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Coffee House

Nick Clegg is wrong on knife crime – we need minimum sentences

8 May 2014

12:21 PM

8 May 2014

12:21 PM

In today’s Guardian Nick Clegg sets out his reasons why he is stopping the government tabling clauses that would require mandatory sentences on second conviction for possession of a knife. Quite simply: I don’t agree with Nick.

His argument for doing nothing further is simply that we are doing enough already. True, the latest Crime Survey of England and Wales released by the Office for National Statistics shows knife crime is down by four per cent on last year.

But that will be little comfort to the victims of knife crime and their families. Yet again this week we learnt of another fatal stabbing – this time of a 17 year old Londoner. My heart goes out to yet another family for their appalling and tragic loss.

The drop in knife crime will be of little comfort to them and others. Of course it is welcome news – but the fact is, knife crime is still too high and the Deputy Prime Minister is wrong to suggest that rehabilitation is so successful that we don’t need more effective and mandatory sentencing for possession of a knife on a second conviction.

He argues that mandatory sentencing is in principle something he and Liberal Democrats cannot support. But in December 2012 I put forward an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill which meant that from then on anyone aged 16 or above convicted of using a knife to threaten someone would receive a mandatory six month prison sentence. It became law with Liberal Democrat support, and I hope it’s just the start of the legislative journey that will help challenge Britain’s growing knife culture.

The change in the law only came about after the campaign was endorsed by hundreds of Enfield residents who signed a Parliamentary petition, backed by the Enfield Independent and the Sun, supported by anti-knife crime campaigners and charities and finally signed by 40 of my backbench colleagues. Despite our success, I don’t think it’s enough. That’s why I have now tabled—with the support of 40 colleagues—new clauses to the Criminal Courts and Justice Bill which would ensure second time offenders for possession of a knife would face a mandatory jail term.

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We have to recognise that we need to intervene earlier if we are to prevent people being killed. Carrying a knife is the beginning of a process that may lead to serious injury or death. The act of carrying the knife is the first step down a dangerous path towards more serious incidents.

The Conservative Party manifesto of 2010, upon which all Conservative MPs were elected, was right when it stated:-

‘We have to send a serious, unambiguous message that carrying a knife is totally unacceptable, so we will make it clear that anyone convicted of a knife crime can expect to face a prison sentence.’

To date that message has not been sent.

The disappointing picture emerging from recent knife crime data proves this. Last year action was taken after 16,031 instances of someone being caught in possession of a knife. But just 28 per cent of those cases resulted in immediate custody. The other 72 per cent of those caught were let off with softer options, including over 3,200 people simply being given a caution or fine. 4,415 people carrying a knife were given a community sentence – recipients regard that as a soft option.

If we need any more convincing about the weak message being sent out about carrying a knife then we need to look no further than the thousands of young people who don’t regard it as serious. Over 2,500 of those caught in possession of a knife last year were aged 10 to 17.

That Nick Clegg thinks differently is one thing, but to suggest that we should not do this because people will go to jail for carrying pen knives—thereby conjuring up images of scouts being banged up for months—is patently absurd. The police and CPS do not presently prosecute such cases, nor are they ever likely too, except in the most exceptional and warranted circumstances.

But one thing I do agree with Nick on is that the culture of knife crime requires a series of interventions and not just firmer sentencing. Education, early intervention, mentoring schemes, qualifications and training (more so when inside prison) – these are all just as important in making sure we reduce knife crime. Indeed it cannot go unsaid about the outstanding work undertaken by organisations such as STOP, the Nelson-Williams Foundation, Godwin Lawson Foundation, Anti-Knife UK, TAG, Gangline and the Strategic Alliance of Communities Rejecting Youth Destruction (SACRYD).

Nick Clegg is wrong to suggest the proposals for sentencing are a knee jerk reaction to recent tragic events as I have been campaigning with others on this issue for several years. My first involvement in the issue of knife crime followed a regular door-knocking session in my constituency prior to the 2010 General Election. The woman behind the door I’d just knocked on told me that then her 15-year-old son, a promising young footballer, had recently been stabbed and killed. The experience of meeting Yvonne Lawson compelled me to act. Losing her son, Godwin, compelled Yvonne to act too; she established the Godwin Lawson Foundation which carries out remarkable work raising awareness of the positive role that sport and education can have in challenging gang culture and the use of weapons as a status symbol.

Yet sentencing is an important boundary, perhaps the starting point to preventing knife crime by sending a clear, unambiguous message to people of all ages that carrying a knife is serious and will result in a prison sentence.

The Justice Secretary has set out wide reaching reforms to rehabilitation and reoffending. These measures haven’t kicked in as yet, but significantly offenders who serve less than a year in custody will benefit both in and out of prison, for the first time, from mentoring and guidance away from re-offending. Nick Clegg seems to have overlooked this when he argues that sentencing knife crime offenders to custody will set back rehabilitation and reform. Perhaps that may have been true before his own government changed the system, but it is misjudged to make that claim now, not least because he is undermining his own governments reforms.

I have tabled new clauses calling for mandatory sentences for possession of a knife; a six month sentence for adults on their second offence and a four month detention order for minors. I’m confident this will have the support of my Conservative colleagues

If the Liberal Democrats persist to in blocking this amendment they will not only be out of step with public opinion, they will be preventing the Government from sending out a serious, unambiguous message that carrying a knife is unacceptable in British society. A clear message is a fundamental part of the holistic solution this country needs to tackle the scourge of knife crime. I urge the Deputy Prime Minister and all MPs from across the House support my amendment.

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