Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
20 JANUARY 2009
Q220 Ms Buck: I am tremendously supportive
of that approach, as I say, I think it is very powerful, but given
what we know about young people, the fact that they all believe
they are invincible and their risk assessment is poorthey
always think, even if this is true and shocking, it is not going
to happen to themshould we perhaps not concentrate much
more on the simple practicalities about anger management and how
you teach young people to back down done in conflict situations
rather than perhaps dealing with the consequences of an event
that they are convinced is never going to happen to them?
Mrs Oakes-Odger: I think we need
not just to look at the issue of knives, we need to get through
to them on a level they can understand and show them the consequences
of becoming involved in the whole cocktail, that that is influential
in becoming involved in crime, looking at, if during their school
period and their school day they act in an anti-social way and
become excluded from school, what the real consequences are of
becoming involved with other people that are acting in an anti-social
way and excluded from school. Often by joining together it is
perpetrating a cycle where abuses can then come into the frame,
such as alcohol, and on that point I think that the committee
can perhaps look at the issue of alcopops where young people are
concerned. We have to look at not just knife crime and the consequences
for young people but the whole cocktail, and by explaining that
in terms that young people understand and supporting that with
the safer schools police officer within the teaching forum, bringing
the parents within that situation and having an ongoing programme,
it cannot just be, "Well, let us have a talk in school once
or maybe twice", it has to be a network of teachers, parents
being engaged within that, and police. We have to try and get
across to young people that respect, alongside consequences, respect
for themselves and respect for authority.
Q221 Gwyn Prosser: I wonder if you
can tell us a bit more about your roadshows? You have got a powerful
message to give to these children, but unless you engage with
them and they are enthusiastic about listening to you, not much
is obtained. How would you engage with them and is the feedback
that they are listening and the message is getting across, or
Mrs Oakes-Odger: There is a number
of reasons why the roadshows are very successful. Initially, the
very first talk that I did at a school in Essex was in January
2007, and at that time we found huge resistance within schools.
The head teachers were very concerned about having a weapons awareness
programme within their school, because they were concerned that
it might suggest to the local community that their school had
a problem. How to address that was to say: how can we engage,
not just the children, but the head teachers, the schools? How
can we get everyone behind that situation? By expanding the roadshow
from what was previously a very successful 11-year project looking
at drugs and alcohol to look at bullying, which covers their growing
years, and young people can relate to that issue, by bringing
in a stage production of an altercation that could possibly happen
to any young person and bringing those children within the audience
up on to the stage at the various different parts of the show
to engage within that show, we then opened up not just the school
attitude and making that change to having weapons awareness but
we opened up the thought pattern of those young people actually
viewing the show.
Q222 David Davies: You have expressed
concern in the past that people convicted or found carrying knives
are treated less severely than those found with firearms, which
I would sympathise with. Do you think that the recent changes
to the law, the tightening up and increasing sentences, have helped?
Are you happy with general direction the Government is now taking
Mrs Oakes-Odger: I was very pleased
with the result at the bill stage of the Violent Crime Reduction
Act wherein for people found carrying a knife the penalty was
increased from two years to four years. I feel that at that level
that is a reasonable penalty and brings it reasonably in line
with gun crime.
Q223 David Davies: Do you not have
a concern, though, that whilst the maximum penalty is there, it
is very rarely applied?
Mrs Oakes-Odger: Yes, I have a
very real concern of that and I have asked the question before,
in fact, at the first Home Affairs Select Committee, the single
session that took place in March 2007, at what point and under
what circumstances does the magistrate refer that incident on
to Crown under the "so serious" basis for a penalty?
Q224 David Davies: Lastly, do you
think the police have got adequate powers of stop and search to
deal with knife crime?
Mrs Oakes-Odger: I am very pleased
with the fact that we now have a strategy in place for stop and
search. This is about protecting those that do not carry knives,
and on the issue of sentencing, I would like to say that I feel
that, whilst we have a sensible sentencing situation on what I
call the lower end, those where we are looking at young people
carrying knives, we are in danger of forgetting that alongside
prevention, dealing with those young people carrying knifes that
we do not want to criminalise, we do have another sector of society,
we have a night-time economy that involves alcohol and the older
people: we have a serious age group in their 20s and 30s that
are parents themselves. It is those people that have quite often
been responsible for taking life. The two brothers responsible
for my son's death were actually 31 and 36, and therein I feel
that we still need to look at the sentencing strategy: because
if somebody that has a previous history of violence and using
weapons takes that knife and thrusts that knife into a person's
neck or into their chest, they are acting in a way that is more
likely to kill than not and, therefore, when we look at somebody
taking a gun with that same background, often we are seeing a
life sentence with a tariff sometimes as much as ten years, apart
from that same incident involving a knife, and I personally feel
we need to look at closing that gap.
Chairman: Thank you.
Q225 Patrick Mercer: Mrs Oakes-Odger,
do you think that the amount of coverage that knife crime got,
particularly towards the end of last year, was helpful in terms
of deterring this sort of violence or might counter-intuitively
have caused more people to carry offensive weapons?
Mrs Oakes-Odger: I would agree
with you on both points, but at the time that Westley's life was
taken in 2005 we had a huge focus on gun crime, and rightly so.
Often we had serious loss of life of all ages of people being
stabbed to death and it would come up in the media focus and slide
away again. We needed to have that focus to arrive at the situation,
that we have here today. The media can work very much to the good
of a situation and what we are doing by discussing this issue
today is saying we are at that point where addressing the problem
is prudent and necessary. Also, I would comment, as far as the
media is concerned, we had a very successful Home Office engaged
media focus during the summer months with other community-based
organisations, which is very important, to work alongside the
police and generally within the community. It is necessary to
have those stories out within the media. That is a prime example
of using the media for positive situations.
Q226 Mrs Dean: Aside from action
around education and penalties, which you have talked about, what
else would you like to do to tackle knife crime?
Mrs Oakes-Odger: The work that
Essex has been doing since the campaign that I personally worked
on in 2007 has proved very successful. The 2008 roadshow covering
bullying, drugs, alcohol, knives, the feedback that we have had
from that has been hugely positive. This year's 2009 programme,
we have more and more schools signing up to come and see that
show. We actually engaged 15,000 Year Sevens in Essex last year,
and that number is greatly increased so far in the 2009 programme.
The follow-up to those roadshows is engagements within the schools
alongside the safer schools officers, and the roadshow is not
the only Essex based project we are doing. We have the SOS bus
that works within the night-time economy with the older teenagers.
I would personally like to see the Government roll out a system
like that. If not that particular system, certainly I would like
to see many more community organisations using those families,
like myself, and I am not unique in this, that can come out and
speak to young people in a positive way. I would like to see more
families be involved in that, but a national education programme
so that all Year Sevens, at the latest, have the ability to access
weapons awareness programmes.
Chairman: Thank you. Your local MP is
here, Mr Russell. We cannot not let him ask a very quick supplementary,
but could we have a quick reply.
Bob Russell: Very briefly, I would like
to thank the committee for inviting Mrs Oakes-Odger to come in.
She gave written evidence last time. I am more than aware of the
hard work she is doing and I just wanted to pay tribute to her
and also to thank the committee for having such a first-class
Q227 Chairman: Thank you Mr Russell.
Thank you Mrs Oakes-Odger. If we could turn to you now, Mr Levy.
You are a college lecturer in auto engineering. Your son, Robert,
was only 16 when he was murdered a few yards away from your home
Mr Levy: Right at our gate actually.
Q228 Chairman: In September 2004?
Mr Levy: That is right.
Q229 Chairman: He was trying to stop
a fight. He intervened to help a younger boy who was being threatened
with a knife and he then suffered multiple stab wounds initiated
by a 15 year old school boy. You and your wife, Patricia, have
set up the Robert Levy Foundation.
Mr Levy: Yes.
Q230 Chairman: Can you tell this
committee, has any progress been made in the reduction of knife
crime since Robert's death?
Mr Levy: Over the preceding years
we have seen where the number of knife crimes has actually gone
up in and around London. So, to answer to your question, no, would
be my answer. As for why that is happening there are a number
of reasons, as you may have all heard time and time again, but
certainly the numbers have gone up.
Q231 Bob Russell: What do you think
causes young people to carry knives and to commit violent crime?
In the case of your son, we know, but is that the general scenario
or are there other situations?
Mr Levy: We all know that there
are three main reasons given for young people carrying knives.
One is the status or as a fashion accessory, for the commission
of crime, and the one that is most often used is for protection.
I think most young people who you ask, or almost all young people
you ask, will say they carry it for protection, because that is
the simplest and easiest reason to justify the possession of a
knife in any case. As for the reason for using it, it is about
the mindset of the young person. Maybe it is an issue where they
are under pressure from older people to be part of a gang; it
is just to increase their status within that peer group and also
just to carry out the act of a crime for financial gain or other
purposes. So the whole issue around why they carry a knife, to
me what we should be saying is absolutely nowhere anybody should
carry a knife. Like the Chief Superintendent says, to carry a
knife is to use a knife, and I personally think that is a strong
message that should be sent across. We are all in some ways responsible
for sending mixed messages to young people, young people who do
not actually understand the effect of the action until they have
committed such a crime, and instead of saying we can understand
you carrying it for protection, we should be saying, absolutely
not, no way should you be carrying a knife. On the issue of sentencing,
it is nice to have increased the maximum period of sentence for
the possession of a knife in a public place to four years, but
in order for that to have the desired effect, it should not be
around a maximum sentence, it should be around a mandatory sentence,
because up and down the country use of the maximum sentence has
always been there, it has been there for some time, and it has
rarely ever been used. What has come across from a lot of young
people is that, if they find that there is a maximum sentence
or a mandatory sentence, they know that they are going to be put
away for four years. That does send a strong message for them.
What comes across is that when young people see their friends
being sentenced for possession of a knife and within a very short
period of time they are back in the community, that has the opposite
effect of being a deterrent. It then becomes a badge of honour
where they can say, "I have been inside for this and here
I am again", and it does nothing to boost the confidence
of the young people within the community who are trying to stay
away from it.
Q232 Tom Brake: Mr Levy, you clearly
do not believe that having a four-year sentence, unless it is
mandatory, is actually going to do the job, is that right, in
terms of sending out the right messages?
Mr Levy: Absolutely. In the past
we have had a maximum of two years, which has hardly ever been
used and it has not worked. Even if we increase the maximum to
five years or six years and it has not been used, it will not
have the effect that it is intended to have, but unless a strong
message is sent to young people who are persistent knife carriers
or who carry a knife as a routine that, if you are caught in a
public place carrying a knife, you will be sent to prison for
four years, that is one of the only things, I think, that will
send that message to them. We are not talking about a young person
who may be on the verge of doing something like this or somebody
who is very timid, we are talking about people whose main purpose
in life, or whose main goal in life, is to cause serious harm
and destruction to other people within the community.
Q233 Tom Brake: I think it is important
for the committee to hear from you from your personal experience.
You are making a difference between a young person who, for whatever
reason, carried a knife on one particular day and someone who,
in your words, is a persistent offender, who perhaps has a track
record of carrying a knife on him; that there would be a difference
in terms of whether a mandatory sentence was applied to the young
person I mentioned first or the persistent offender; so there
should be a distinction.
Mr Levy: Absolutely. When you
go into a court and you hear of some people's previous, and time
and time again, especially in a magistrates court, on somebody's
previous record they have been done three or four times for possession
of a knife in a public place, the magistrate's hands are tied,
in the sense of what more can they do to send a message to this
individual, and we cannot wait until the point where they then
start to use that knife and either seriously injure or kill somebody
before we are able to do something about putting that person away.
Q234 Tom Brake: Would you also agree,
however, that young people may think twice if there is a mandatory
sentence, but, equally, surely they have got to believe that they
are going to be caught with it on them, and that part of the equation
has also got to be resolved. If they do not think they are going
to be caught, then surely they are not going to be worried about
a mandatory sentence.
Mr Levy: There are two things.
First of all, I think the stop and search has been very effective
in tackling that, and I think it should be extended and that pressure
needs to be kept up, but on the other hand we have to make sure
that, whatever happens, the young person must know that he has
every chance that he will be caught. We get reports from the police
that they know, they can tell you, how many gangs exist in London,
they can tell you who these gang members are, and one of the ways
that pressure can be kept up is by the police actively targeting
these individuals if they are known to them. Especially if they
are known to carry a knife, if they are targeted every day the
message will get across that there is every chance that, if you
walk through your door with a knife and police know who you are,
you will be stopped and searched. That should counter that mindset
that they will not be caught.
Q235 Patrick Mercer: Mr Levy, your
foundation works to get young people into training and employment
and to divert them away from crime. How easy has it been to persuade
organisations to offer work experience and mentoring? Could the
Government do more to encourage that?
Mr Levy: To be quite honest, I
do not know if it is out of sympathy, but I do find that a lot
of organisations are willing to get involved with helping young
people, a lot of confidence through the CSRs to encourage the
employers to offer at least a day a year to volunteer to help
local voluntary groups to go into schools, et cetera. On that
basis there is a willingness to do that, but what we are interested
in is that long-term contact or that long-term support from employers
to make this happen. What we found when started to look at this,
one of the things that young people said to us is that there is
always something there but it only lasts for so long and then
it ends, and then they are back to stage one when there is nothing
to do, nobody supporting them, et cetera. What we are looking
for is that continuation at all times to make sure that there
is that engagement with employers.
Q236 Chairman: What more do you think
the Government should do?
Mr Levy: I think the Government
needs to look at the penal system to start with. People argue
that the prison system does not work, and I would agree, because
the prison system, as it is, is not what it should be; it is not
the deterrent that it should be. Young people or people who commit
crime against the community in which they live should be made
to put something back into the community instead of the community
constantly paying for them to stay in prison to do nothing whatsoever.
That aspect of it needs to be addressed. I have visited quite
a few young offender institutions and what I have seen and what
I have heard from prison officers is absolutely appalling, where
a young person over 18 does not have to do anything, can sit in
his cell all day long if he wants to. He has got his television,
he has got a Playstation, and at one point a prison officer said
to me there was an incident where the Playstation that was given
to them, it came to light that they could access the Internet,
and when they decided to withdraw that there was almost a riot
in the prison. I find it absolutely shocking that somebody who
is in prison as a punishment who has something taken off of them
thinks they have a right to riot within a prison because that
is taken away from them.
Q237 Chairman: The Home Secretary
is on her way. If you were Home Secretary for just one day, not
an unlikely scenario bearing in mind the significance of today
in the United States of America, what is the one thing that you
would do that you think would reduce knife crime, just one thing?
Mr Levy: (1) Make the prison what
it should be and (2) make sure that the legislation that is put
in place does act as the deterrent that it should be in terms
of, like I said before, making mandatory sentences instead of
making it just something that is random for judges to give at
Q238 Chairman: You set up the Robert
Levy Foundation. Presumably it is highlighting the work that you
have talked about today; it is trying to campaign on these issues?
Mr Levy: Yes.
Q239 Chairman: How successful has
Mr Levy: We mainly work within
Hackney, because that is where we live. Over the past few years
the awareness has grown because we are getting into more and more
schools, we have been asked to come into more and more schools
to work with young people in terms of mentoring, et cetera, and
often we find in a few cases the school actually calls us in because
there are young people, as young as nine or ten, who are on the
verge of getting into crime. They have either got older siblings
who are involved in gangs or who are, in some cases, in prison,
and that behaviour has been brought into schools and we have been
asked to come in to talk to these young people to tell them what
it is like from our experience and also to mentor them, to help
them, and work with the parents as well, to make sure that the
message does get across to them.
Chairman: Mr Levy, Mrs Oakes-Odger, not
only do you have the huge sympathy of this committee over your
terrible loss but also our admiration that both of you, in your
grief, have set up campaigning organisations to try and prevent
this happening to the parents and families of other young people.
We do admire what you have done. We are extremely grateful to
you for giving evidence to us today because it will be help us
enormously in our deliberations on this very important issue.
Thank you very much for coming.