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We are concerned about the number of cautions issued. In 2006, there were 10,217 cautions for possession by those of all ages, but, as the Prime Minister announced
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this morning, anyone over the age of 16 caught in possession of a knife can now expect to be prosecuted on the first offence. Under-16s can still expect to receive a caution if there are no aggravating factors, such as being in or near a school or being involved in gang activity, but, apart from just that, they can also expect to be referred to a knife education scheme to help them to understand the dangers and consequences of carrying knives, and their parents will be informed and may receive parenting orders to ensure that they play their part in changing those young people’s behaviour.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Will the Minister join me in congratulating groups, such as Hainault Youth Action and the Open Door project in my constituency, on getting the very youths whom he met this morning off the streets and into activities, discouraging them from getting involved in knife crime and getting them involved in the community, to the benefit of all, including their own safety?

Mr. Coaker: To be fair, the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The police or schools cannot solve the problem on their own, and the sort of voluntary organisation activity that he mentions is extremely important. Sometimes, the most effective work is done by those community-based organisations—all hon. Members can point to such effective organisations in our constituencies. The challenge for us all is to ensure that some of them receive not only funding but long-term sustainable funding. We need to find a better means of doing that, as it would help voluntary organisations, such as those mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): On a related point, is not the problem primarily one of feral youths in gangs going armed? If they are prevented from going armed with knives, they might go armed with something else. We need to concentrate on how concerned adults somewhere in their communities—parents, relations, teachers, youth workers or whoever—gives them a purpose for living, other than going out on the streets and causing trouble.

Mr. Coaker: Again, that is a perfectly reasonable point to make. Indeed, the young people whom I met this morning made the point that good role models are needed, that people need to be responsible for young people and that their roles and those of schools, voluntary organisations and faith organisations are crucial. However, as well as all that, we are trying to put across the message that there must be a deterrent in the law, so that people also know that the expectation is that they will be prosecuted if they carry knives. That, as well as the other measures that the right hon. Gentleman refers to, is an important part of our work in trying to attack the problem.

We are also putting in place local targeted action to reduce knife crime. The tackling gangs action programme showed that focused action on specific areas really works, which is the point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck). It set a template for joined-up working by bringing together community groups, Departments and local delivery partners with
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some excellent results. We will take forward that type of organisation and template by intensifying our knife crime work in seven areas.

Key elements of that work will include providing extra search equipment to the forces involved; fast-tracking the knife referral project, which is a course for young people convicted of a knife-related offence designed to increase their awareness of the consequences of knife crime; re-enforcing parental responsibility; introducing home visits and letters to parents of those young people known to carry weapons in the area; and developing new or strengthening existing youth forums, to give young people the opportunity to speak directly to the police and other statutory bodies. As I have already said, tackling the issue does not stop at the door of any organisation or Department.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): In his list of seven points, the Minister did not mention metal-detecting equipment, which was supposed to be put in place in schools. I remember that there was a Government announcement on that some months ago. How many schools in areas that are being ravaged by knife crime have metal-detecting equipment in place?

Mr. Coaker: I shall see if I can find out the answer to that question before the end of the debate; I could not tell my hon. Friend exactly how many schools are involved. However, the power for head teachers to search has been extended, and of course they can delegate that power to teachers in their schools. It is open to schools to use that power, if they feel that that is appropriate in their area. One would expect them to work with the local community to do that. My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Government will work with schools to ensure that that can be delivered, where appropriate, and if the measure is felt necessary and is agreed by the school and the local community. On his specific question, I shall see whether I can get the number to him by the end of the debate.

We need to deal with all aspects of the problem, including prevention, education, diversion, family and health. Our strict enforcement and tough legislation serve to capture all who flout the law, irrespective of age or where they come from. We have already increased the maximum sentence for carrying a knife—not for using it, just for carrying it—from two to four years in prison. We know that the judiciary shares our view that carrying a knife is a serious offence. Sir Igor Judge, one of the most senior judges in the country, stated in a recent judgment:

I welcome and support Sir Igor’s comments.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Welcome though that is, will the Minister confirm that knife crime is three times more prevalent in society than gun crime, but that the criminal justice system still treats knife crime less seriously than gun crime?

Mr. Coaker: The hon. Gentleman has consistently made the point well that knife crime is much more prevalent than gun crime, serious though gun crime is. I
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agree that it is important that knife crime be treated extremely seriously by the courts; that is what I was trying to suggest from the remarks of Sir Igor Judge. I am talking about not just occasions on which a knife is used, because that obviously results in other charges, too, but about the possession offence. The message being sent by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, who spoke earlier today about the expectation of prosecution for 16 and 17-year-olds, and the comments of Sir Igor Judge will mean that, for possession offences, the courts will now give cautions as an exception, whereas previously they were used more often than not.

Kelvin Hopkins: My hon. Friend is right to focus on the problem of knife crime among young people, but there is another aspect to it, to which I referred earlier. Does he have statistics on what proportion of knife crime is committed by people who suffer from serious mental health disorders and personality disorders?

Mr. Coaker: If I am to do justice to my hon. Friend’s question, I probably ought to look into the matter and write to him about it. I do not have to hand the number of people involved in knife crime who have specific mental health problems. Suffice it to say that much of the knife crime that we discuss in the House and that is rightly discussed in the media is street knife crime. We know that knives are used in lots of domestic violence incidents and lots of family incidents—they are a significant part of knife crime. I will look into the incidence of knife crime among people with mental health problems, write to my hon. Friend and place a copy of the letter in the Library, so that other hon. Members can look at it.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con) rose—

Mr. Coaker: I am eating into everybody else’s time, but of course I give way.

Dr. Lewis: I thank the Minister for giving way. Obviously it sends a good signal to society when a maximum sentence is doubled in the way that he has described, but am I right in thinking that people will still be released halfway through that doubled sentence? Are we not giving with one hand and taking away with the other? On the one hand, we are sending the message to society that we will be tough, but on the other we are letting people out halfway through the sentence, and that negates the message that we are trying to send.

Mr. Coaker: According to our understanding, people are released halfway through the sentence if they present no danger. The problem at present is not so much the one that he describes; the fact is that very few people receive the maximum sentence of four years, irrespective of the argument that he puts forward. I do not want inappropriate sentencing, but it has to be said that the courts need to consider the four-year sentence available to them when making sentencing decisions.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): We are in danger of isolating knife crime and of trying to treat it on its own, but I suspect that there is a strong correlation between the leader of the pack who carries a knife, the leader of the pack who throws a brick through a bus shelter window, and the leader of the
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pack who sets fire to school premises during half term. All those youthful crimes need to be dealt with as a whole; I urge the Minister to do that, rather than just highlighting knife crime.

Mr. Coaker: I agree, and that is what we have tried to do. Our youth crime action plan, which will be published in a few weeks, will try to bring all those issues together. The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, but as I have said, there is a specific issue with knife crime, and that is what we are dealing with, although I agree that the other crimes that the hon. Gentleman mentions need to be dealt with, too. I also understand his point that there is usually a ringleader. Often, someone in the group is the persistent offender whom the system needs to grip more firmly. They sometimes get other people involved, and they sometimes become the sort of negative role model that we do not want. A couple of weeks ago, the Home Secretary announced the work that is going on with the police to ensure that we more effectively target persistent offenders, who may be of exactly the type to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I think that the Minister and others accept that all the evidence shows that the increase in the number of youngsters who go about tooled up, either with a knife or with another instrument, is due to fear that they will be attacked. Is the Minister willing to take on an idea that other Ministers have been positive about, namely that where local authorities are willing to collaborate, we have a much more extended network of detached youth workers on the street, funded ward by ward, or community by community? They could spot incidents happening on the ground, identify the people concerned, and intervene pre-emptively, rather than wait until there is an incident and it is too late.

Mr. Coaker: I agree, and that is my point about the fact that we cannot just have one focus in tackling the problem. Detached youth workers, and the money that the Department for Children, Schools and Families is trying to push down to local authorities so that they can deal with the issue, are important ways forward. In addition to detached youth workers, as used by local authorities, voluntary organisations are important. The hon. Gentleman will have seen, as I have, the work of street pastors and other such people, which is fantastically effective. We need to support that type of activity, too.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise to my hon. Friend for not being here at the start of the debate. I congratulate the Prime Minister, and indeed the Minister, on this morning’s announcements that highlight the issue and the seven-point plan. I also congratulate the Mayor of London, who admitted in a statement yesterday that there is real difficulty in getting to the core of why such crimes are committed, and that is what my question is about. Research is being carried out on gang culture and the real frictions at street level between kids in different communities. That is incredibly important work. I have had five teenage murders in my constituency since the turn of the year, three of which were committed on the street as a result of friction
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between gangs. Will the hon. Gentleman carefully consider extending that programme of research, so that each and every local authority can have some idea of the level of gang culture that is leading to such crime?

Mr. Coaker: That is an extremely important point, and we need to look at that research. We also need to understand much better the dynamic of gangs, what we mean by gangs, as opposed to collections of kids on the street, and other such issues. A lot of work needs to be done. I will look carefully at the matter, share the results of that research with my hon. Friend, and try to take it forward.

I congratulate the Metropolitan police on the very successful Operation Blunt. Operation Shield is also being run by the British Transport police. To date, we have funded almost 100 search arches and 350 wands, and we are committed to extending that in the police forces with which we are working. They will be receiving additional funding as part of the various package of measures. The use of search equipment has had a positive impact in London.

The emphasis has been on enforcement, but I should like to conclude by saying that we also fund various voluntary programmes and diversion work in the community. The response cannot be enforcement alone. That must be combined with education, increased parental responsibility and work with youth organisations. For too long, such public policy debates have been plagued by the participants being categorised as tough law enforcers or wishy-washy liberals. Frankly, all those things need to be—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order.

12.50 pm

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): The scourge of knife crime has touched the lives of too many families across the country. It is impossible not to have been deeply moved by the individual tragedies detailed, with appalling regularity, in the newspapers and on the television—a sentiment which I know is shared in all parts of the House. I join the Minister in sending a message of condolence to the families of all those affected by such shocking and appalling incidents. I also join him in sending out a message from the House that that is not to suggest that all young people are lawbreakers. We have so many fantastic young people who contribute so much to their communities, and it is right and proper that that message should go out loud and clear from here. Those same young people often end up the victims of terrible crimes.

We need also to send out a strong message from the House that knife carrying in our communities is unacceptable, and that we will take all appropriate steps to confront and control knife crime. I make it clear from the outset that the Opposition will support any measure that will be effective in tackling the growth in knife offences.

Sir Igor Judge, the president of the High Court, Queen’s bench division, in his recent Court of Appeal judgment gave a clear and powerful statement on the current disturbing situation when he said:

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Action has been slow in coming. Last year, 258 people lost their lives in incidents involving the use of a knife or other pointed weapon—up by nearly a fifth on the previous year and by more than a quarter on the number of such offences 10 years ago. According to the centre for crime and justice studies at King’s college London, there were 64,000 muggings in which a knife was used last year—more than double the number two years before. Home Office research indicates that there are around 500,000 young people carrying knives on the streets, and an earlier Youth Justice Board study suggested that more than a quarter of young people in school admitting to carrying a knife.

Policing and enforcement are essential in combating this serious problem. That is why the action that the Mayor of London and Chief Constable Bernard Hogan-Howe in Merseyside, for example, are taking is so important to ensure detection. But knife arches and mobile scanners should not be isolated initiatives. The risk of getting caught with a knife must be a real factor in the mind of someone getting ready for a night out, and that means the police making proper use of powers to stop and search.

When offenders are caught, they should normally be prosecuted and receive the most severe sentences appropriate. Fines are an inadequate deterrent. Frequently, if the crime involves a young person, fines are paid by the parent and not by the youth responsible; more often, they are not paid at all. A caution does not recognise the seriousness of the offence. In 2005 and 2006, nearly 6,000 people were dealt with by a caution or a warning alone for the possession of a knife. There should be a presumption that offenders receive a custodial sentence or a tough, enforced community penalty, not a so-called unpaid work requirement that is not even completed.

Simon Hughes: I do not dissent from much that the hon. Gentleman says, but does he accept that some youngsters who carry a blunt instrument or a knife do so under pressure from their peer group—from their mates—and carry it for someone else? We must be careful not to institutionalise, send away and criminalise those who are not the gang leaders or the motivators, but who get dragged along by the much more evil and malicious intentions of others?

James Brokenshire: There needs to be a presumption that such matters should be dealt with by the court. The culture of dealing with such incidents through cautions has been one of the fundamental problems and failures of the Government’s approach in the drive to summary justice. Clearly, there needs to be flexibility for police officers at local level, but the presumption should be to go to the courts rather than deal with the issue by way of cautions.

Mr. Evennett: My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, and I am listening with great interest. Is he aware that evidence indicates that many young people are carrying knives because they are worried about being victims of crime?

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