Knife Crime - Home Affairs Committee Contents


Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 560-579)

MR ALAN CAMPBELL MP AND RT HON DAVID HANSON MP

24 MARCH 2009

  Q560  David Davies: Would you agree then that prison works?

  Mr Hanson: There is a range of things. I think that prison works in some circumstances and community-based sentences can work in others. It will depend on the reasons why people are involved and what the interventions are. In some instances I think immediate custody and interventions in prison are an appropriate sentence; in other areas a community-based sentence will have much more of an impact. What we both want is a change of behaviour and prevention of re-offending along with an element of punishment.

  Q561  Mr Streeter: We have heard from almost every witness in this inquiry that parenting is at the heart of this matter. I think we all agree with what and what goes on in our homes is crucial in terms of the outcomes for young people. Of course it is very easy to say that and very hard to make a real difference. Mr Campbell, what is the Home Office really doing about making our parents in this country more responsible?

  Mr Campbell: I think there are two elements to it. The first is how you support parents in what can often be very difficult circumstances. The second thing is what happens if they do not respond to that support and if they simply will not engage. Let me deal with the former first. Most of the support for parents with regard to TKAP comes via the Department for Children, Schools and Families through a whole variety of things like, for example, early intervention programmes, family intervention programmes and of course the fact that there are parenting practitioners in every local authority area. It is about giving parents access to the right advice to allow them to meet, perhaps together, in order not just to discuss with professionals how best they can resolve issues within their families but also to work with other parents in those areas, too. It is, as you suggest, a longer term, very much a preventative approach. I think the important lesson is: the earlier the intervention, the better and getting parents to acknowledge that they have a problem and that they can get help. When that happens, I have to say Mr Streeter, the parents have been very appreciative that there is somebody there for them to speak to and to help to resolve their issues. Of course, if they do not respond to that, if they fail to engage, then there are things which can come into place, like for example parenting orders where they can actually be held to account for what their children are getting up to. I think the evidence is of a willingness by many parents to engage, particularly if it is a TKAP area where there has been a history developing of this particular problem because they want to get involved to make sure that their children are not victims, but also that their children are not perpetrators.

  Q562  Ms Buck: We had some very powerful evidence earlier this morning from Professor Kevin Browne about, as he put it, the indisputable impact of violent video games upon young people's behaviour, sometimes in terms of giving them a role for acting out and sometimes more broadly just in terms of de-sensitising people to violence. I wonder what your view is of what the Government should do about it. Following on from the last question in terms of parenting, is it not the case that many of the people we are most worried about are young people whose parents are themselves in some way either absent—physically absent or mentally absent—and incapable really of exercising that proper control that a child should have in a loving environment? What is the answer to that dilemma?

  Mr Campbell: Perhaps I could deal with the video games first. Of course Professor Tanya Byron did a review for us entitled Safer Children in a Digital World. One of the key recommendations that she made was to set up a UK Council for Child Internet Safety. That council has met on a number of occasions and in fact working groups are now in place and looking at various aspects. I have to say that perhaps the driving force most recently has been around images of children on the internet, but not exclusively so. She also had quite a lot to say about video games. What she said was, and I think there is some fairness certainly in the first point, that videos can play a very important and constructive part in the lives of young children. However, of course there is concern about videos and also video games and about the longer term effects. I think there is some evidence of a short-term effect but as for the longer term effect of exposure to these videos and video games, the evidence is not there, probably because it is a relatively recent phenomenon. The council working groups are looking at this issue. I think we certainly want to empower parents to have greater information at their disposal.

  Q563  Ms Buck: Is not the heart of the dilemma those households where the parents simply are not there or not able or not willing to exercise that informed involvement and control that is the bottom line? The evidence seems to be that if a child is growing up in a loving and secure environment, then that will trump the adverse impact, within reason, of the exposure to violence. The problem, surely, is the combination of these very violent films and video games and a household environment that is not able to exercise proper control.

  Mr Campbell: The point I was making was that many parents need help about what the content of video games is and so we are looking at the classification system and protecting children by making sure that they have a better knowledge of what is safe for them to watch.

  Q564  Chairman: You are accepting, are you, that video games have a short-term effect on young people?

  Mr Campbell: That was the finding of the review, that there is an issue around short-term effects on behaviour, but whether that translates into a long-term effect and gets to the extreme that we are talking about, I do not think the evidence is here yet. I did not hear the evidence that you had earlier.

  Q565  Chairman: The Government has not implemented any of the recommendations of the Byron report.

  Mr Campbell: That is what we are working on.

  Q566  Chairman: How long will it take?

  Mr Campbell: We would expect that by the autumn we would be bringing forward—

  Q567  Chairman: A whole year after the report?

  Mr Campbell: What we are seeking to do is to work closely with industry and other agencies and getting the council up and running, getting the working group running and making sure that we have a research-based approach cannot be achieved overnight.

  Q568  Mrs Dean: If I can just go back to the importance of families, we heard earlier from Professor Browne that he felt that when parents are before family courts it would be useful for treatment orders to be placed, particularly on violent fathers who he said moved on from one family to another, in the prevention of violent crime amongst young people. Have you any desire to see that implemented?

  Mr Hanson: Perhaps I could answer both Ms Buck's and Mrs Dean's points together. Family is extremely important. I think the family sets the culture of how individual young people are operating. One of the key things that we have done in general terms is to try to identify now, through the Youth Crime Action Plan, what early interventions we need when, for example, children start missing school, when there are chaotic drug users in the family, when there are other circumstances, potentially even when parents are away from the home in prison or through other circumstances. That early intervention and identification is crucial. That could be done potentially through the courts, through examination of parental behaviour; it could be done through informal networks in schools, through head teachers. However it is done, it needs to be done. What we are finding is that a history of commencement of early criminal activity at a young age, be it 8, 9, 10, 11 or 12, will lead over time, unless there is intervention, to much more serious and dysfunctional behaviour later in life. Whether it is through examination in court or through a range of support measures we put in place through the Youth Crime Action Plan, it is crucial to try to identify those children who are most at risk—at risk very often not through faults of their own but through the dysfunctional chaotic nature of their family and the circumstances that they live in, which leads to potential crime activities in their family or absences from school. So we are very focused on that and have put additional resources into the Youth Crime Action Plan to develop family intervention projects, think family interventions and intensive support. Indeed, one scheme I would like to draw to your attention, Mr Vaz, which is in the very early stages, is the idea of intensive fostering whereby when children are coming to the court through low level crime, we now have a scheme operating in three areas on a pilot where we can take them out of the environment and provide intensive fostering with a family to support them. Currently, we have around 30 families involved in that; it is a £10 million project over the next three years to look at whether we can even offer support where there is not a functional family, and that can help change people's lives.

  Q569  Chairman: Minister, this Government has been in power for 12 years. The level of knife crime has risen. You are saying this may well be the result of a breakdown in families. Surely the Government must bear some of this responsibility?

  Mr Hanson: I would say that if you look at crime overall, it has fallen by 37% during the course of this Government's term of office. If I look at the interventions that we have made, which I am very proud of, in relation to family support centres, the minimum wage, working families' tax credit, investments in nursery education, I think that the Government that I support has a very proud record on those factors. There are challenges, and the nature of any government, whether our government or an opposition government, is that those challenges will change over time. Knife crime is an issue we need to address and we need to look at. There is a range of factors we need to work through. The key thing for me is to make sure that we do that on an early basis to identify who is at risk and take interventions to change the lives of those people.

  Q570  Tom Brake: Mr Hanson, are you happy with the current sentencing policy in relation to knife offences?

  Mr Hanson: I think sentencing is very important, Mr Brake, but I would also put it in the context of the two big areas before we get to sentencing, which are prevention and enforcement. Prevention through chaotic lifestyles and working on young people is extremely important. Enforcement of activities such as knife wands and policing and street teams is equally important. Sentencing comes at the end of those two and in a sense is a failure of those first two by bringing people before the courts. We have strengthened the knife crime sentencing regime over the past two years. As I indicated earlier to Mr Davies, we have seen an increasing trend in people going into custody and an increasing length of time in custody. We have also developed what I think are some very imaginative and intensive alternatives to custody to give people, particularly unemployed offenders, intensive unpaid work for carrying a knife and activity which will lead perhaps to the knife referral programmes I have mentioned previously. The menu of sentencing exists. The key thing for me is prevention and enforcement as much as what happens when people are sentenced.

  Q571  Tom Brake: But there are no areas in relation to sentencing policy that are currently under review that you might have identified where perhaps a different approach is required?

  Mr Hanson: We have a number of pilots on the use of community-based sentences to see whether or not for example knife crime is related to drug activity, whether the drug treatment orders might well end the knife crime activity, whether or not we need to look, as you have said now, at the expansion of the knife referral project. Very often in some cities carrying a knife is something that is done without thought to the consequences. When people are convicted of carrying a knife, they will be taken through the seven-step programme to show the consequences of that. We are expanding that activity. I think we need to look at a mixture of custodial sentences for serious offences and for persistent offenders and community-based sentences where we can change behaviour through community activity. What matters to us all is what changes behaviour. For some people it will be custody because of their behaviour; for some it will be a community-based sentence. We need to look at the range of options and build on what we have already.

  Q572  David Davies: True or false: the number or people being killed violently in this country is higher now than it was 12 years ago based on recorded crime?

  Mr Hanson: I think that is true, Mr Davies.

  Q573  David Davies: The reason why it is possible to say that crime has fallen is because many people who would previously have been charged with GBH, for example, are now being charged with ABH or with lesser offences. Is that not also correct?

  Mr Hanson: Mr Davies, would point out that on 1 May 1997 there were around 60,000 people in prison; there are now, as of this week, 83,000.

  Q574  David Davies: How many of those are foreign nationals?

  Mr Hanson: About 11,000 are foreign nationals.

  Q575  David Davies: The number of foreign nationals has increased greatly. If you took the prison population and the percentage of British people in prison, it is not that much higher than it was 12 years ago, is it?

  Mr Hanson: I would say to you, Mr Davies, that the chances of being convicted are greater than ever before; the chances of receiving a custodial sentence are greater than ever before; the length of that sentence is greater than ever before. Also, the number of community-based penalties is greater than ever before. I think that does show a real impact on the level of crime. If I look at the knife crime statistics over the past 12 months, the increase in custody and the increase of community-based activity have seen a fall in the number of people who are entering accident and emergency departments for knife-related offences. The enforcement that Mr Campbell is responsible for has achieved that in support of what we are doing on sentencing.

  Q576  David Davies: I think I would accept that because you have brought in more prison sentences, which underlies a point which has been made many times by me and members of my party, which is that prison is very effective in deterring people and keeping them off the streets when they have committed a crime. Is that not also correct?

  Mr Hanson: I think prison is effective in deterring people sometimes. What is most effective, in my view, is the threat of being caught and the threat of enforcement. From my perspective, whatever our views on prison sentences, a short effective sentence in prison may not be as effective as a community-based sentence or indeed as the threat of greater enforcement. For example, if I put a young person in prison for 100 days, that may not be as effective as a knife referral scheme in the community, or indeed as extra help and support on knife wands or arches or extra police monitoring at particular times of day or night in particular areas.

  Q577  Martin Salter: On the same subject but with slightly more factual probing: the reoffending rate in our young offenders' institutions is a national disgrace; 70% of young people who receive a first time custodial sentence actually reoffend within two years. Does that not suggest the exact opposite to the previous question and actually our custodial system and our prison system are not working?

  Mr Hanson: There is probably an element in both viewpoints that has to be reflected upon. The figures that you have mentioned are indeed very worrying. I am not happy to be a Youth Justice Minister presiding over a 70% plus reoffending rate in first time offenders into custody. That is why we need to look at the wide range of holistic measures. Later this year, we will be introducing a new Youth Rehabilitation Order, which went through the Criminal Justice Act last year, which is a further step before custody. Sadly, there will still be people who will go to prison because there will be serious, violent, dangerous offences which will lead to custody. My assessment has to be: how do we deal with young people in community-based sentences and what do we do with those that do go to prison or youth offender institutions that changes their lives. It means investment in education, training, employment, skills, family support, resettlement, rehabilitation, on all of which we need to up our game and which I happily accept that we need to do more on today.

  Q578  Martin Salter: Minister, you have been in my constituency and with me when we have looked at the very successful National Grid scheme which offers training and employment opportunities for people leaving custody. That has seen a reduction in reoffending rates down from 70% to 7%. There have been dramatic improvements. What plans are there to roll that out nationally? At the moment, whilst it is an excellent scheme, it is a patchwork scheme and it is not available to all young offenders' institutions, for example.

  Mr Hanson: We are trying very hard to look at how we can roll out greater employment opportunities. The key from my perspective to the prevention of reoffending for those who are over 16 and who are seeking employment is to get back into work, in addition to tackling some of the underling problems as well. I have been very keen to look at building an alliance with a range of employers to try to increase through-the-gate opportunities where we undertake training in prison or young offender institutions and we seek to try to find a through-the-gate method to employ them or to find uses for the skills that they have learnt in prison. We have the National Grid scheme which operates in Reading Prison, but for example only three weeks ago I opened a new scheme in Liverpool Prison with Timpsons, the shoe repair people, where they are undertaking a 15 person training scheme in Liverpool Prison and are finding employment for people after the end of their courses when they come out of prison. That is one of the keys to employment through the gate and it is one of the things we need to work on still more.

  Q579  Chairman: You do not feel that with such a high reoffending rate people are actually going to prisons and young offenders' institutions and learning more about knife crime and coming out to be more sophisticated at stabbing other people?

  Mr Hanson: I do not because I believe ultimately that we have to have the interventions in prison to change people's lives. We have set a very ambitious target, Mr Vaz, of a further reduction of 10% in the reoffending rate for young people over the next three years. I believe we will meet that. There is always the danger that prisons will become academies of crime, but our whole ethos is to change the person's life in prison, to give them support, to make a difference to their lives and to change their behaviour. We have to keep on top that at all times.



 
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