Examination of Witness (Question Numbers
24 FEBRUARY 2009
Q294 Chairman: Could I refer to all those
present to the register of Members' interests where the relevant
pecuniary and non-pecuniary interests of the Committee are noted.
Can I welcome Frances Crook to the Select Committee; I am sure
this is not your first visit to the Home Affairs Select Committee,
and I am sure it will not be your last. We have delayed you slightly
because we have been hearing evidence in private from the Prince's
Trust and we will publish the evidence anonymously once our report
is concluded. Thank you for coming here. You will, from your wealth
of experience, know much about the issue of knife crime, which
is the subject of this Committee's inquiry. I am particularly
interested in my first question to ask you about the issue of
victims of knife crime and victimisation. Is it the case that
it is the victims who are now themselves becoming the perpetrators?
Ms Crook: I think that is a very
complicated question. It is certainly the case that the book we
published, which was written by a prison governor, where she researched
and talked to a lot of young people who were carrying knives that
they certainly felt as if they might be victims, which was one
of the reasons why they were carrying knives in the first place.
They said very strongly that they were fearful of being victims
and so that the protection of carrying a knife was one of the
reasons why they did it, and of course once you carry a knife
you can end up using it by mistake. You might or might not be
aware that the Howard League for Penal Reform is also a law firmwe
have a contract with the Legal Services Commission and we represent
young people in custody, up to the age of 21obviously sometimes
older because they do grow upand we have represented hundreds
and hundreds of young people who have been in custody for a wide
range of different offences. I asked my lawyer yesterday about
any cases that she had of young people who were in custody for
knife crime and one of the young people she is representing she
said is very typical. He had had a hard timehe is 19 nowand
he is now convicted of manslaughter, using a knife; so very serious.
He did not actually go with a knifehe says he found the
knife at the scenebut he had admitted to previously carrying
a knife exactly because he was afraid of being the victim of a
knife crime because he feared that other young people on the housing
estate were carrying knives. So the answer to your question is,
I think, that it is a slippery slope; the dividing line between
victim and perpetrator is often very unclear. The other point
I would like to make is how young some of the young people are
now who are carrying knives.
Chairman: We will come on to that.
Q295 Mr Salter: I am interested in
the work you did in the publication Why Carry a Weapon?
about the role of natural protectors, ie police, I suppose youth
workers, guardians, parents and the rest of it, and your work
seems to indicate that a lot of young people felt that those people
we have called natural protectors are actually anything but and
they did not feel confident that in the world which they were
now inhabiting that their parents or the police or other authorities
could not actually protect them from harm. Would you like to elaborate
on that for us and perhaps give us your view as to how we have
reached this basis?
Ms Crook: Both the evidence we
have from our caseload and published in the book shows that young
people do not trust the police. In fact it is worse than that;
one of the quotes in the book from a young person is that "The
police wind you up". They not only feel that the police will
not protect them but they feel the police are antagonistic towards
them.This is a serious problem because if the police are not there
to protect everybody and the young people do not feel that the
police will protect them, then that is a very serious issue. The
other e issue that came out very strongly from the research concerns
parents. We found that young people had conversations about carrying
knives with their parents but the response from parents was not
helpful; it was often threatening and not having a proper conversation
and not being supportive and not helping the young people to deal
with the issues they face. The research showed that the lack of
family life for these young people was very important was an inhibitor
to having that difficult conversation about how to protect yourself
and how not to be a victim and why not to carry a knife. For example,
that young people did not go out with their parents; they did
not do anything with them; they could not remember when they last
played a game with their parents; played football or a ballgame..
If they do anything together it is to watch TV or use the Internet.
Schools are also an issuea lot of them have been excluded
from schools and do not have a good relationship with their schools.
So all those people who would be the natural protectorsthe
police, family, schoolsare not fulfilling that function.
Theyseek that support, that approval from their peer group. Therefore
it is very easy for us to slip into the gang language, identifying
their peer group as a "gang" ... Actually what they
probably have is another family; they are seeking a substitute
family or substitute protectors because the protectors that you
have drawn attention to are not fulfilling that function.
Q296 Mr Russell: According to the
Home Office, those prosecuted for carrying knives are almost three
times as likely to go to prison now as they were 10 years ago.
There were 6% given prison sentences in 1996 and 17% in 2006.
That is more than two years ago and the figures, I suspect, have
increased since then because the government on 5 June 2008 announced
that the presumption that anyone caught carrying an illegal knife
can face criminal charges; and then on 29 December the Justice
Minister, David Hanson, announced that from 5 January this year
the courts would be able to hand out "tougher and more intensive
penalties". So what do you think, if anything, has been the
impact of recent changes to knife possession and charging policy?
Ms Crook: There are several points
there. I would like to go back, if I can, to the case of our young
man because he is in prison at the moment serving a long sentence
for manslaughter. He had at the time of his trial several psychiatric
reports done for him. Since he has been in prison he has had no
treatment at all and he has been in for four years. So if you
think that by sending people to prison they are going to get some
kind of therapy or response to their offending that is not the
case. He has lain on his bunk for four years and nothing has happened
at all. So as a knee jerk reaction prison is inappropriate, ineffective
and may even be counter productive. The other thing the evidence
from the research indicates, and the young men interviewed by
our prison governor in the book Why Carry a Knife? Showed,
is that they were much more afraid of being stabbed than they
were of spending four years in prison. One of the lads actually
says "six feet under or six years". The thought of beings
stabbed is much more real to them, the threat of other young people
with a knife is much more real, than the distant prospect of a
prison sentence. We have some recent evidence, which I think is
alarming, that the older young men involved in perhaps leading
groups or leading gangs and carrying knives are sometimes quite
savvy about this, quite sophisticated, and in order to avoid carrying
a knife and the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence if they
are stopped by the policebecause they do get stopped quite
a lotthey are using very young children to carry for them.
We have heard that they will use a seven or eight year old like
a "golf caddy", this was the expression used, to carry
their knives for them and then if they need it the kid will hand
it to them. So this is grooming very young children and getting
them used to this kind of behaviour, which is quite worrying.
Q297 Mr Russell: So in shorthand
terms you are saying that the impact of recent changes to knife
possession charging policy has been negative rather than positive?
Ms Crook: I think a top down policy
is counterproductive; it is certainly ineffective and can be counterproductivethere
are much better ways of dealing with this.
Q298 Mr Russell: Let us lead on to
the better ways because the Howard League for Penal Reform has
argued that custodial sentences are awarded too often to young
people. So who, in your view, should receive custodial sentences
for knife offences and what alternative penalties should be introduced?
Because knife crime is increasing, is it not?
Ms Crook: I have spent the last
two days looking at statistics and, yes, the number of people
dying as a result of knife crime has gone up. The figures I saw
were 277 deaths last year. But if you look 10 or 14 years ago
it was 243, so it has been an issue of concern for a number of
years; but it has not gone up as exponentially as I think perhaps
the media scare has indicated. We have to get it in proportion;
it is a problem but it is not rampant across our streets. For
example, to put it into context: the same number of women are
killed by their partners every year, or 12 times as many people
are killed on the roads.
Q299 Mr Russell: But you are spreading
complacency with that sort of remark.
Ms Crook: I am not. I am saying
that it is serious but we have to get it in proportion and if
you overreact to things or you react inappropriately and wrongly
you risk making things worseyou do not make things better.
What I am not going to do is to say who should go to prison and
who should notI am not going to slip into thatin
answer to your question, because I think each individual case
has to be treated with discretion. It would depend on the circumstances
and it would depend on who is carryingwhether it is a 10-year
old carrying a knife because they have been bullied into it by
an older boy, then prison would not be appropriate; a gang leader
who has several convictions and is clearly bullying people with
a knife and has taken a life, obviously that would require custody
for public safety reasons. Within that wide spectrum there are
lots of different possibilities.