Nick de Bois is a Secretary of the 1922 Committee and MP for Enfield North.
Alan Whitfield was with a friend down the local pub, the Lord Warden in Liverpool, when a man approached asking to have a chat. Alan told him he would speak to him later. When he went outside to have a cigarette, the man approached again – and stabbed him in the stomach, leaving him with a perforated bowel and fighting for his life.
Nine hospital operations later, Alan, thankfully, is still alive, but has been told he will never work again. A scaffolder for 27 years, he has been told that he should now not lift anything heavier than a filled kettle. The unprovoked attack was carried out by a man who was drunk and had been taking cocaine, with Alan being the fourth person he has stabbed. He had been out of prison barely a month for a previous knife attack.
Before someone can carry out a knife attack, they first have to begin carrying a knife. Last year, there were 16,031 instances of someone being caught in possession of a knife that resulted in action being taken. 28 per cent were given immediate custody. The other 72 per cent were let off with softer options, including over 3,200 people simply being given a caution or a fine. 4,415 people carrying a knife were given a community sentence – regarded by recipients as a soft option.
None the less, some progress has been made. In 2012, an amendment I put forward to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill became law. It meant that, from then on, anyone aged 16 or above convicted of using a knife to threaten someone woud receive a mandatory six month prison sentence. The change in the law only came about after the campaign was endorsed by hundreds of residents from my constituency in Enfield, was backed by anti-knife crime campaigners and charities and, finally, was supported by 40 of my backbench colleagues, who signed the amendment.
Despite our success, though I don’t think it’s enough. I say this for two main reasons. First, despite it being the will of Parliament that anyone using a knife to threaten someone should be given a mandatory custodial sentence, figures show that just half of those convicted for this offence are being sent to prison. Second, we have to recognise that we need to intervene earlier if we are to prevent people being tkilled. Few offenders are picking up a knife for the first time before they use it to threaten or attack someone. The act of carrying the knife is the first step down a dangerous path towards more serious incidents.
That’s why I have now tabled amendments to the Criminal Courts and Justice Bill currently going through Parliament which will ensure anyone caught carrying a knife for a second time will go to prison.
The Conservative manifesto of 2010, upon which all Tory MPs were elected, was spot on. 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.” I’m afraid to say that this serious, unambiguous message has so far not been sent out.
Over 2,500 of those caught in possession of a knife last year were aged 10 to 17. If we need any more convincing about the weak message being sent out about carrying a knife, then we need to look no further if thousands of children don’t regard it as serious. That’s why my amendments also permit mandatory Detention and Training Orders for 16 to 18-year-olds.
Some will argue that tougher sanctions aren’t the answer and that the role of education, early intervention, mentoring schemes, qualifications and even training when inside prison would be more effective. Indeed, I met with voluntary groups last week who deserve enormous credit for the work they do in this field and deserve more government support, too – but whilst what they do is vital, so also is the role of sentencing of offenders. The work these groups and others do are not alternatives to custody, but part of a total solution, since a key starting point for helping prevent knife crime is a clear, unambiguous message to people of all ages that carrying a knife is serious and will result in a prison sentence.
I’m confident that the amendments we’ve tabled will have the support of Conservative MPs. Labour’s position has yet to be made clear. The Liberal Democrats have said they intend to block it. I urge Nick Clegg and his MPs to do one thing before they make up their minds: talk to victims. Talk to a victim of knife crime who has been left with life-changing injuries. Talk to a family member who has lost a loved one and ask if he wants action taken to end these appalling crimes. Who are more important than the victims?