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when considering the seriousness of the offence courts should bear in mind the harm which the weapon might foreseeably have caused. So the message is stark. This is a serious offence and it should be treated with the seriousness it deserves.
Mr. Dunne: I am grateful for that answer, but five months ago the Prime Minister announced exclusively to The Sun, in a dazzling display of his vision about crime, that in 12 hotspot areas there would be a presumption to prosecute people carrying knives, irrespective of their age. Can the Justice Secretary tell the House where those 12 areas are, and how many prosecutions there have been since the policy came into force? Was that not a vision for a headline, rather than a serious attempt to get a grip on the growing scourge of knife crime?
Mr. Straw: I shall be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with a list of the areas concerned. From discussions that I have had with the Director of Public Prosecutions and others, I know that the experience of operating where there was a presumption or expectation of prosecution in a limited number of areas is part of the reason why we have decided to extend that across England and Wales. It is extremely important that we send out a message, as Sir Igor Judge and the Court of Appeal, quite properly, didand much more authoritatively, in a way, than anything that any Minister or Member can saythat knife crime, including the mere possession of a knife in a public place, is a serious offence.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that my constituent, young Jessica Knight, was savagely attacked and survived 30 stab wounds. Can we send a message from the House to Jessica and her family that we will be tough on crime, and that we will ensure that people are persuaded through tough sentencing that they should not carry or use knives?
Mr. Straw: Nothing that I or anyone else says in the House can put right the terrible injury, harm and trauma that was suffered by my hon. Friends constituent and her family and friends. However, what I would say is that the courts treat any offence of that kind extremely seriously. Moreover, such offenders are not charged with mere possession of a bladed weapon; they are charged with the most serious of their actionsin this case, what sounds like grievous bodily harm with intent. The courts are increasingly tough in respect of such offences. Where offences of a similar seriousness have been committed in the past, more and more offenders have been receiving indeterminate sentences for public protection, and cannot come out unless and until they can show to the parole board that there is a high probability that they will not reoffend. Having visited many prisons, I can tell my hon. Friend that the indeterminate sentence for public protection is working to concentrate the minds of offenders who previously had not had their minds properly concentrated.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con):
The whole House would endorse what the Lord Chancellor has just said, but does he accept that for generations
some of our most responsible young peoplescouts and othershave carried bladed weapons, such as Swiss army knives, for perfectly legitimate purposes? We are not moving into a society where the very possession of one of those by a responsible person can be assumed to be a crime, are we?
Mr. Straw: I was a boy scout once: 28th Epping Forest brigade, based on the Buckhurst Hill congregational church, Palmerston road, Buckhurst Hill, Essexcentre of the world. I also confess that more recently when I have been camping, and in other appropriate circumstances, I am able to carry a Swiss army penknife, entirely lawfully. There is no suggestion whatsoever that there is no defence to the offence of carrying a bladed weapon, but the weapons that are typically picked up by the police when they search, or when an offence has been committed, are not Swiss army knives. In two thirds of cases the weapon is a kitchen knife, which the offenders have no reason whatsoever to carry outside. Moreover, the offence allows for proper defences in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes.
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): Since the beginning of the year three teenagers have been murdered in my constituency by the use of knives. My constituents are shocked by this, and they are also incredulous that any teenager can go down to a pound shop in my constituency and buy the largest knife ever seen. What more can my right hon. Friend do to strengthen the guidelines for shopkeepers and, perhaps more importantly, to strengthen the sanctions against them for selling such weapons to young people?
Mr. Straw: The sanctions and prohibitions on the sale of knives have been progressively increased since the Knives Act 1997, which started out as a Labour Back-Bench private Members Bill. I will certainly look with great care at how the tough laws and rules can be better enforced. They have to be better enforced by shops but, to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), knives have lawful purposes and we cannot ban them. This is not only about shopkeepers; it is also about parents making sure that their children and young people up to the age of 18 do not take knives out. That practice has to stop. That said, although it is difficult to reassure constituents faced with the trauma that my hon. Friends constituents have experienced, overall the level of crime, including crime using a bladed weapon, has not increased as much as the public would suggest. Indeed, the level of homicides with bladed weapons has remained relatively stable. But we have to ensure that people stop carrying knives for criminal purposes and using them in some dreadful circumstances.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con):
Last year 258 people were killed, and 64,000 were mugged, by criminals with knives, and 31 teenagers have been knifed to death this year. Does the Secretary of State remember that in 2001, as Home Secretary, he urged the police not to prosecute young people caught with knives, whereas now the Prime Minister says that they should be prosecuted? Having been caught out not providing enough prison places for serious offenders, Ministers are now demanding that the courts hand out community punishments to criminals who should go inside. In November, the
Government will introduce legislation to make sentences fit the available prison space rather than the crime. Has not Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime now been exposed as no more than vacuous sloganising by a Government who have let down the law-abiding public? Do not the public have a right to a Government who are on their side, instead of a Government constantly trying to save their own neck?
Mr. Straw: I confess that I do not recall what the hon. and learned Gentleman attributes to me, but if he wishes to share the exact quotation with me, I will be happy to follow it up. I would have hoped that the issue of knife crime was not a partisan issue, but he is seeking to make it one. What I remember is a Government who presided over a doubling of crime between 1979 and 1997, and who had totally inadequate sanctions for knife crime, gun crime and many other crimes, and far fewer prison places than we have today. I am proud to say that this Government have seen a 30 per cent. and more increase in prison places, and longer prison sentences for offenders, coupled with a 30 per cent. reduction in crime. We are the first Government since the war to have seen a serious reduction in crime during our administration, rather than an increase, which happened repeatedly under the Conservatives.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): The new pay system implemented by the Ministry of Justice in 2007, with five regional pay ranges, was designed to simplify the many different pay systems that the Department inherited and to address the problem of low pay across the organisation. More than 95 per cent. of staff have decided to opt in to the deal, and one in four members of staff, the majority in the lowest grades, will see their pay rise by 20 per cent. over the next four years.
Jessica Morden: Will the Minister seriously consider restoring the system of pay scales for staff who live outside London? Not only does the system pay Welsh staff less than those who live in Bristol, Birmingham or Liverpool, but court staff who work in adjacent towns, such as Newport and Cwmbran, are paid different rates for doing exactly the same job.
Maria Eagle: No existing employee will lose out as a result of the new regional pay rate. Those on national rates, including those in Cwmbran and the parts of Wales that my hon. Friend has referred to, can progress to the national plus range. Furthermore, the arrangements provide for an annual review of the pay range allocations to check that they are correct. That will involve trade unions, and I am happy to receive representations from hon. Members who think that they have identified anomalies, because we want to try to make sure that any such anomalies are corrected.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC):
Hard-working court staff are dismayed and anxious. The hon. Member for Newport, East (Jessica Morden)
is right: why should those staff be paid much less simply because they live outside the three cities in the south of Wales? Will the Minister think again, because the majority of the lower-paid will be within the objective 1/convergence area? We are trying to raise GDP, not lower it.
Maria Eagle: As I have said, I am happy to receive representations and meet hon. Members to consider particular constituency cases. The scheme contains arrangements for making alterations, if it is found that the wrong pay ranges have been applied, and I am happy to consider such issues with hon. Members. The regional pay system is designed to tackle low pay and the significant pay disparities inherited from the 50 schemes that applied before the Ministry of Justice brought all those staff together in one department. That will disproportionately benefit, through higher pay increases, those on the lowest rates of pay, which is a good thing.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): A range of measures are available to support witnesses, including police protection programmes and a number of special measures to help intimidated witnesses give their best evidence in court. Those measures include screens round the witness box and the ability to give evidence by a live link from a different location, or in private. We are working to strengthen and improve those arrangements, particularly in gang-related gun and knife crime cases, to ensure that witnesses can give their evidence safely and without fear of reprisals.
John Robertson: Does my hon. Friend agree that groups such as Victim Support do an excellent job in trying to protect people and by giving people, particularly children and the disabled, aid and support? Is it not time to give such groups more funds? We should think about supporting the victim rather than supporting the criminal.
Maria Eagle: I agree with my hon. Friend that Victim Support does a superb job. Its funding has more than tripled since 1997, from £11 million to more than £37 million. Some 1.4 million victims and witnesses have been referred to its support service, and it has helped more than 35,000 vulnerable or intimidated witnesses with particular support and tailored assistance. I agree with my hon. Friend that the amount of effort that the criminal justice system puts into recognising the importance of victims and witnesses has changed out of all recognition over the past 10 years. We intend to do more by tailoring support more fully to the needs of vulnerable or intimidated witnesses.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con):
Does the Minister share my concern about the increasing number of Muslims who choose to leave the Islamic faith, or, indeed, to embrace atheism, and require police protection? Why does her Department refuse to tell me how many Muslims are currently being protected by policeby the British
taxpayer? Should we not be dealing with people who espouse violence against Muslims who choose to follow another religion or to embrace atheism?
Maria Eagle: I am happy to look further into the hon. Gentlemans specific point, but when we consider the very highest level of police protection, there are obvious reasons why certain information is not peddled around: it might compromise the protection that is being given to particular individuals. I am not aware of the detail of the issue right now, but I am perfectly happy to look at it more closely if he would care to speak to me outside the Chamber.
Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that people who are victims of crime in their own homes require specific assistance in giving evidence against their attackers? If someone is a victim of antisocial behaviour, of domestic violence or even of gun crime, their attacker, de facto, knows exactly where they live. What more can the courts do to protect such vulnerable people?
Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is correct. One impact of focusing the criminal justice system and our support much more on the needs of victims rather than just on the needs of defendants is that it enables us to design arrangements to do just what she suggests. The big increase in the number of independent victims advocates and in the support for victims of domestic violence and rape is, in turn, showing up in conviction figures. I agree with my hon. Friend that particular victims of particular crimes in particular circumstances have very specific needs. The criminal justice system now seeks to provide much more fully for those individual needs.
The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): We have no plans to change the home detention curfew, which has been a feature of the criminal justice system since 1999 and has enjoyed all-party support. My aim is to terminate the end of custody licence scheme once there are sufficient prison places to do so safely.
Mr. Swayne: In June of last year, the estimate was that during the end of custody licence schemes first year of operation, there would be 25,500 releases. So far, there have been 26,000, and the estimate is that by the end of the schemes first year of operation, the number will be 31,000. Can the Lord High Chancellor explain the gap?
The gap has occurred because the figures are, and were, estimates. As it happens, the estimate was changed shortly after it was made. Paradoxically, the situation reflects the fact that more people are being sent to prisonthey are being sent to prison for longer. That is one reason why the pressures have continued. I cannot say exactly when, but I hope to see the ECL scheme, which releases prisoners within the up-to-four-year
category just two and a half weeks earlier than they would otherwise be released, ended as soon as we can safely do so.
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that any early release scheme inevitably undermines the integrity of very carefully worked out sentencing guidelines?
Mr. Straw: I accept what my right hon. Friend says. I should also just say to him that previous Administrations resorted to schemes that were much more significant in their dramatic effect and with much less felicity than ECL. My right hon. Friend will remember the day shortly after the general election in 1987, when the then Home Secretary, now Lord Hurd, released just overnight 3,500 prisoners with serious convictions, and continued to do so. That culminated in the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) releasing 537 prisoners in the summer of 1996by mistake.
Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): My constituents believe that the punishment should fit the crime. They, like the right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), believe that the judicial system is being undermined by early prisoner releases. What discussion has the Minister had with the probation service, which is currently under immense pressure and required to ensure that those early release prisoners do not cause more problems in the community?
Mr. Straw: I have many discussions, both formal and informal, with the probation service. Indeed, I met a lot of probation officers yesterday evening at the reception in the Members Dining Room marking the retirement of Judy McKnight, the very distinguished general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers. The answer is that we recognise the pressures on the probation service, and an extra £40 million has been given to it this year to allow it to cope.
The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): Between 2000 and 2005, youth reoffending reduced by 2.5 per cent., with a 17.4 per cent. reduction in the frequency of juvenile reoffending. A huge amount of work is taking place to reduce reoffending, including many successful restorative justice schemes whereby the victims are able to confront the reoffender.
Tony Baldry: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. In Oxfordshire, a scheme for first-time offenders run by the youth offending service helped 235 youngsters in 2007-08, only 3 per cent. of whom went on to reoffend. Does not that demonstrate two things? First, ring-fenced money that helps young people not to reoffend is money very well spent. Secondly, we all collectively need to do an awful lot more to explain the youth offending service and its role so that people do not think that its work means that those young offenders are getting off lightly, because if they are prevented from reoffending, we all benefit.
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