David Burrowes is the Member of Parliament for Enfield Southgate.
In April, a 15-year-old called Negus McClean was stabbed and killed while trying to prevent a gang stealing his brother’s phone. In July, two rival gangs publicly fought with machetes, knives and guns. The members of these gangs were youths, and a sixteen year old was stabbed in the hand.
Their two harrowing cases have three striking similarities. The first is that they both involve knife crime. The second is that both involve youths. The third is that both occurred in Enfield.
For Enfield, knife crime has become an all too familiar occurrence. Knife attacks are no longer shocking; on the contrary, they seem to be a permanent fixture in the local paper. Almost every week, there is a story of knife crime that has yet again blighted the community. Enfield, of course, is not alone in feeling the devastating effects of knife crime, but it is a problem that is becoming synonymous with the London Borough due to its frequency.
Against this background, together with my constituency neighbour Nick de Bois MP, we have championed the need to get tougher on knife crime. Nick has fought a tireless campaign, bringing a local campaign to national media prominence and harnessing Parliamentary support, as well as that of Boris Johnson and police chiefs. I have been able to draw on my experience as a solicitor in youth courts for the last 17 years seeing knife crime as a "blind spot" when it comes to sentencing. Together we have made a compelling case to ministers for change to legislation.
It is for this reason that when the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill goes through its remaining stages in the House of Commons this week, an amendment to have mandatory sentences handed down to offenders aged 16 and 17 who use knives in a threatening manner is becoming known as "Enfield’s law".
It has been co-signed by Ken Clarke, Nick de Bois and me, together with over 40 MPs.
So how does this square with Ken Clarke a day earlier expressing reluctance in the Home Affairs Select Committee to extend mandatory sentences? Commentators have sought to look to departmental or personality battles. The answer lies in the streets of Enfield which have been the crime locations for too many victims of knife crime. These victims prompted both Nick de Bois and I to first raise the issue on the floor of the House at Second Reading of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill on the 29th June and to press the case over the next 4 months.
Penal reformers, have since the announcement, been hard at work sending briefings to MPs condemning Enfield’s law. They have castigated me in terms of "what is a nice penal reformer like you doing in a nasty mandatory sentencing place like this". I concede that a minimum of 2 months in a youth prison and 2 months in the community under supervision will probably have little effect upon the entrenched carrier of knives nor even the casual carrier who picks up a knife "for his own protection". I also agree that interventions need to happen a whole lot earlier to tackle the knife culture that has developed in Enfield and elsewhere. However the reality is that any youth wielding a knife and threatening someone’s life should already expect to be locked up for longer than 2 months.
I have long advocated that it would be more effective to imprison fewer young people but for a longer period of time. Threatening someone with a knife is a very serious offence that deserves to be punished with a lengthy sentence. Enfield’s law simply makes it clear that if you are 16 or older, you must go to prison for a minimum period of time. There will still be discretion for a judge to find exceptional circumstances not to lock a youth up, particularly as the amendment explicitly recognises the continuing duty to a young person’s welfare. Enfield’s law will at least mean the "custody threshold" has been passed and direct alternatives to custody such as Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programmes can be ordered.
Some say Parliament should not get involved in setting mandatory minimum sentences and should leave it to the judges. However, there comes a time with particular crimes (as there did when tougher firearms laws were passed) when we have to send out a clear message that we take knife crime seriously. We promised this to the electorate, and more importantly to victims of knife crime, who see a minimum mandatory sentence as the least Parliament should do.
In the wake of the August riots, and with escalating knife crime, the nation was shaking its head in disapproval at Enfield. Now with Enfield’s law the nation can nod its head in approval.