We need a genuine zero tolerance of knife crime
Four weeks ago, after canvassing for Boris in South East London, I joined locals for a drink at the Metro bar in Sidcup. So it was especially shocking to discover that this suburban bar, next to a commuter station, was where 18-year-old Rob Knox was stabbed to death last Saturday.
Time and time again on the doorsteps we heard voters volunteer their concern about crime. Their experience is completely divorced from the complacent litany of statistics, often doctored, which Ministers trot out to tell us how much safer we should all feel. No-one believes these claims. Last week, the country's most senior criminal judge, Sir Igor Judge, said that knife crime was now reaching "epidemic proportions". Far from hyperbole or moral panic, there is good evidence that knife crime is getting worse.
A Home Office survey found that 4 per cent of young people aged 10-25 admitted to carrying a knife. That might not sound many, until you realise that it equates to almost half a million young people who are walking around in public with an offensive weapon - the majority of which are flick knives (outlawed in 1959), kitchen knives or other aggressive designs, not humble pen knives.
Yet in 2006, less than 8,000 people were found guilty of the offence. The criminal justice system is scratching at the surface of the problem. A study by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College London found that there were 64,000 attacks in which a knife was used in a successful mugging last year - and the number has more than doubled in two years.
What did Gordon Brown actually mean when, months ago, he promised zero tolerance on knife crime? Despite the evidence that knife possession is widespread, more than a third of offenders caught carrying a knife are let off with a caution or a final warning. When the Sentencing Guidelines Council proposed making a community penalty the starting point for knife possession, the Government did not object. In their desperation to reduce the prison population, having failed to provide adequate jail capacity, Ministers are trying every device they can to prevent the use of custody. Violent offenders are being released onto the streets early, before even half of their sentence has been served.
In a fragmented culture, where community bonds are weaker, and people have become more desensitised to violence, it is all the more important that the criminal justice system sends out a clear message to young people. Mixed messages on cannabis made the problem worse; we cannot afford the same ambiguous attitude and clouded signals on knives. We should begin by meaning what we say, using strict penalties and strong enforcement to ram home the message that carrying a knife isn't acceptable and carries real risks.
This is why our plans to improve enforcement are so important. David Davis has repeated our determination to cut police paperwork, extend stop and search powers and make the police locally accountable, so more officers are out on the street where they can detect crime and search for knives. The action which Boris Johnson in London, and Chief Constable Bernard Hogan-Howe in Merseyside, are taking to increase the risk of detection, is crucial. Knife arches and mobile scanners should not be isolated initiatives. The risk of getting caught with a knife must be a real factor in the minds of a young person getting ready for a night out, and that means the police making proper use of powers to stop and search. Those who claim that enforcement would antagonise young people need to ask who the victims of violent crime are.
And when offenders are caught, they should - as Sir Igor Judge urged - normally be prosecuted and receive the most severe sentences appropriate. Fines are an inadequate deterrent. Frequently they are paid by the parent, not the youth responsible, or more often are not paid at all. Nor does a fine or a caution recognise the seriousness of the offence. There should be a presumption that offenders receive either a custodial sentence or a tough, enforced community penalty - not a so-called unpaid work "requirement" which they don't even complete, but supervised hard work in the community where they wear high visibility uniforms.
The Government first voted against the Conservative Party's proposal to increase the sentence for carrying knives and then changed their minds. When they joined us, Parliament sent the clearest possible signal, reflecting public concern, that it is simply not acceptable to carry a knife. It is time that the message was received. The police and the courts must be allowed discretion, so that a reasonable excuse can be accepted, but they should be part of a concerted effort to express society's determination to enforce the law. Society has demanded zero tolerance of drink driving, and there is zealous enforcement of motoring crimes. We should ask why the same determination has not applied to knives.
Of course, the criminal justice system alone cannot solve this problem. The roots of social breakdown require long-term social action to address them. But we need fewer counsels of despair. Dealing with family breakdown, reforming welfare, tackling the gang culture ... these are all important long term components of a strategy to tackle youth violence. But none of these actions should stand in the way of more rigorous enforcement and stricter penalties. And the fact that re-offending rates by short-term prisoners are appallingly high is a reason to reform prison, not to abrogate its use.
Apart from launching an advertising campaign, Ministers who have been so vociferous about the Labour Party's internal difficulties have had little to say about a crime which rightly appalls the public. Last week, a devastating independent report found that the Government has failed to deliver on its own targets for youth justice. Labour's ‘respect' agenda has disappeared and their flagship ASBOs are in freefall. While the country waits for leadership, Gordon Brown has - incredibly - yet to make a single speech on crime after nearly a year as Prime Minister.
When political leaders call for zero tolerance they should mean it. Knife crime is neither a chimera nor a press fiction - it is a threat to public safety, and it must be confronted, before the lives of more young men are brutally snatched away.