Knife Crime - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Question Numbers 500-519)


24 MARCH 2009

  Q500 Chairman: Mr Grayling, may I welcome you most warmly to the Select Committee and may I, on behalf of the whole Committee, congratulate you on your recent appointment as the Shadow Home Secretary.

  Chris Grayling: Thank you very much.

  Q501  Chairman: We are very keen in this particular inquiry to take the views of all parties. We started this inquiry in October of last year. We wanted to make sure that it was a consensus inquiry. We felt it was important that all the political parties needed to contribute to our deliberations and that is why we have invited you to come and give evidence today. I want you to imagine 1 June 2010 and you arrive as the Home Secretary. What measures would you take immediately, if you were the Home Secretary, to deal with this very important issue of knife crime?

  Chris Grayling: First of all, Chairman, may I say thank you very much to the Committee for inviting me today. I very much applaud your aspirations to have a cross-party dialogue over this. This is an issue where, whatever party we are in, we have the same objectives, which is to reduce and ideally to eradicate knife crime. We may have different views about how to achieve that, that is part of the political debate, but we all share the same objective. We should listen to good ideas. I very much welcome this inquiry. I will look forward to reading your final report with great interest. I think the thing that I hope to bring to the table and which I would seek to bring to Government, if we win the election, is all around the principle of early intervention. We will no doubt talk quite a lot about the penalties for knife crime which I think are important and I very much support the line I have inherited from within my own party. I think that the way in which we make the biggest difference to knife crime and indeed to other violent crimes, particularly amongst the young, is through more effective early intervention. I believe very strongly we are a society that does not say no early enough, that does not seek to intervene when the first signs of troubles and misdemeanours occur, very often when young people are relatively new in secondary school, when they may get involved in some antisocial behaviour. I think at that point the system has nothing in between the problem and the criminal justice system. I think the current Government tried to address that problem through antisocial behaviour orders, but they are much too complicated. The agencies involved will say it can take several months to get an antisocial behaviour order. What I am looking to bring additionally to the table in my new role is a portfolio of ideas to give the police the ability to intervene earlier without criminalising. I do not want to criminalise 12- and 13-year olds because it messes up the opportunities they have ten years later to get the right job, but I do want society to be able to rein them back and say, "No, that's not on. We will not tolerate that," particularly when parents do not always do that. The first idea I put forward was the idea of grounding orders based on extensive discussions with police officers who want something they can do quickly, simply and straightforwardly to try and say no. The concept of the grounding order is you go down to the local magistrate's court, you have a problem with these two kids and it is a simple injunction issued by the courts to ground those young people at home for up to a month except to go to school. The principle is that we get there early, we address more minor misdemeanours and we head off some of the young people who might be tempted into more serious things before they can do so.

  Q502  Chairman: Thank you very much. You mentioned the age of 12. I know children are different. Is it that sort of age or should it be in fact primary school age where some of this violence seems to begin?

  Chris Grayling: There is not a single answer to that. I would not see it applying to children younger than ten. Ten is the age that the Government has picked out in its current Policing Bill for dealing with antisocial behaviour. That is about putting forward powers to allow the police to move on 10-year olds. I happen not to agree with that. I think moving on 10-year olds to a different street is not the point. We should be removing them from the streets, taking them home and using grounding orders or whatever. We have got to intervene early if we are going to remove some of the pressures for gang activities, for the propensity to carry a knife and the propensity to get involved in more serious issues later in life.

  Q503  Ms Buck: I want to ask you about school exclusions because all of the evidence indicates that a child excluded from school is at particularly high risk of getting involved in criminal behaviour at a later stage. There are contradictory pressures within your party between a desire to give head teachers more authority for easy exclusion and a desire to keep children within a framework of education so they do not end up on the street and at risk.

  Chris Grayling: I think there are two groups of children who are potentially likely to be excluded. There are those for whom a first exclusion will be a wake-up call and those for whom it will not. One of the things that I hear from people working with young offenders, particularly those in the Prison Service, is that they are frustrated that when a young person later in life has committed an offence and they have served their sentence they are put straight back into the same environment they came from with all the same pressures that have led to criminality in the first place. One of the things I think a school exclusion does is it breaks a troublemaker out of a comfort zone. You are suddenly transposed into a new environment with different people in a much stranger setting without the comforts you had of the gang you hung around with and so forth. I think a school exclusion can serve as a wake-up call for young people who have gone off the straight and narrow in school. I fully accept that there is an issue of those for whom it does not serve as a wake-up call. We have a number of centres around the country that provide support for young people in that situation who have been permanently excluded and not been able to settle in their new school. I think there is work to be done on that front to try and strengthen that option. I do think that exclusion can serve a purpose. Where I think we go wrong is not to entrust our head teachers and governing bodies to take the decisions on exclusions because you undermine authority in a school monumentally if the staff running it take a decision to exclude but that is overruled by somebody outside, the child concerned is returned to the school and they then effectively feel they have a carte blanche to do anything.

  Q504  Patrick Mercer: Can you explain your view on the links between strengthening families and preventing knife crime in the first instance?

  Chris Grayling: I think one of the big challenges we have got is that in many households there is an utter absence of any sense of responsibility. It is not an issue of lone parents versus couples. Actually in many cases there are children growing up in nothing that vaguely approximates a stable family home of any sort. I have spent time out on the streets of Toxteth with some very good youth workers who work around there who tell me that there are kids who grew up without any parental guidance, a parental home and who are very often moved around from relative to relative weeks at a time. I spent time teaching a 15-year old in a school in north Liverpool who had gone off the rails. I felt at heart he was probably a good kid, but he had the most terrible upbringing, no parents in his life and so forth. I think there is a direct correlation between the absence of the love, affection and stability that many children have in their upbringing and a desire to belong. Sadly, gangs, which is where knife crime is a particular problem, provide a perverse kind of security for some young people who have been brought up in very difficult circumstances. I do not purport to say that strengthening the family is either easy or will make all the difference, but I am absolutely certain that if in the future we can get back to a situation where more young people are being brought up in a more stable family environment we are likely to reduce the incidence of criminality later on in life as well as the incidence of educational failure and addiction and ultimately mental health problems.

  Q505  Patrick Mercer: Last week I was at "Help for Families" in North Wales and their view about this and a host of different issues is that the male role model is so important and more often than not is absent.

  Chris Grayling: It is a big issue. I think our lone mums do a heroic job often because it is extremely difficult being a lone parent, but there is no doubt that fathers play an important part in the lives of children and particularly of young men as they grow up. We have also seen this week the figures that suggest there are very few role models in primary schools. Some of the more public role models in our society do not show the best of examples.

  Q506  Chairman: Could you give us an example?

  Chris Grayling: I picked out previously Joey Barton, the Premiership footballer who has been in serious trouble on many, many occasions as being exactly the wrong kind of role model. If I were to pick out a good role model within sport I would look to someone like Gary Neville, for example, who has been to my mind an excellent professional over a long period of time and has never done anything of that kind. I think sportsmen can be really good role models but equally I think they can be very bad role models. As and when they are bad, it certainly does not help to set the right kind of example for young people growing up without having some very good reference points in their lives.

  Q507  Mr Winnick: Do you believe that the situation would be helped if there were easier rules for the police on stop and search?

  Chris Grayling: Yes I do. The reason that we have the stop and search powers that we have now goes back to the whole Stephen Lawrence affair. Nobody would defend for a second what happened either in that particular investigation or many of the issues that occurred at that time. It is very noticeable that since then we have had calls from within the black community for increased stop and search. It is very noticeable that we are asking our police officers to go through extremely complicated bureaucratic processes to stop and search and provide protection because that is what they are doing. If they stop and search someone and find that they have a knife they are protecting a potential victim from that knife. I believe very clearly that we should not remove the safeguards to stop and search because it is right and proper that there should be some safeguards, but I think we have become too bureaucratic and too complex and I think we need to rein back from that. I do not know whether you have seen the form we ask our police officers to fill out for stop and search. Imagine yourself on a wet night in a town centre intercepting a partially drunk young person who you suspect of carrying a knife and trying to get that young person to stay there and wait to be searched while you fill in the form. I think it is utterly unrealistic. I think we have got to trust our professionals more. I would like to see a much simplified system possibly using technology, a radio link to say you are going to do a search, but not the bureaucracy we have at the moment.

  Q508  Mr Winnick: You started your remarks by saying that all parties wish to see crime minimized. Why do you believe that the government, who obviously has no less interest than the rest of us in seeing knife crime reduced, has not taken up what you have suggested about stop and search?

  Chris Grayling: I think there is a culture in this government which comes from a founding political philosophy that probably emanates originally from Number Ten to be frank of over-bureaucratization, over-complexity and the propensity for ministers always to try to be involved in almost every decision. Let me give you a very practical example of what I mean by that. I talked to a senior police officer a couple of weeks ago and I asked him how many sets of data he felt he needed to collect in order to properly track the issues within the area of the relevant force. Clearly we want to know if there is a surge in burglary in your constituency so the police can respond to that. It is right and proper they should track data. He said he needed about 15 different sets of data. I then asked him how many the Home Office asked him to collect and he said 45. I do not really see why the current Home Secretary or myself, if I become Home Secretary, should seek more information than is needed by the police in order to do the things we would expect them to do with the consequence that we create processes and complexity that take police away from policing. Just look at the level of stop and search forms, at the stop and account process and at the way in which we handle individual cases. I was shown last week the documentation that has to be prepared by a police officer for a case of driving whilst disqualified without insurance. You would think that is a pretty bang to rights case: you either were driving or you were not, you either did or did not have insurance and you either were or were not disqualified. The documentation was really thick. I think we have created systems and processes from the heart of government in the whole field of policing and home affairs and across other parts of government where we expect much too much of our public servants, we interfere too much and we take away from the job they are there to do and that is something I really believe we have to change. I think that is the biggest area where the current government has gone wrong.

  Q509  Mr Winnick: Is it not the case that on many occasions extensive stop and search has produced great antagonism amongst an ethnic group who feel they have been picked on and therefore overall, far from doing good, it has in fact set back the fight against crime? Should that not be a factor in your mind as well as in the Government's?

  Chris Grayling: I think today the issue of stop and search is not a race issue. I think you will find parts of the country where the issues are clearly to be found in the black community and you will find parts of the country where the issues are clearly to be found in the white community. If you stop and search in Norris Green you will be stopping and searching young white men. If you stop and search in parts of south London you will find yourself—

  Q510  Mr Winnick: The chance of you being stopped and searched is rather remote. I am not likely to be stopped and searched either.

  Chris Grayling: I do not think we fit the profile of likely knife criminals. What is clear today is that young people are the ones who are most likely to be the victims of knife crime. Young people in black communities and white communities are likely to be the victims of knife crime. I think we should treat all citizens fairly and equally and we should try and protect them all fairly and equally. The power will work differently in different parts of the country depending on the ethnic mix of the areas in which we are dealing with the issues, but it is no longer a black/white issue, it is an issue about protecting our young people.

  Q511  Mr Winnick: Everyone wants to protect innocent people and to be able to go about our lawful business without being mugged or knifed. Do you recognise that it is not only a matter of stop and search but taking into account the effect that they have on a community? If it causes that sort of antagonism, far from helping the police, it does the very opposite. Surely you would recognise that it is not just a simple matter of giving the police more powers but doing so in a way which overall will help to underline the very sort of criminality we all want to see reduced.

  Chris Grayling: I do not think we help the security and stability and quality of life in any community by exposing it to the threat of knife crime. I think we should give our police the powers to try and deal with it so that innocent law abiding people and young people can get on with their lives without the fear that they may end up a victim of knife crime.

  Mr Winnick: We all want that. It is a question of how we go about it.

  Q512  Bob Russell: In evidence to the Committee a month ago the Howard League for Penal Reform described how young people can be pressurised into carrying knives for older gang members, a "golf caddy" was the expression used. In view of that, is the presumption of a custodial sentence for knife carrying appropriate?

  Chris Grayling: I think that it makes the life of those young people much easier with that presumption because actually if we create an environment where it is utterly unacceptable to carry a knife, where there are serious consequences for having a knife and everybody realises and recognises that, then it actually gives those young people justification to say no. I do not think we help young people in that position by having a situation where our handling of crime means they are likely to be let off with a warning. I think we have to create a culture where the carrying of a knife is utterly and completely unacceptable, everybody knows it and so people do not do it and people who do it know there are consequences. I cannot get rid of a situation where it is possible that some young people are put under pressure by gang leaders to do something unspeakable. I was told last week by a prison officer that they are beginning to discover now incidences of gangs where there is an initiation ceremony that involves somebody who wants to join the gang going out with a knife and mutilating an innocent passerby. I cannot stop that from happening except by taking tough action when it does, but I can say that the message to everyone who might be tempted to carry a knife is that if you do carry a knife there will be a presumption of you going to jail and I hope that will at least deter that act before it can ever happen. That is the best I can do. I can try and deter and I can act really toughly when it does happen. I do not think we should create the environment where we tolerate in any way the principle of somebody walking round with a knife. If people recognise that it makes it easier for them to say no.

  Q513  Bob Russell: I accept the point you are making, but in the real world it is not quite like that, is it? If you are a younger person, perhaps not the brightest one in that community and you are put under pressure by older youths, is it the presumption that that person should go to prison that will work or do you think the judges should have the discretion?

  Chris Grayling: We have not said in 100% of circumstances where somebody is carrying a knife they should go to jail. What we have said is the presumption should be that if somebody is carrying a knife there should be a custodial sentence. We are not seeking to take away absolute discretion from the courts. At the moment the reality is a substantial proportion of people caught carrying a knife do not receive a custodial sentence, a significant proportion end up with a caution and I do not think that sends the right message. I am not seeking to take away the power of the courts to apply discretion in all circumstances, but what I do think we need to do is send a tough message saying the norm is that that is what you should expect.

  Q514  Bob Russell: I am grateful for the clarification and the qualification there. Do you think custody acts as a deterrent?

  Chris Grayling: It is one of the deterrents we have as a society. Custody does not deter everyone. It certainly deters some. There are some who will go to jail, come out and simply re-offend and not be worried about going back to jail and may make many appearances in the criminal justice system throughout their lives. I think we have a moral responsibility at all stages to try and wean people away from the criminal justice system. That is why I want to intervene early. Your previous question was about young people. If we can intervene early and try and peel those kids away from the gangs before they get to that point—I appreciate that in the case of an initiation ceremony that is rather different—that is clearly beneficial. We should be trying to do everything we possibly can and starting pretty early to stop young people finding themselves in the criminal justice system and then going on to offend and re-offend.

  Q515  Gwyn Prosser: In your last answer you talked about a category of young people who go into custody, come out and re-offend again and that is a concern to us all. The Howard League gave evidence to us recently and they came forward with a number of recommendations to reform these institutions. Perhaps one of the more radical ones was that the ability of a prison or a young person's institute to prevent re-offending should be linked to rewards. In other words, the governor and staff should perhaps be paid a bonus or extra funding should be available if they are successful in not continuing that cycle of re-offending. What is your view and the view of the Conservative Party on that?

  Chris Grayling: This is very much in keeping with my party's thinking on this. The prison reform proposals brought forward by my colleague Nick Herbert about 18 months ago involved a very similar approach, where what we have done is quantified the savings to be made if we can prevent somebody from re-offending. I have put forward a proposal for a structure that would allow governors to access that in partnership with independent organisations on a payment by results basis to deliver much better rehabilitation within prisons and after people have been in prison. I can give you a very practical example of the kind of project I would like to see in our prisons from a visit that I made to HMP Liverpool recently where they have formed a partnership with the footwear company Timpsons. They have established a workshop in the prison where they are training prisoners as they would train their own staff in the technical stuff, the repair stuff and the customer service element of what is done and then they are seeking to provide jobs for those prisoners when they leave within the company as a whole. It is a partnership between the prison and the company. I think that is a great initiative. I am very impressed by what they are doing. I think it is the kind of thing that we could benefit from throughout the prison system. If we give prison governors the ability themselves to form that kind of partnership without the need to go off and deal with bureaucracy at the centre then I think we have got the ability to get more positive work done for prisoners in our prisons and hopefully reduce re-offending.

  Q516  Gwyn Prosser: Are there any other ways we could reform life in custody and after custody?

  Chris Grayling: The other big thing that I myself proposed when I was in my previous brief for the Shadow DWP team was that we should make it a matter of absolute routine that somebody who leaves prison without a job to go to—and one assumes that is pretty much everybody—goes straight onto a structured back to work programme of the kind that we would offer across the welfare system for the longer-term unemployed and of the kind that is used in other countries, North America, for example, where you have an independent provider providing tailored back to work support, organising work placements, doing interview training, trying to overcome some people's own person individual issues about getting into employment and I think that should happen with prisoners on the day they leave. I do not think any prisoner should be allowed to leave prison and just go down to the pub and say "What happens now?". I think we should take them straight out into a structured programme to try and get them into work.

  Q517  Martin Salter: Mr Grayling, you talked about the perverse security of a gang culture. Do we not as politicians have to be slightly careful that we do not completely demonize the concept of gangs because there are clearly good gangs and bad gangs? You are in a gang and I am in a gang. Gangs can provide a positive approach for young people. They provide friendship, mutual support and all the rest of it. Do we not just have to be a little bit careful about the language we use on this and not get too lazy?

  Chris Grayling: To a degree. I think we know what we are talking about. I fully accept in our society that there is a danger we end up demonizing all the young people. The vast, vast majority of young people are perfectly good. One reason I do not want to criminalize it, if we are dealing with antisocial behaviour, is because we also have teenagers who sometimes go off the rails but who are not bad kids. I do not want the system criminalizing them because we are telling them off for doing something that is unacceptable when they are 12 or 13. I think we have got to be quite smart about that. We should not demonize all young people. There are times when as an adult society we are over-tough on the young. I have been out with the police to 999 calls which turn out to be an adult calling the police because there is a gang of kids kicking a football against the garden fence. I think we have to have a sense of proportion as adults, but nonetheless there are some real issues in many parts of our community where the gang is much more than just a group of friends hanging around. That is where we have got to focus our efforts. Friendships and groups of young people providing a positive outlet for energies is excellent. There are some great projects going on around the country, eg the Friday night football, to try and get people engaged rather than hanging around on street corners, but nonetheless we know that in many of our city areas there are real problems with a culture that is utterly, utterly damaging and the concept of the violent initiation ceremony is utterly repugnant and that is something we want to break up.

  Q518  Gwyn Prosser: Mr Grayling, you were telling us about your ideas for rehabilitation and providing back to work groups. How would you answer, especially during these difficult times, the majority of law abiding citizens who would say, "It's hard enough for me or my son to get a job and yet if you do go into jail or into an institution you come out and it is all handed to you on a plate"?

  Chris Grayling: We are in difficult times. We know we are in difficult times. There are groups of people in our society who always find it difficult to find work. There is a real danger that if we do not put an effort into trying to help those people now they will be completely left behind, whether they are people on incapacity benefit who could and should be helped back into work or whether they are former offenders. What we cannot afford to do as a society is to leave the hard to help right behind and forget about them in difficult times. I think we have got a moral duty to provide them with an extra bit of help so they do not get left behind.

  Q519  Tom Brake: In these difficult times what sort of incentives do you think it would be appropriate to give employers, because clearly now they are looking at a much larger pool of people that they can tap into? It is cheaper for them to take someone who has perhaps just been made redundant from a job than it is to work with prisoners. What incentives should we give them?

  Chris Grayling: First and foremost, there is still, even in difficult times, a sense of responsibility around. We should not expect any employer to take on somebody just for the sake of it. No employer is going to want somebody who is a complete passenger in their organisation. If the rehabilitation process has done its job properly what we should be doing is putting people out into the community and into work who have got something to offer. That is why I think the Timpsons project is such a good example, because it is taking advantage of somebody's time in prison to give them transferable skills that will work in the workplace. It will not work for everybody. Some will be tempted back into a life of crime. If we can break some of the people who are going through that course out of crime and get them into employment where they are offering as much value as the former unemployed person who is also looking for a job then it is a benefit to everyone. We have to be willing to give people a second chance. They will not always take it, but as a society we need to do so. I hope employers will be willing to give people a second chance. I hope everybody, even in difficult times, even if they are looking for a job themselves, will accept that we do have to give people a second chance in all of our interests.

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