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James Brokenshire: My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I shall come to later in my speech. How we tackle the problem of people feeling
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that they are not safe in their own community is one of the key factors in dealing with knife possession.

It is telling that between 1997 and 2006, just nine people out of more than 47,000 convicted of carrying a blade in a public place received the maximum custodial sentence, as it was then, of two years. Even with changes to sentencing, the Government’s early release scheme means that offenders will not stay inside for long. Violent offenders are being released on to the streets early, before half of their sentence has been served.

Last week the Government launched a new initiative with a hard-hitting advertising campaign designed to shock young people out of carrying knives on the streets. Although prevention through education and advertisements is an important strand, it will work only if it is part of a wider package of measures to tackle the problems of social breakdown, drug abuse and binge drinking, which have become significantly worse under the present Government. The initiative will be effective only if people’s experience of being in their communities is not one of risk and danger.

Mr. Redwood: My hon. Friend is making an extremely important point. Does he agree that if the Government are thinking of introducing more legislation in this field, they need to deal with the problem that there are many everyday items other than knives which, in the wrong hands, can be wielded as weapons, and that, on the other hand, knives and other domestic utensils can be lawfully used and we should not make it impossible for the law-abiding to make lawful use of them?

James Brokenshire: My right hon. Friend makes an important point, which is why there is a limit to the use of wands and knife arches as a means of identifying the presence of weapons. However, I do not underestimate their importance: the use of wands in stop-and-search is an important way of conducting some of those searches. He is right—the police need to have discretion in how they conduct their operations. In recent years they have been too heavily hemmed in by targets and the culture surrounding them.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is right to raise all the points that he has. He has obviously not had the chance to see the evidence on alcohol given by some of the supermarkets to the Select Committee yesterday. Does he agree that there is a responsibility on those who sell alcohol to make sure that it is not readily available? We should look at how much alcohol is sold at a discount or as a loss-leader, which provides young people with the opportunity of buying alcohol very cheaply, which contributes to the number of knife-related incidents.

James Brokenshire: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Although I was not able to attend his Select Committee, I heard a report from it. I agree that loss-leaders and sales of alcohol below cost are relevant factors, which is why I argue that we should regulate to outlaw the below-cost selling of alcohol. In some cases, alcohol is almost cheaper than water. Cost is an important issue, as is supply. Local authorities should have the powers that they need to crack down on licensing, which sadly has not been the experience following the introduction of the Licensing Act 2003.

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Kelvin Hopkins: I strongly support the theme of raising the price of cheap alcohol, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that prohibiting below-cost sale is not good enough? Alcohol is still quite cheap for supermarkets. Even if they sold it at cost, it would still be too low in price. Does he agree that there should be a minimum price for alcohol, as well as strict enforcement of who is able to buy it?

James Brokenshire: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on minimum prices. We should look at below-cost sales, but also at specific products that may be linked to binge drinking. That is why we support a targeted approach to taxation, focusing on those products most closely associated with the underage sale and excessive consumption of alcohol that, sadly, leads to violence on our streets and to real pressures on accident and emergency units, which are having to pick up the pieces as a consequence of the Government’s general approach to licensing.

On safety, the picture among young people is not good. According to a recent report by the children’s charity NCH, becoming a victim of crime, particularly violent crime, is a real fear for children and young people growing up in the UK today. The NCH report suggested that nearly half of all young people do not feel safe at any time, with one in five saying that they sometimes or often feel in danger. Part of the solution lies in strengthening communities, and neighbourhood policing is an essential element of this, but how committed are the Government to the community policing model? The Flanagan review says that current police numbers are apparently unsustainable, so what guarantees can the Minister give that front-line community policing will not be hit, given that the Government have welcomed the Flanagan review and, by implication, the potential cuts in policing that might sit within it? It is no good the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary issuing press releases and doing walkabouts promoting neighbourhood policing if they are not able to commit to it in the future.

The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing said in a recent interview that the Government had reached the “end of the road” in legislation to tackle knife crime. He and the Government may have reached the end of the road, but we would legislate if required. In particular, we would give police sergeants at the heart of community police teams a new authorisation to conduct stops and searches for up to six hours in specific areas where they believe—they are most likely to know their communities the best—that weapons are being carried or that an act of serious violence is about to occur. Such a measure has the support of the Police Federation.

Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman makes some powerful points on knife-carrying and what the police have to do. I wonder what he thinks of this statement:

How important is it that we curb such comments?

James Brokenshire: The issue is unlawful knife-carrying. The law is quite specific: one must not have unlawful purposes for carrying knives. It is understood—the point was made earlier by my right hon. Friend the
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Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)—that there will be other circumstances in which knives are carried, but if there is the unlawful carrying of knives on our streets, we must confront it firmly and clearly. That is at the heart of the debate this afternoon and why there needs to be the presumption of prosecution, rather than going down the route of issuing a caution or lesser sanction through summary dismissal.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and apologise for joining this important debate late; unfortunately, other parliamentary business kept me away from the Chamber. Following the hon. Lady’s comment, does my hon. Friend agree that there is a difference between someone going out with the intention of using a kitchen knife to cause harm and someone going fishing and having a knife for the purposes of their sport? Those are two different scenarios. We need to establish why someone feels the need to carry a knife to protect himself, compared with somebody who uses it for a form of sport. To ban knives completely would miss the point entirely.

James Brokenshire: My hon. Friend makes his point very well. The real question is why people feel they need to carry knives on the street in everyday circumstances. The fact that they do not feel safe in their own communities says an awful lot, which is why community policing is so important. That is why we would cut the form filling, the bureaucracy and the central targets that prevent the police from doing their job effectively and from providing the reassurance that so many communities desperately need.

Mr. Hollobone: The statistics that my hon. Friend has given about the number of young people who feel unsafe in their communities are shocking. I would be surprised if many of those arrested or prosecuted for being in possession of a knife were coming into contact with the police or other authorities for the first time. Are the troublemakers—the leaders of the pack—not being dealt with seriously enough, early enough, before they reach the stage at which they carry a knife in public?

James Brokenshire: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. We must deal with offending early enough and effectively enough, which is why I am critical of the Government’s approach. Their Respect agenda has been put out to pasture, because that is not happening. If we look at the offenders involved, we will see a pattern of offending; by the time they get to the offence in question, they are inured to the criminal justice system. It is then much harder to turn things around as they have not been dealt with properly from the outset.

Mr. Love: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

James Brokenshire: I want to make some progress, as I am getting into injury time.

We fully recognise that the criminal justice system alone cannot solve this problem. Addressing the roots of social breakdown requires long-term social action. Dealing with family breakdown, reforming welfare, tackling gang culture and improving discipline in schools are all important long-term components of a
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strategy to tackle violence in our communities, but none of these actions should stand in the way of more rigorous enforcement and stricter penalties.

The sad fact is that the Government have lost their way on tackling this most serious of crimes. The Prime Minister is now belatedly talking about prosecutions for knife possession, but only after 6,000 cautions and warnings have been issued in just two years. Home Office Ministers used to talk about the importance of knife amnesties until it became clear that the most common knives out on the street can be found in the kitchen drawer.

The Government used to believe that violent crime was about specific people in specific areas; now they appear to accept that there is a much wider societal problem. The Government even voted against Conservative proposals to increase the sentence for knife possession to five years, only to do a U-turn on increased sentences later. The Prime Minister's statements today on more prosecutions for knife possession are the latest admission of failure. It is an acceptance that the policy agenda of a slap on the wrist rather than a conviction before the courts was fundamentally flawed. The Home Office was wrong. The Government were wrong. The Prime Minister was wrong. We will not forget and neither will the public.

1.8 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire). We served together for a short time on the Justice Committee before we went our separate ways. He was quite right in his analysis of the problems that face our country on knife crime. At the end of his speech, he of course made the normal attack on Government policy. We expect that; we cannot expect a bipartisan approach throughout the speech, but his analysis was similar to that put forward by the Minister: we do have a serious problem with knife crime and it is important that we as a nation should debate it, but also that we should take specific action.

Many of the points made by the hon. Gentleman and the Minister are ones that everyone in the House will agree with. We may have different emphases on how we would like to see these matters pursued, but we agree that something pretty dramatic has to be done about this situation. That is why I welcome the summit held this morning at Downing street, when the Prime Minister, with representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Home Secretary, set out a clear strategy as to what the Government are proposing to do about this important issue.

To whom do we owe that strategy? We owe it, of course, to the country, because we are legislators. However, we also owe it to people such as Arsema Dawit, the young woman stabbed to death on Monday of this week. We are parents of young children, as well as legislators; the hon. Member for Hornchurch has young children, as I do. The fear that children such as ours may go out at night on to the streets of London, catch a tube or bus and not return home because they have been stabbed should concentrate all our minds.

The commitment by the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Government to change the presumption about people’s ability to carry knives is extremely important.
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It is vital for us to understand that when a person goes out with a knife intending to cause harm, it is right and proper that they should be stopped and prosecuted. That should not be prevented from happening just because that person happens to be under the age of 18. That presumption is important.

Simon Hughes: I do not dissent at all from what the right hon. Gentleman has said. Does he agree that things can be done in addition to the measures that have been announced and other initiatives, such as that of the Home Affairs Committee when it took evidence on young black youths in this country? If we are to get the messages from the young people concerned, we could consult them as broadly as is possible. Will the right hon. Gentleman reflect on whether, between now and the end of July, his Committee—with the Leader of the House, who is positive about the idea—could hold, on behalf of Parliament, an online consultation with youngsters aged under 18? In that way, we could get their views on how they think they can help themselves, their neighbours and friends.

Keith Vaz: I am delighted to accept that suggestion. I shall have to put it to other members of the Home Affairs Committee, two of whom are here today. As part of our current inquiry into policing, it would be an excellent way of finding out precisely what young people think about the issue of policing and knives.

Ms Butler: The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has raised a valuable point. I have launched a website,, to which young people can log on and have their say about issues that matter to them. In Democracy week in October, young people will be invited to the House of Commons to have a debate and set an agenda that we expect all politicians from all parties to listen to and take on board.

Keith Vaz: I was not aware of that. As always, my hon. Friend is campaigning on youth affairs with much passion. I do not know whether I will be admitted to her meeting—I would not qualify, of course—but I shall certainly be keen to know its outcome. It will help the Home Affairs Committee enormously with our inquiry into policing.

I welcome what the Government have done this morning. I want to concentrate on just four aspects of the policy. The first relates to enforcement and the proper way the police conduct their investigations into these matters. I am pleased with how Operation Blunt has worked. It is right that people on the public transport system, especially the tube, should have been challenged about the knives and weapons that they carried. The figures indicate that the exercise was properly conducted, with sensitivity.

It is important that when we undertake stop and search, we are focused on what we are trying to achieve. It should not be done like a fishing expedition; I do not believe that every young black person in London ought to be stopped on a presumption that they are carrying knives. However, the targeting and focusing are extremely important if we are to get to the real source of the problem.

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On additional policing, the Minister will know much more accurately than I the number of police officers the Government have put on the streets of London and the rest of the United Kingdom; he probably has an up-to-the-minute account. He will be able to reassure the hon. Member for Hornchurch that the Flanagan report does not mean a reduction in police officers; it means—or I certainly take it to mean—that there is consideration of how the police use their time productively. There may not be an increase on the levels of the past 10 years, but there is certainly no commitment from Flanagan that there should be a decrease or from the Government that there should be any reduction in the resources given to local police authorities.

Mr. Ellwood: As usual, the right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful argument, and about something in which he has a great deal of expertise. As an authority on home affairs issues, will he comment on police authorities wanting to turn away from Government targets—in respect of arrests following fights in children’s playgrounds, for example—and focus on more serious issues such as tackling knife crime?

Keith Vaz: The hon. Gentleman is far too generous with his compliments, which I do not deserve. Owing to our case loads, all hon. Members are—or seek to be—experts on this issue. Policing is an issue that affects every one of our constituencies. The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on what police officers do with their time; as the hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and for Colchester (Bob Russell) have discovered during the progress of our inquiry into policing, it is important to consider that. Some local police authorities have decided not to record or pursue certain offences such as fights in the playground, but to concentrate on what we and they regard as more important issues. We should consider police priorities. However, the police have their priorities right: they understand that the issue is crucial and needs to be pursued, and that Parliament and the public are concerned about it.

We have seen a cultural change. It is not just that older children or young adults are stabbing young children or teenagers; it is that young people are stabbing each other. That different cultural phenomenon seems to have occurred in the past few years. There have been 15 deaths similar to that of Arsema Dawit; 16 young people have been stabbed on the streets of London so far this year. That is particularly worrying, and it is why I welcome what my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler) has been saying. It is important to ask young people themselves what they see as the solution to the problem. The problem for us is not only generational, but to do with the fact that we are not part of that culture. Young people have to be consulted if we are to find the solutions to the problems.

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