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The reality of the situation is quite stark. The level of fatal stabbings is the highest on record. There has been a 34 per cent. increase in the number of people killed by sharp instruments such as knives in recent years. The number of people stabbed to death in England and Wales increased from 201 a decade ago to 270 in 2007-08, the highest figure on record. That is a serious problem. A serious knife crime—although not a homicide—is committed every hour. According to recent figures, 22,151 serious offences involving knives were recorded in England and Wales in 2008. That is equivalent to 400 a week, or one every half hour. We are dealing with a major problem, although it is more confined to some communities than to others.

The Select Committee’s report highlights the contradictions that exist between some of the figures that are available. There have certainly been improvements in some areas covered by Government programmes, although I must say that I should have been worried if there had not been, given the money that has been spent. Equally, however, there is an inescapable pattern that illustrates the scale of the problem.

The Committee points out that there has been a big increase in the number of knife injuries since the mid-1990s, as is made clear by hospital episode statistics, and that the biggest increase has taken place since 2006. There is also an alarmingly high propensity to carry knives. A 2008 MORI youth survey indicated that 31 per cent. of 11 to 16-year-olds in mainstream education and 61 per cent. of excluded young people had carried a weapon at some point during the preceding year. Of course those figures are bound to mask some legitimate activity, such as the carrying of a penknife by a boy scout, but the overall picture is nevertheless unhappy. The Committee also points out that random knife crime against strangers is relatively rare, although the terrible attack in Grimsby this week is an indication that it remains a threat.

I believe—and here my view may differ slightly from the Select Committee’s interpretation—that the real problem lies in the gang culture in many areas. Whether kids carry knives because they are in gangs or because they are afraid of gangs—the point made by the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck)—in many areas it is the gang culture that drives the problem, and I think that we must break that gang culture if we are to deal with the problem of knife crime.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): As I am sure my hon. Friend accepts, gang culture exists not only out in the community but, increasingly, on the young offender prison estate. On admission to custody, the first thing that young offenders almost certainly do is join a gang, which causes tremendous trouble on the estate.

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend makes an important point. He knows about the reality of the situation from his professional experience, and he has taken an active interest in young offender institutions, their workings and their failings. I have visited a number of such institutions, and I share his concern about the fact that the gang culture is being perpetuated within prison walls—as, indeed, are some other problems that we face.

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The root causes of the gang culture that leads to knife crime lie right across the policy spectrum, but they tend to be found in the same geographical areas. If we were to map out geographically rates of worklessness, family breakdown, educational failure and addiction in the family, we would find a high correlation between social breakdown and the gang culture, and the report makes it clear that there is a link between deprivation, gang membership and knife crime.

Ms Buck: Is the hon. Gentleman also aware of research by the Sutton Trust, an educational research organisation, that importantly confirmed the apparent correlation between certain types of violent crime and inequality? It is not just a question of deprivation equalling violence; the sharp impact of inequalities in society unfortunately also has an influence on how some people behave.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Lady makes an important point, which she might elaborate on if she makes a speech later.

The truth is that those who join gangs often come from the most difficult family backgrounds—from an environment where they feel neglected and unwanted. Gang membership brings a perverse sense of belonging that they might not ever have got at home. It also exposes them to the danger of being exploited by the hardcore who build gangs around them, and increasingly by organised criminals who exploit local gangs for illegal trade, particularly in drugs. Some younger children are also vulnerable to being used by older gang members as caddies and—I know this from talking to young people in such circumstances—for carrying and hiding firearms. The Select Committee was right to seek information from the Home Office about the number of prosecutions in relation to caddies under the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, and I hope the Home Secretary will make reference to this issue in his speech.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful contribution. I do not disagree with any of his points about what kinds of young people are most likely to become gang members, but in my constituency I have been particularly concerned about the dynamics of gang activity. We wanted to set up a youth facility in a school that crossed a geographical boundary, but many young people in my community—both those who did belong to gangs and those who did not—were not prepared to cross it. We have to understand more about gang dynamics if we are to make an impact on this problem.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and it illustrates why we must have community groups on the ground engaging in these problems. They understand the problems best, and former gang members can also be a powerful influence in trying to encourage young people who are a part of gangs away from them. They, more than anyone else, understand gang culture.

I am also in no doubt that tougher police action to smash up gangs is necessary. We have to break up the hardcore, and also, in a constructive way, peel away those around the fringes. Those two elements of the strategy are extremely important. To that end, the Select Committee has made a number of valuable suggestions.
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I do not agree with every one of its recommendations, but I think the report should provide a reference point for debating the issues.

I was particularly struck by the Committee’s comments about the influence of violent videos and video games on those with a propensity to violence. In most cases for most children, playing a violent video game is not going to turn them into a knife-wielding troublemaker, but for some it clearly can. The Committee’s comments about the presence of such material in detention institutions also raised a concern.

The Committee is right to highlight the need both to break down barriers between young people and the police and to address the reasons some young people seek “respect” on the streets. I also agree with it on the need for improved intervention at the point where a young person is excluded from school. However, there is in my view one area that can make a particularly great difference. In my evidence to the Select Committee, I focused on the need for early intervention. I believe that a successful battle against emerging antisocial behaviour can play an important role in combating more serious offences, particularly knife crime. As a society we do not intervene early enough to say no to a young miscreant. Most serious knife criminals are young men in their later teens, but all the anecdotal evidence I have been given is that they are often the same young men who three or four years earlier were responsible for less serious acts of antisocial behaviour in their communities. Not every 13 or 14-year-old troublemaker goes on to commit more serious offences—far from it—but some do, and we could do more to stop them.

Ms Buck: Does the hon. Gentleman agree, therefore, that we should be ensuring at least a guarantee of continuance, but preferably an expansion, of some of the early intervention programmes that we have been developing, such as the youth intervention programmes and the youth offending teams? We have rolled out a range of early intervention schemes in recent years and their continuation is utterly reliant on Government funding.

Chris Grayling: I shall go on to say a little more about how we need a mix of intervention to rein back and constructive engagement.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his remarks—he is absolutely right about this antisocial behaviour point. My local police in Kettering have told me that they know who all the teenage troublemakers are and they are becoming increasingly frustrated that they do not really have the powers to deal with the problem effectively. The Home Office is rolling out the fixed penalty notice scheme in six police forces around the country, whereby they will be able to issue notices to teenagers below the age of 16. That is not available at the moment in Northamptonshire, but it is a tool that the local police would very much like to have, because they could use it to deal effectively with the ringleaders and troublemakers among teenage groups.

Chris Grayling: I agree with my hon. Friend that we need simple powers to be able to intervene early; indeed, I was going to set out some of the ways in which such change might work. We need a quicker, more comprehensive
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programme of early interventions designed to stop young people going off the rails without their being pushed straight into the criminal justice system and getting a criminal record that will blight their future. Far too often interventions are made too late in a teenager’s life and by the time the criminal justice system is brought into play irreversible behaviours have built themselves into that person’s life.

That does not mean that young people should not face the full force of the law if they have committed a serious offence—there will always be a need for some to be arrested and prosecuted because they have done so—but earlier, lighter and more straightforward interventions should be available to try to rein them back. As the Home Secretary will know, I have argued for a 21st century version of the clip round the ear: a series of swift, fair measures that can be deployed more nimbly than some of the cumbersome measures that are in place. That was what the Government originally intended with antisocial behaviour orders, but in the end they have created a system that takes too long to implement.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): The hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of using serious penalties when necessary, so are the official Opposition still in favour of a presumption of a custodial sentence for all knife carriers?

Chris Grayling: If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will address that specific point a little later in my remarks—I will answer his question.

What we have proposed at this stage of the process is giving the police simple powers—working with a local magistrate—to issue grounding orders to young troublemakers and to apply simple community service penalties that do not give those young people a long-term criminal record. There will, of course, be instances where people break the law and use a knife to attack someone, and we need to have punishments available to break this cycle. That is why we also need tougher enforcement and sentencing. The precursor of a tougher approach on knife crime is getting more police officers out from behind desks and on to the streets, which is why it is so important that the Home Secretary continues to see through, and accelerates, the process of reducing police bureaucracy and paperwork, and why he will find, as he takes on his new job, that progress in some areas has been too slow. I hope that he will be able to accelerate things.

We also need to get much tougher when sentencing young people who are caught carrying knives or who commit other knife crimes. The issue of whether sentences should be custodial was extensively debated by the Select Committee—and with me when I gave evidence to it. I do not think that the current system imposes sufficiently stiff penalties. That must change because we need to create an environment where the default is not to carry a knife and where there is a big risk in carrying a knife, so that those who are more likely to offend do not do so and those who are afraid do not need to do so.

The starting point should be that anyone carrying a knife without a reasonable excuse should expect to be prosecuted—there are still those who are let off with a caution. We should make it clear that people convicted of carrying a knife should expect to receive a custodial sentence.

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I made the point to the Select Committee that the presumption should be that offenders will be sent to jail. The minimum sentence should be a community penalty, with the offender doing positive work in the community, not a fine or a caution. We should not remove all discretion from the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service or the police, but if the norm is a tough penalty it will have the effect of deterring many people from carrying knives in the first place and removing the pressure to carry them that some feel.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): My hon. Friend makes an important point. Part of what is needed is certainty, so that people who are committing crimes know what will be the consequence if they are caught. Part of the problem is that too many community sentences such as the intensive supervision and surveillance programme see routine breaches that do not lead to any comeback on the offender. Does he agree that there is a danger that that builds in a sense that people can break the rules and get away with it?

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a danger in the criminal justice system that we do not see things through, whether it is the enforcement of an antisocial behaviour order or the enforcement of a community penalty. If people see that they can get away with things, they will not respect the law. It is fundamentally important that if there is a penalty, we see it through and do not just let it lapse.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): On penalties, will the shadow Home Secretary indicate what he believes the age of criminal responsibility should be?

Chris Grayling: I see no reason to change the age of criminal responsibility at the moment, but I want those who carry knives around in their teenage years to be brought before the law and dealt with accordingly. I do not want a seven-year-old who is being used as a caddy to be prosecuted, I want the person using them as a caddy to be prosecuted. That is how the law should work.

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): What about an 11-year-old who has brought a knife out from home? Would the hon. Gentleman decide that that was criminal activity?

Chris Grayling: It clearly would be criminal activity, but if we get things right and create an environment in which we have tough sanctions for people caught carrying a knife, 11-year-olds will not feel the need to do so. That is the step that we have to take. We must create an environment in which people feel that there is a risk in carrying a knife, and therefore do not choose to do so. The risk that we can offer is a penalty that they will not wish to receive.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman believe that another matter that we should examine in relation to knives is the people who sell them? There have been many problems with them in the past and quite a lot of debates about the matter in the House. What is his view about that?

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Chris Grayling: I would be open to all ideas as to how we can restrict the sale of knives to young people, and many retailers seek to do that. The problem is that it is not difficult for someone to buy a Sabatier kitchen knife from Sainsbury’s, pass it to one of the kids in their gang and go out and cause mayhem. That is the challenge—in our society, a knife is not a difficult thing to get hold of. We can take every step we want to restrict their sale, but ultimately that is a big problem for us.

There is one other area in which we need much tougher action. Drug dealing is endemic in many areas affected by knife crime. The Government have given out mixed messages about drugs in recent years, not just on classification but on sentencing policy and implementation. The truth is that we let off a significant proportion of drug dealers with just a caution, even those dealing in class A drugs such as heroin. That cannot be right, and it must change.

The Home Affairs Committee was absolutely right about the need for projects that engage and distract young people. We need both the carrot and the stick to deal with the problems of youth crime and knife crime. Up and down the country really worthwhile youth projects are helping, particularly in areas of deprivation where serious trouble and criminality can develop. There is the Frontline church’s youth work in Liverpool, Friday night football in Hampshire—in the constituency of the hon. Member for Eastleigh, where I commend the work being done by his local police—and martial arts work in Derbyshire. Those are all examples that I have seen in recent months of work being done to engage young people and get them away from an environment in which they may get into trouble.

Mr. Hollobone: To add to my hon. Friend’s list, may I mention young firefighter schemes? Another big problem area of teenage crime is arson, particularly of school premises. Active participation in such schemes kills two birds with one stone.

Chris Grayling: I absolutely agree, and I pay tribute to fire services up and down the country that, along with their more straightforward work of putting out fires and cutting people out of wrecked cars, are doing serious work in engaging young people and involving them in life around fire stations and fire services. They are helping in the engagement process.

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): My hon. Friend makes an important point about the importance of youth activity. May I also remind him of the importance of youth leaders being able to challenge young people who carry and use knives? Some 10 years ago I was a volunteer youth worker in Peckham and Bermondsey in south London and I remember having to ask the young people to leave their knives at the entrance when they came in to play basketball. The fact that young people participate in a youth activity does not mean that they stop their offending behaviour. That needs challenging by strong youth leaders.

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend is right, and one of the things that make for an especially strong youth project is the leader, and their credibility in the eyes of those who participate. If it is someone who has been there, who knows and understands the streets, and who can challenge that behaviour, it is more likely to succeed.

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