Knife Crime - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 220-239)


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 poor—they always think, even if this is true and shocking, it is not going to happen to them—should 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 otherwise?

  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 on this?

  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 personal testament.

  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 in Hackney.

  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 their discretion.

  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 it been?

  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.

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