Knife Crime - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Question Numbers 522-534)


24 MARCH 2009

  Q522 Chairman: Mr Huhne, thank you very much for coming to give evidence to us today. You were present for part of this session. This is the final session of our knife crime inquiry. The committee is looking to produce a consensus report that can be taken off the shelf by each one of the political parties as an example of what we can do in order to deal with the very serious issue of knife crime. This is your first evidence session before the select committee in your new role. I should put to you the same question I put to Mr Grayling. Imagine it is 1 June 2010 and you are the Home Secretary. On the issue of knife crime, what would be the first measures that you would take in order to deal with the issue of knife crime?

  Chris Huhne: Thank you, Chairman, and may I say I am very grateful to be invited and delighted that you are attempting to pursue this agenda in a spirit of building a consensus. I think that will be a very valuable if we could indeed do so across the main political parties. I think the most difficult thing in many ways in government is when objectives fall in between two departments. This is a classic area where we can see that something that could be done by the Department of Health could enormously help reduce knife crime. If I had to do one thing, taking the view as a government rather than specifically narrowing it to the field of Home Office matters, it would be to introduce the so-called Cardiff model right the way across accident and emergency departments across the UK. I was alarmed to discover from the Home Office that they did not know, because they had not collected the data centrally, how many accident and emergency departments are actually participating with local police forces in reporting on an anonymised basis the location and type of knife crime. Therefore, we put in a freedom of information request. Out of the 148 that have responded to date—there are 168 NHS acute hospital trusts—only 25 have said that they are currently sharing data on the Cardiff model. This is tremendously significant because we know that the Cardiff model was introduced at the initiative actually of the cosmetic surgeon, Professor Jonathan Shepherd, who may have given evidence to you in the past. It has actually had the effect of reducing knife crime within that area by 40%. I think there is definitely progress going on in terms of the Government's Tackling Knifes Action Programme. We have seen, for example, a very sharp reduction in the number of people admitted to hospital with stab wounds in England, which Vernon Coaker was talking about in the House yesterday. If we were to roll this essential intelligence-gathering tool out to other areas, and I remain to be persuaded on the basis of the freedom of information request we have had back that it is even operating in all the Tackling Knifes Action Programme areas at the moment, we would find a very dramatic effect on knife crime right the way across the country. It is a classic example of where we know something works but how do we actually deliver it, how do we get best practice rolled out as quickly as possible?

  Q523  Mr Streeter: You may already have answered this in part, and you mentioned the Cardiff model. How would you approach knife crime differently from the current Government? Obviously that is the main plank but would there be other things that would differ?

  Chris Huhne: We published a document called A Life away from Crime, which includes our thoughts on knife crime, but which is more broadly about tackling youth offending and how to try to head off young men in particular from getting entangled in the criminal justice system before they then proceed to go through the whole set of hoops. We know, for example, that custody is extremely ineffective in dealing with young men in particular at an early stage and if short sentences are used, you find very high reoffending rates; 92% for example for a first custodial sentence for young men, and three-quarters for juveniles going into custody. So anything we can do to head people off at the part before they get formally entangled in the criminal justice system seems to us to be terribly important. We have put forward a number of suggestions there, one of which is to try and develop measures short of criminalising young people if they are involved in low level crime and antisocial behaviour to ensure that they do not then go on to graduate to more serious things. We have put down an amendment for the Policing and Crime Bill for example which would allow police officers and PCSOs to issue a penalty notice actually to get a young person to clear up any mess that they have created or indeed clear up graffiti or try and make recompense. That would be directly dealing with something without getting them getting involved in the criminal justice system, but a very quick response. We have put forward a whole series of proposals to try and ensure that the devil does not make work for idle hands to do, that there are adequate diversionary activities for young people. One of the stories of the last 20 years is that there has been a run down in many areas of youth facilities and that has had an effect in providing, unfortunately, bad incentives for young people to get involved in other activities. I would very happily send a copy of that document to the committee.

  Chairman: Thank you, that would be extremely helpful.

  Q524  Ms Buck: I wonder what your view is of the statistics produced this week which show an increase in the number of offenders being jailed for knife-related offences.

  Chris Huhne: My view is essentially that custody is not the most effective way. I think custody is absolutely essential for serious offenders and for serial offenders, but I do not think that it is the most effective way of dealing with the problem that we have here with knife crime. The most effective way is to get intelligence as to where the problem is, which is why the Cardiff model is so crucial, and also why the relationship between local police and local communities is so crucial so that in many cases, particularly problem estates, they know exactly who is the intimidating presence behind and running gangs. Getting in and making sure that we have that intelligence is absolutely crucial and getting a visible police presence so that there is stop and search, so that people can be targeted on the basis of intelligence. I think that is much more likely than custody for a very simple reason that custody affects very few people compared with the total amount of criminality. What we need to do if we are going to be effective in our deterrent is to ensure that we increase the amount of detection, increase the visibility and, but this is something which I know is not a populous message because we see it as a populous debate between the Government and the Conservative Party constantly, tougher sentencing. The Home Office's own research and the international evidence show very clearly that there is no link between custody and deterrent, whereas there is a very clear link between detection and deterrent. I think we need to re-focus a lot of our public debate on what works, on what the evidence is, and the evidence suggests that it is actually detection which matters much more.

  Q525  Ms Buck: You do accept that there has been a dramatic increase in terms of visible policing through safe neighbourhood policing, for example, that that actually is happening? You are not positing a hypothetical solution to the problem.

  Chris Huhne: No, I have seen, for example, and I do not think there is any mystery about this, that what the Government has been encouraging the police to do is well established in operational policing. I have seen, for example, what happened in Newham in London and I visited there and talked to officers involved in doing knife arch searches and the way into local commercial malls and so forth and it is very effective. What I think is not happening is that we are not rolling out the things that we know are effective everywhere they should be rolled out, and so there is a delivery problem. We know what best practice is. What we are not doing is applying best practice everywhere as quickly as we should.

  Q526  David Davies: As hospitals have already been mentioned, I will refer to something else. First, you may or may not agree that there is no link between custody and deterrence but the point is reduction, is it not? Would you not agree that if somebody is in custody, they cannot be out committing further crimes and, more importantly, the police are able to look at other people rather than somebody going in, being arrested, going through that process which takes many man-hours and they are back out in the street after they have been bailed committing a second offence?

  Chris Huhne: Let me make it very clear. I said that there has to be custody, there has to be prison, for people who are serious offenders and people who are serial offenders. I absolutely stand by that. I think if someone is a danger to the public, they should be locked up—full stop. I do not disagree with your point on that at all. The real question is that if you look at the Home Office evidence with the sorts of issues that we are dealing with here on knife carrying and knife criminals, we know that many young people carry knives because they are afraid and therefore if you actually get enough police out there with enough of a visible presence, that can reassure people and cut down the incentive to carry knifes. That is a more effective way of doing it than, for example, saying that there should be, as Chris Grayling said, a presumption to lock people up.

  Q527  David Davies: Let us take that at face value. It is not something I entirely disagree with anyway, but if you are going to get more police officers out there and if you believe the fear of being caught is a better deterrent, then why would you not support changes to the stop and search legislation that, for example, would allow the police to take into account somebody's previous criminal record in determining whether to carry out a section 1 stop-and-search? You have said yourself that you have no time for serial offenders. Somebody with a serial criminal record is a serial offender. If they have had an offence within the last 12 months of carrying a knife, surely it is reasonable, if they are stopped for any offence—not picked off the street but stopped for an offence of some sort—the police should be able to carry out a section 1 case?

  Chris Huhne: I am perfectly happy to support in all circumstances the work Jan Berry is doing to cut down unnecessary paperwork. I think that is absolutely sensible. What I do not want to see is us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I am absolutely convinced we can cut police bureaucracy, cut police paperwork, and introduce better IT. What I do not want to see is a situation, which we had frankly with the relationship between the police and ethnic minority communities at the beginning of the 1980s, when people think they are being picked on.

  Q528  David Davies: Nobody wants to go back to that. You are aware that the section 1 case makes it quite clear; the Act actually says that police officers shall not take any account of a person's previous criminal record in determining whether or not to carry out a stop and search. So you have a situation of a police officer stopping someone for a minor issue—perhaps begging, ticket evasion or something similar—and he carries out a PNC check; the person has a long history of carrying knives. The police office thinks: I would like to pat that person down but I cannot do it. I cannot see a knife handle sticking out of their pocket. I know that they regularly carry knives but I cannot carry out a search. Is that right or wrong?

  Chris Huhne: I certainly believe that it is sensible to look at issues like that. I think, frankly, the circumstances that you are describing are quite unlikely in big city areas where you actually have a knife problem. The reason why is simply that I am afraid the evidence that there is going to be the sort of institutional memory that you are talking about from one police officer to another based in a large city environment where you have serious knife crime problems is actually pretty slim. I could believe that for example in a police force where you have a fairly settled population, where you have a much greater knowledge between the police force and the local community, but in those circumstances, frankly, there are not the danger areas we are talking about in terms of knife crime. I think the circumstances that you are posting are slightly academic.

  David Davies: No, they are not. They have happened to me.

  Q529  Gwyn Prosser: Mr Huhne, can you tell us a bit more about your idea for a volunteer force and how will it detract and reduce crime?

  Chris Huhne: In the paper, which I will send the committee, are various ideas for increasing diversion, if you like, for young people on the key principle that if we have more youth facilities and more means of activity, both sporting, cultural and the Youth Volunteer Force that we are talking about, we may be able to head some of these kids off from a life of low-level crime and then worse. The Youth Volunteer Force we would like to pioneer with a number of local authorities. The idea would be to put together a force in a particular area which could have a whole series of tasks, which hopefully would appeal to young people. In my own area, for example, there is currently a big project underway being partially supported by the local authority and partly by Lottery funds to try to improve the Itchen Navigation, which is an old canal, and make sure that its banks are not falling in. It is open air work. It is very clear that there is a good public purpose because, in the end, all the communities along the navigation are going to be able to enjoy that, and hopefully that is precisely the sort of work one might be able to get a youth volunteer force involved with. Many local charities—Age Concern, Help the Aged to name two—could potentially have projects which young people could be involved with. Anything which helps to get young people committed to the local community seems to me to be a desirable objective, particularly where there is an inter-generational issue. I think many old people, if they do not have direct experience of grandchildren or whatever, can be rather afraid of groups of young people. I think it would be helpful to try to create those links. So we have suggested a youth volunteer force and that we should ask local authorities that are interested in trying to pilot this to come forward with ideas, including a range of projects, and that that should be supported by central government and taken from there.

  Q530  Patrick Mercer: Mr Huhne, you have talked about schools being able to counteract gang behaviour. Could you expand a bit more, please?

  Chris Huhne: Yes. It is not easy. I think gang behaviour is very ingrained, not obviously violent gangs, but certainly there seems to be something in human psychology and certainly child psychology that desires to be part of a group. I think that where schools feel that there is an unhealthy growth of a gang that may be involved in other activity, it is absolutely essential that there is enough early warning there and that the school is attempting to contact the parents. If the parents are not sympathetic and are not prepared to try and help and head the school off, then obviously it is important also to be talking to social services and to the local police force. There are a number of activities within schools which help break down some of that sense of creating gangs. One clearly is any sport activity. Almost by definition, if you are getting kids involved in teams, those teams are not going to fall within the same boundaries as gangs. Another potentially, which I have seen in my own constituency in a very effective secondary school called Wildern that has had a dramatic improvement in its GCSE results and in the breakdown of performance between boys and girls, dramatically improving boys, is a stress on performance: music, theatre, anything that actually gets kids working together, performing on stage and not doing things which are setting each other apart. I think there is a whole range of things, but the best thing we can do is experiment, share best practice where there have been successes and again try and roll it out. I do not claim that we have a whole answer to that.

  Q531  Mrs Dean: Could you tell us what the Liberal Party's view is of how to tackle gun culture outside of school? You have talked about inside schools. Do you think it is important that we are careful not to use the term "gang" so that we do not demonise all young people?

  Chris Huhne: I entirely agree. I think that one of the most unhappy aspects of the public debate over the last ten years has been an increasing tendency to demonise young people and the vast majority of young people are absolutely straight, honest, public spirited and want to be an accepted and hardworking part of the community. We must never forget that. I think your question implies that there has become some sort of low level or even high level criminality issue perhaps on particular estates. I gave some example of that when I previously said I thought it was absolutely essential that there is a very good relationship between the police and the local community because local communities often know where the problems are. They may be intimidated; they may not want to come forward, but the police can of course respect confidentiality, can take intelligence and then use that to do targeted stop and search. That seems to me to be a very effective way of trying to get at gang ringleaders. I think that is the key aspect of the policing that I would recommend in this particular case but none of that of course is new or by any means Liberal Democrat; it is straightforward, good, operational policing.

  Q532  Mr Winnick: You were in the room when you heard the Conservative Shadow Home Secretary saying that he was rather critical of the way in which the Government has acted over stop and search. Do you share that criticism?

  Chris Huhne: To be honest, I was not listening always to his evidence. Could you perhaps spell out specifically what the criticism was then I will reply? I was looking at my own notes.

  Q533  Mr Winnick: Not listening to his evidence, I am glad to say, is not a criminal offence! He thought that part of the solution—he was not for one moment suggesting it was the whole solution—to resolve the amount of knife crime was to give the power to the police to stop and search, more so than at present. Do you share that view?

  Chris Huhne: I think the police have adequate stop and search powers now. The most important thing is to ensure that those stop and search powers are used not only in a proportionate way but are used on as much intelligence as possible. Nobody in any community is going to object if the police have serious intelligence that suggests for example that some gang leader is regularly intimidating other people on an estate if they are targeted for stop and search, and that is precisely the intelligence-led stop and search which I think is most effective in terms of police resources and it is most effective in terms of getting results. Random stop and search frankly is not a very effective way of tacking these sorts of problems; it is not a sensible use of police time. So intelligence of the sort that can be generated by the Cardiff model, of the sort that is generated by good relationships between local police forces and the local community is precisely what we ought to be encouraging.

  Q534  Mr Winnick: There have been, has there not, difficulties in the past, antagonism, arising from the way in which the police have acted over stop and search which many believe far from helping to deal with crime, undermine the campaign against criminality?

  Chris Huhne: I think you are absolutely right. I particularly remember, as I am sure you do, the run-up to the Brixton riots in the early 1980s where, frankly, the operation of the then SUS laws soured the relationship between the black community in Brixton and the Metropolitan Police in a way that it took a long time to repair. We know, and police officer know, that you only have effective policing if you have the consent and co-operation of local communities because you need two key things in any reasonable liberal democracy in order to secure a conviction: one is that you need the intelligence of what is happening, and that requires a willing co-operation of the local community; secondly, you need people to come forward as witnesses, and that too requires the co-operation of the local community. I think all that is absolutely essential to look at the proportionality of what is being proposed.

  Chairman: Thank you very much, Mr Huhne, for sharing that important information with us. We will make sure that it is reflected in our report. Thank you very much for coming. I am sure we sill see you again in due course.

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