. In February of this year a draft was prepared. That tries to deal with some of the issues you raise to ensure that across the 43 police forces there is consistent practice and awareness of what legislation is available and we try to overcome some of the problems and difficulties you mention in the plethora of legislation so that what is effective can be used, is known about and acted upon. I have the draft here. I believe that the best practice guidance will make a lot of difference because it tries to cut through some of the fog around all of this.

  Q27  Martin Salter: To press you on that, you have talked about the plethora of legislation and the fog that surrounds it. Surely, you are making the case yourself for at least the Round Table to consider simplifying the legislation.

  Mr Coaker: All I am saying is that there are a number of Acts that try to deal with particular problems. What we are trying to do is simplify that in the sense of helping police forces to become more aware of what is available to them and the sorts of measures they can take. ACPO itself has sought to do that, not by changing legislation but by trying to increase awareness of what is already available, what best practice has done in some parts of the country and make it available to other parts. It points to what is being done in one area and asks whether consideration has been given to doing that here to tackle this particular problem. I believe that that sort of approach through the Round Table, Home Office and ACPO knife crime best practice guidelines provides a positive, effective way forward. Part of the issue that Alf Hitchcock is trying to address is to work with police forces to ensure that the legislation is effectively implemented. As we know, a good part of the time the issue may not be the legislation; it may be about how we can more effectively use the tools that are available to us and ensure that we do not get variations in practice.

  Q28  Martin Salter: The Knives Act 1997 made it an offence to market knives as suitable for combat or in ways likely to stimulate or encourage violent behaviour using the knife as a weapon. One of your predecessors in the Home Office drew my attention to adverts in various magazines which promoted knives that would be undetectable by metal detectors at airports, yet to my certain knowledge the publishers of that magazine were never prosecuted. We have all this legislation on the statute book. The problem is not too much legislation but that half the time it does not get used. You are not making any argument to me against simplifying and rationalising the legislation.

  Mr Coaker: I believe that the point you make with respect to the Knives Act 1997 and the fact that it is an offence to market a knife or weapon in a way that encourages violence or combat is a good example. If you look at convictions under that piece of legislation there have been seven since 2000. It seems to me that that is not a matter of the legislation being unavailable but trying to increase awareness that that piece of legislation is available to be used, and what the best practice guidelines are about is making sure everyone is aware of the legislation that can be used and ensure it is implemented. Part of the issue is to ensure that where legislation is there it is used. I see some of these adverts. Clearly, it is a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, but if we say that a particular piece of legislation is available perhaps we may need to look a little more carefully at whether it can be used in more circumstances.

  Q29  Martin Salter: Do you believe there is a case for having a minimum mandatory sentence for all knife-associated crime?

  Mr Coaker: We need to keep a distinction between guns and knives. The reality is that in many situations knives are readily available and are carried on the street. What we want is a law that is proportionate, practical and workable. We have just increased the maximum sentence for knives from two to four years. I believe that that is an important indication of the seriousness of this crime. I do not want to underestimate the huge importance and seriousness that we attach to knife crime. Many people carry knives for legitimate reasons.

  Q30  Chairman: They carry them for legitimate reasons but do not get prosecuted for it under the existing law. It seems that the police are able to decide which people should be prosecuted under the existing law because you have just raised the maximum sentence for doing so. The question at issue before the Committee is: if you can work out who should not be carrying knives and you can take them to court and get a conviction why should there not be a mandatory minimum sentence for knives as there is for guns, given you are three times more likely to be murdered with a knife as you are with a gun?

  Mr Coaker: We believe that it is a proportionate response to the problem at the present time. We wish to see how it works with respect to the new maximum sentence and we believe that that is a reasonable way to deal with the problem.

  Q31  Martin Salter: I should like to press this point, probably on behalf of the whole Committee. At what point would it not become a proportionate response? At the moment one is three times more likely to be injured with a knife than with a gun. If one is five, six, seven or eight times more likely to be injured with a knife is it proportionate at that point?

  Mr Coaker: We need to see the impact of the new offence that we have just introduced. It became law only in the past month. We believe that it will have an impact. It gives the courts a new power and a new penalty. What we need to see is how that new penalty works.

  Q32  Martin Salter: I should like to put two matters on the record. First, there has been talk about the Government introducing some form of fixed penalty notice for disorder and applying that to knife offences. Do you want to take this opportunity to confirm that you will not do that?

  Mr Coaker: To be absolutely categorical, yes. It is too serious to be dealt with in that way.

  Q33  Martin Salter: We hoped you would say that, Minister. Second, Scotland introduced a licensing scheme for the sale of non-domestic knives and swords, although for the life of me I do not know what a non-domestic sword is. Are you considering the introduction of such a scheme in England and Wales?

  Mr Coaker: We are looking at what is happening in Scotland. We are concerned that it would be excessively bureaucratic and how workable it would be. As with all these things we shall look at how it works, whether it is effective in Scotland and whether we can learn from it, but our initial thought is that it would be quite bureaucratic and difficult to do.

  Q34  Mr Clappison: I want to take you back to the points you made in answer to Mr Salter. In relation to proportionality, it seemed to be a factor in your equation that somebody might have a legitimate excuse for having a knife, but when the person has committed an offence it goes beyond that point. The person has committed an offence by having a knife if there is no lawful excuse. That is excluded by law; if not, the person would not be committing an offence. We are talking about people who possess knives as offensive weapons and are convicted of the offence of carrying offensive weapons, so the proportionality does not relate to any reasons that people might have.

  Mr Coaker: Clearly, if they used the knife the charge would not be a possession offence; it would be for another offence, such as wounding.

  Q35  Mr Clappison: Possession of an offensive weapon without a reasonable excuse is itself an offence and rightly so because people must be discouraged from having offensive weapons on them.

  Mr Coaker: Yes.

  Q36  Mr Clappison: You have just increased the minimum sentence for that offence from two to four years and you have therefore sent out a signal to courts about sentencing.

  Mr Coaker: Yes.

  Q37  Mr Clappison: I want to ask about the sentencing statistics that you collect. Do you have any statistics to show how often in the past possessing an offensive weapon on its own has resulted in a custodial sentence? Do you collect that as a statistic?

  Mr King: We have some information on it, but not with us today.

  Mr Coaker: If it is helpful to Mr Clappison, although we do not have the information here I will write to the Committee[2].

  Q38 Mr Clappison: Perhaps you could in addition set out what the position will be in future about collecting the information and how often people are sent to prison for doing this. I imagine that a lot of the cases come before magistrates' courts where the maximum sentence at the moment is only six months' imprisonment.

  Mr Coaker: Yes.[3]

  Q39  Mr Clappison: I know that magistrates are given guidance on sentencing. I should also be interested to know what the starting point for sentences should be. What advice are magistrates given about sentencing and what guidelines are given, and have those guidelines changed as a result of the new Act coming into force.

  Mr Coaker: I shall need to write to the Committee. I am not an expert on the law, but presumably if the magistrates do not believe they have appropriate sentencing powers and think the matter is serious enough they can refer the matter to the crown court.[4]

2   See Ev 24 Back

3   See Ev 25, Ev 23 Back

4   See Ev 25, Ev 23 Back

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