Knife Crime - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 540-559)


24 MARCH 2009

  Q540  Chairman: Do both departments have an ongoing knife crime project?

  Mr Hanson: From my perspective, Mr Vaz, we are looking at knife crime across the board. My responsibilities include the Youth Justice Board but also prisons, probation and sentencing policy as part of the department as a whole. We look at knife crime really in five areas. We look at prevention first of all and what we can do to help identify early intervention, prevention, action at a local level, support to families and looking at gang behaviour and prevention through the Youth Justice Board activity, but we are also jointly support the efforts of the Home Office on enforcement. Obviously from my perspective I have a sentencing role within the department with my colleague Maria Eagle to look at the sentencing framework and what we do with that. What is particularly important is what we do with people when they are in the system, in prison or in young offenders' institutions, and how ultimately we resettle and reform to make sure individuals do not come back. There is really a five strand element for us as a department.

  Q541  Chairman: When do you all get together in terms of the departments? Is there one structure that deals with it?

  Mr Campbell: Throughout the period of the programme, there are weekly knife crime meetings with each of the departments but also with all the other agencies that are involved.

  Q542  Chairman: Who is that chaired by?

  Mr Campbell: It is chaired by my colleague Vernon Coaker or myself.

  Q543  Chairman: That is on a weekly basis?

  Mr Campbell: Yes.

  Q544  Chairman: Do you have weekly figures?

  Mr Campbell: Yes, but it rather depends which department you are asking the figures for, but we certainly have a feedback from the police officers who are leading on it, who will tell us what has been happening in each of the programme areas.

  Mr Hanson: In addition to the weekly knife crime meeting that we have, attended by Vernon Coaker, Alan and myself, with Alf Hitchcock and other senior officials, we have also been monitoring on a triumvirate basis (the Home Office, Ministry of Justice and Department for Children, Schools and Families) the Youth Crime Action Plan. We jointly chaired between Beverley Hughes, Vernon Coaker and myself the compilation of the plan but also in terms of monitoring its implementation because some of the key preventative issues, which are very important, are jointly responsible to the other three departments.

  Q545  Martin Salter: This is probably a question to both of you. Is there a danger in focusing on the gang culture that we lose sight of the fact that young people in particular tend to be herd animals and will inevitably form gangs and that not all gangs are at the centre of problems? We need to be careful to make a distinction between groups of friends who learn and benefit from each other, and that can be a positive influence on the development of young people, and gangs that can develop a far more sinister role and have a far more negative effect on the behaviour of young people?

  Mr Campbell: My broad response to that is: yes, if we are not careful, that is where we could be. Of course we have had some work in the Home Office before on the Tackling Gangs Action Programme and a lot of that work fed into the Tackling Violence Action Programme, of which the knife programme is a distinct part. It is interesting I think that in the second phase of the Tackling Knives Action Programme we are going perhaps to focus a little more on gangs, not least because there is this growing concern. I very much welcome the work that Iain Duncan-Smith has been doing in seeking to identify the characteristics of gangs. I think the problem is that of course gangs in different areas show different characteristics. Are we talking about a group of people that have sufficient in common that we can label them a gang and what different does that make to the way that we respond to them? I am very conscious of the point that you are making, and I agree with you, that just because it is a stabbing incident, it does not mean that it is gang-related. Unfortunately, that tends to be how it has been portrayed, particularly in the media over the last year or so. We also have to be concerned about the safety and wellbeing of individuals in local communities. We have to be able to distinguish between what we would recognise as a gang, where the culture is to carry a knife and both to use it as a way of perhaps proclaiming your identity with that gang, and young people who are hanging around on street corners who may be dragged into incidents. I think we need to be careful not to characterise the work that we are doing as entirely to do with gangs. We need to look at the issue in the round, and also of course—and I agree with what Chris Huhne was saying earlier—the vast majority of young people in this country are not only law-abiding but very decent citizens. It is the small minority that we need to concentrate on.

  Q546  Tom Brake: Mr Campbell, are you familiar with the work done by the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit and do you think we are missing a trick by not putting a much heavier emphasis on the public health aspect of this?

  Mr Campbell: Yes, we are aware of it. In fact, we have had several points at which the Strathclyde unit has come into contact with the Knife Acton Programme and we have learnt lessons from them. In broad terms our approach is similar. I think we both appreciate that joined-up working is crucial to what we are doing. The issue, however, around whether or not it is a public health issue is an interesting one. Of course our Department of Health has launched a framework for violence and abuse prevention and will be bringing forward a document later this year which does mirror very much the approach that the Scottish model uses. We have a slightly different way of arranging things. My understanding of the Strathclyde model is that it is very much as a hub; it brings perhaps in an even closer way together the various professionals. Ours has been working across government in the way that we explained to the Chairman earlier about departments meeting together regularly, about bringing together different strands of work, but in terms of our general approach, how it needs to be joined up, the various aspects that are working successfully in Scotland, we have learnt lessons from them, and I hope they have learnt lessons from us too.

  Q547  Tom Brake: One good test of how joined up things are is always whether there is any pooled budgeting going on. Does the Department of Health work together with yourselves on this issue trying to tackle the public health aspects of knife crime?

  Mr Campbell: It is very conscious of that and of course is making it a big input. I suppose in recent months it has been very much about data-sharing because, again picking up on what Chris Huhne said, I think a lot of the work that the Tackling Knives Action Programme has been involved in is getting intelligence and then sharing that intelligence. Of course the Department of Health is pushing out important health messages at all times; it is focusing on things like alcohol but also alcohol-related violence. I think it is less of a question of pooling a budget for that than to make sure that, as the departments work through, we are working to a common agenda.

  Q548  Mrs Dean: Mr Campbell, you mentioned data-sharing and we have heard conflicting evidence about the extent to which data is shared between different practitioners, namely the police and other agencies. What is the Government's position and what barriers exist to effective data-sharing?

  Mr Campbell: I think we have made big progress because we identified very early on, and it was very much echoed in the comments by the Prime Minister, just how important data-sharing is. That means gearing up an organisation, the National Health Service, which has perhaps not been used to sharing information in that way and to get them into a place where they can. I am very pleased to say that 38 key hospitals in the 10 TKAP areas are sharing information. That is sharing in a number of different ways. One is sharing with the police. The General Medical Council made clear, I think in August of last year, that knives should be treated similarly to guns in that hospitals should be sharing that information, particularly because of course people who are the victims of knife crimes can become repeat victims of knife crime, and it is often a precursor to a homicide. So it is in their interests that the information is shared, but of course it is in the wider interests to make sure that a picture is built up in an area of what the true picture of knife crime actually is. It is a question of sharing it with the police. That raises issues around patient confidentiality but I think we have made important steps in the right direction there.

  Q549  Mr Winnick: Do you have much confidence, Minister, in conflict resolution? We had very impressive evidence from the West Midlands on this. What is your view?

  Mr Campbell: Yes, we think it plays an important part. The important thing about the Tackling Knives Action Programme is that it is a bit of a jigsaw. There are many pieces to it, but when it comes together it creates a very important picture. In fact, we have worked with the project that you are talking about; we funded them to an extent in the work that they are doing. It is perhaps a sad but necessary indictment of where we are that we have to have an organisation which seeks to mediate in crisis situations, where gangs are in effect at war with each other in an area, in terms of the crisis resolution that they do, but the longer term effect that they can have as well by getting to some of the people perhaps becoming caught up in gangs in those areas and actually taking them through a process that will not lead them in the wrong direction I think is very important work.

  Q550  Mr Winnick: Would you go so far as to say there is any purpose in the victim of criminality meeting the person, perhaps after that person has come out of prison or whatever, having been dealt with by the courts in one way or another?

  Mr Campbell: I think it very much depends up on the case. I think we were carried away a bit with the idea that somehow people would be taken into hospitals where the victims lay and, in a sense, they would be confronted by the crime that they had committed. We are doing quite a lot of intensive work in some areas on getting people who might be caught up in these matters and seeing how best they can be, if you like, confronted with the problem they are getting caught up in and where they could end up if they are not careful.

  Mr Hanson: We operate a number of restorative justice schemes generally across the country. Sometimes it does involve victims meeting perpetrators of crimes that have been associated with the victim and the crime individually. Sometimes it involves perpetrators of crimes meeting victims of similar crimes. We operate those in a number of prisons across the country. Indeed, the Knife Referral Programme that I talked about earlier, Mr Winnick, in Liverpool has a session in that Knife Referral Programme for people who have been convicted of knife crime to meet with mothers of people who have been killed as a result of knife crime. They may not have been involved in the incidents which led to the mothers losing their children but they do get a perspective from the victims' family of the impact of the death to the family and to the wider circle in the community. That gives them a perspective that they may not have had beforehand and, for people who have been involved in low level crime and possession of knives, it ensures that they feel an understanding of what happens in their communities as a result of those offences.

  Q551  Mr Winnick: I would have thought that in most cases the last person that the victim wishes to see is the thug who was responsible for inflicting violence, either on that person or the family.

  Mr Hanson: In restorative justice terms, it is a question for the victim and for the offender to come to an agreement on that because very often the victim does not wish to be involved. In the case of the Liverpool Knife Referral Project, we have a number of people who have been given a sentence to go to the scheme over a period of weeks to cover a range of activities, one of which includes meeting with parents whose children have died as a result of knife crime. That is the very last session, after a range of sessions that people undertake, which actually brings home to them the impact of what at the start of the course and the start of the intervention might well to be seen as something that gangs do—carry knives and have them. By the end of the course they are actually meeting people whose children have died. That has a major impact on the individual.

  Q552  Chairman: Minister, is this not also a very important role for probation and probation officers?

  Mr Hanson: It is, and again as part of the range of schemes that we are operating at the moment, as part of community-based sentencing for those who are involved in knife crime.

  Q553  Chairman: You signed an answer to one of my parliamentary questions recently telling us that 239,006 days where lost in the probation service last year. Are you concerned about those figures?

  Mr Hanson: I am. We have targets. Mr Vaz, there is very patchy performance in the Probation Service. There are some areas where there are high levels of sickness and there are other areas where there are lower levels. We have a target which I am attempting to meet that I want to drive down still further because every day lost is both a lost day of time and a cost to the state.

  Q554  Chairman: There have been a couple of million lost days for sickness. If you are dealing with offenders and they are trying to work to try and prevent knife crime reoccurring, surely we need to have the probation officers around?

  Mr Hanson: We do and from my perspective I want to drive down the level of sickness generally. As I have said, the performance is very patchy. There are some which are meeting and exceeding targets; there are others which are not. With the 42 probation boards, I am very keen and do monitor on a regular basis their performance on those issues.

  Q555  David Davies: Minister, would you agree that restorative justice in any form should only ever be used as addition to prison or to existing punishments and not as a way for offenders to get let out early?

  Mr Hanson: Absolutely and the restorative justice that is undertaken is part of wide-ranging sentence. In the community it may well be as part, for example, of the Knife Referral Programme and its courses, but also unpaid work could be attached to that; a curfew could be attached to that. In prison, equally the same is true.

  Q556  David Davies: You would agree that it would be absolutely wrong if an offender could get out of prison earlier than would otherwise be the case by promising to go and see a victim and say sorry?

  Mr Hanson: The restorative justice would be part of an agreement that is undertaken at the court as part of a particular sentence.

  Q557  David Davies: If an offender refuses to get involved, would that mean they spend longer in prison?

  Mr Hanson: It would depend on the circumstances of the court and what construction was put on the particular activity.

  Q558  David Davies: Is there not a danger that they are simply going to say, "Yes, I will go along and say sorry to someone if it gets me out of prison a bit earlier"?

  Mr Hanson: I do not think there is because if I look at the figures, Mr Davies, over the past year since we have put effort into this, more people are going to prison for longer periods of time and are spending a much longer period on either prison or on community-based sentences. Over the past year, the sentencing trends in knife crime and sharp bladed instruments have risen quite significantly. We have had a 40% increase in the number of people who have served custodial sentences in the past 12 months.

  Q559  David Davies: Is that an increase in the length of sentences given or the length of sentences served? Of course a sentence served is not the one that is given out by the court.

  Mr Hanson: I can give you some figures that show that, in the first quarter of 2007, 1,125 people went to immediate custody in prison for offences and, in the first quarter of 2008, 1,386 went. The longer sentences show that on average the figures for immediate custodial sentences are113 days in the last quarter of 2007 and 184 days in the same period of 2008.

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