Knife Crime - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Question Numbers 294-299)


24 FEBRUARY 2009

  Q294 Chairman: Could I refer to all those present to the register of Members' interests where the relevant pecuniary and non-pecuniary interests of the Committee are noted. Can I welcome Frances Crook to the Select Committee; I am sure this is not your first visit to the Home Affairs Select Committee, and I am sure it will not be your last. We have delayed you slightly because we have been hearing evidence in private from the Prince's Trust and we will publish the evidence anonymously once our report is concluded. Thank you for coming here. You will, from your wealth of experience, know much about the issue of knife crime, which is the subject of this Committee's inquiry. I am particularly interested in my first question to ask you about the issue of victims of knife crime and victimisation. Is it the case that it is the victims who are now themselves becoming the perpetrators?

  Ms Crook: I think that is a very complicated question. It is certainly the case that the book we published, which was written by a prison governor, where she researched and talked to a lot of young people who were carrying knives that they certainly felt as if they might be victims, which was one of the reasons why they were carrying knives in the first place. They said very strongly that they were fearful of being victims and so that the protection of carrying a knife was one of the reasons why they did it, and of course once you carry a knife you can end up using it by mistake. You might or might not be aware that the Howard League for Penal Reform is also a law firm—we have a contract with the Legal Services Commission and we represent young people in custody, up to the age of 21—obviously sometimes older because they do grow up—and we have represented hundreds and hundreds of young people who have been in custody for a wide range of different offences. I asked my lawyer yesterday about any cases that she had of young people who were in custody for knife crime and one of the young people she is representing she said is very typical. He had had a hard time—he is 19 now—and he is now convicted of manslaughter, using a knife; so very serious. He did not actually go with a knife—he says he found the knife at the scene—but he had admitted to previously carrying a knife exactly because he was afraid of being the victim of a knife crime because he feared that other young people on the housing estate were carrying knives. So the answer to your question is, I think, that it is a slippery slope; the dividing line between victim and perpetrator is often very unclear. The other point I would like to make is how young some of the young people are now who are carrying knives.

  Chairman: We will come on to that.

  Q295  Mr Salter: I am interested in the work you did in the publication Why Carry a Weapon? about the role of natural protectors, ie police, I suppose youth workers, guardians, parents and the rest of it, and your work seems to indicate that a lot of young people felt that those people we have called natural protectors are actually anything but and they did not feel confident that in the world which they were now inhabiting that their parents or the police or other authorities could not actually protect them from harm. Would you like to elaborate on that for us and perhaps give us your view as to how we have reached this basis?

  Ms Crook: Both the evidence we have from our caseload and published in the book shows that young people do not trust the police. In fact it is worse than that; one of the quotes in the book from a young person is that "The police wind you up". They not only feel that the police will not protect them but they feel the police are antagonistic towards them.This is a serious problem because if the police are not there to protect everybody and the young people do not feel that the police will protect them, then that is a very serious issue. The other e issue that came out very strongly from the research concerns parents. We found that young people had conversations about carrying knives with their parents but the response from parents was not helpful; it was often threatening and not having a proper conversation and not being supportive and not helping the young people to deal with the issues they face. The research showed that the lack of family life for these young people was very important was an inhibitor to having that difficult conversation about how to protect yourself and how not to be a victim and why not to carry a knife. For example, that young people did not go out with their parents; they did not do anything with them; they could not remember when they last played a game with their parents; played football or a ballgame.. If they do anything together it is to watch TV or use the Internet. Schools are also an issue—a lot of them have been excluded from schools and do not have a good relationship with their schools. So all those people who would be the natural protectors—the police, family, schools—are not fulfilling that function. Theyseek that support, that approval from their peer group. Therefore it is very easy for us to slip into the gang language, identifying their peer group as a "gang" ... Actually what they probably have is another family; they are seeking a substitute family or substitute protectors because the protectors that you have drawn attention to are not fulfilling that function.

  Q296  Mr Russell: According to the Home Office, those prosecuted for carrying knives are almost three times as likely to go to prison now as they were 10 years ago. There were 6% given prison sentences in 1996 and 17% in 2006. That is more than two years ago and the figures, I suspect, have increased since then because the government on 5 June 2008 announced that the presumption that anyone caught carrying an illegal knife can face criminal charges; and then on 29 December the Justice Minister, David Hanson, announced that from 5 January this year the courts would be able to hand out "tougher and more intensive penalties". So what do you think, if anything, has been the impact of recent changes to knife possession and charging policy?

  Ms Crook: There are several points there. I would like to go back, if I can, to the case of our young man because he is in prison at the moment serving a long sentence for manslaughter. He had at the time of his trial several psychiatric reports done for him. Since he has been in prison he has had no treatment at all and he has been in for four years. So if you think that by sending people to prison they are going to get some kind of therapy or response to their offending that is not the case. He has lain on his bunk for four years and nothing has happened at all. So as a knee jerk reaction prison is inappropriate, ineffective and may even be counter productive. The other thing the evidence from the research indicates, and the young men interviewed by our prison governor in the book Why Carry a Knife? Showed, is that they were much more afraid of being stabbed than they were of spending four years in prison. One of the lads actually says "six feet under or six years". The thought of beings stabbed is much more real to them, the threat of other young people with a knife is much more real, than the distant prospect of a prison sentence. We have some recent evidence, which I think is alarming, that the older young men involved in perhaps leading groups or leading gangs and carrying knives are sometimes quite savvy about this, quite sophisticated, and in order to avoid carrying a knife and the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence if they are stopped by the police—because they do get stopped quite a lot—they are using very young children to carry for them. We have heard that they will use a seven or eight year old like a "golf caddy", this was the expression used, to carry their knives for them and then if they need it the kid will hand it to them. So this is grooming very young children and getting them used to this kind of behaviour, which is quite worrying.

  Q297  Mr Russell: So in shorthand terms you are saying that the impact of recent changes to knife possession charging policy has been negative rather than positive?

  Ms Crook: I think a top down policy is counterproductive; it is certainly ineffective and can be counterproductive—there are much better ways of dealing with this.

  Q298  Mr Russell: Let us lead on to the better ways because the Howard League for Penal Reform has argued that custodial sentences are awarded too often to young people. So who, in your view, should receive custodial sentences for knife offences and what alternative penalties should be introduced? Because knife crime is increasing, is it not?

  Ms Crook: I have spent the last two days looking at statistics and, yes, the number of people dying as a result of knife crime has gone up. The figures I saw were 277 deaths last year. But if you look 10 or 14 years ago it was 243, so it has been an issue of concern for a number of years; but it has not gone up as exponentially as I think perhaps the media scare has indicated. We have to get it in proportion; it is a problem but it is not rampant across our streets. For example, to put it into context: the same number of women are killed by their partners every year, or 12 times as many people are killed on the roads.

  Q299  Mr Russell: But you are spreading complacency with that sort of remark.

  Ms Crook: I am not. I am saying that it is serious but we have to get it in proportion and if you overreact to things or you react inappropriately and wrongly you risk making things worse—you do not make things better. What I am not going to do is to say who should go to prison and who should not—I am not going to slip into that—in answer to your question, because I think each individual case has to be treated with discretion. It would depend on the circumstances and it would depend on who is carrying—whether it is a 10-year old carrying a knife because they have been bullied into it by an older boy, then prison would not be appropriate; a gang leader who has several convictions and is clearly bullying people with a knife and has taken a life, obviously that would require custody for public safety reasons. Within that wide spectrum there are lots of different possibilities.

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