“We’ve changed the law so that any adult who commits a crime with a knife can expect to be sent to prison.”
David Cameron, 13 March 2013
David Cameron was obliged to defend the government’s record on knife crime at prime minister’s questions this week after fielding a question on the murder of schoolgirl Christina Edkins in Birmingham.
The stabbing took place in Conservative MP James Morris’s constituency, and he told the Commons: “The government has rightly introduced custodial sentences for people convicted of threatening someone with a knife.
“Will the prime minister agree with me that it is time to introduce a legal assumption that people carrying a knife intend to use it and should attract a prison sentence so that we can re-double our efforts to rid our communities of the scourge of knives?”
Mr Cameron replied: “We take knife crime extremely seriously, which is why, as my honourable friend has said, we changed the law so that any adult who commits a crime with a knife can expect to be sent to prison, and for a serious offence they should expect a very long sentence.”
But the prime minister has been heavily criticised in the past by the families of some victims for not doing enough to get tough with criminals who carry knives.
What’s really going on?
In July 2008 Mr Cameron, then in opposition, told the Sun: “The government should say not just there is a presumption you will be prosecuted if you carry a knife, but that there will be a presumption you will go to jail.”
And in an interview with Damilola Taylor’s father Richard in 2008, Mr Cameron said: “We have to send out a really clear message that carrying a knife or gun is wrong. If you carry one and you get caught, you go to prison.”
But no automatic sentencing rule of that nature materialised – at least not for everyone caught carrying a knife.
Instead, the government has introduced a new crime of “threatening with article with blade or point or offensive weapon in public or on school premises”.
Anyone over 18 found guilty of this crime can expect to be jailed for at least six months, while 16- and 17-year-olds can expect a minimum four-month detention and training order (that’s only two months inside).
Judges still have some discretion to overrule this presumption: it will be jail “unless the court is of the opinion that there are particular circumstances which relate to the offence or to the offender, and would make it unjust to do so in all the circumstances”.
So the “automatic jail” rule isn’t entirely automatic and it only applies to this one offence – not all crimes involving a knife, as the prime minister claimed.
Mr Cameron also told MPs that the Justice Secretary “is currently reviewing the powers available to the courts to deal with knife possession”.
Chris Grayling has indeed hinted that there is some wider crackdown on the cards, telling the BBC he is “revisiting the whole issue of knife crime”, but it is unclear what the upshot of all this will be.
All the Ministry of Justice was prepared to tell us was that it is conducting a review into the possible excessive use of police cautions for knife possession “and will bring forward proposals in due course”.
Have sentences got softer under the coalition?
Much has been made of knife crime sentencing figures under the coalition, with several newspapers finding evidence that sentences are getting softer.
In truth there have been only very small changes in the statistics.
In the last quarter of 2012, 30 per cent of adults convicted of crimes involving knife possession received immediate custodial sentences. That’s less than the same period in 2011 (32 per cent) but more than 2010 (26 per cent).
Some 12 per cent of children aged 10 to 17 were locked up for knife crimes at the end of 2012, the same percentage as the year before but again, more than in 2010 (9 per cent).
For the record, the percentage of people of all ages convicted of knife crime who were sentenced to immediate custody has risen very slightly since the beginning of the coalition (see the blue line in the graph below).
These figures don’t tell us anything about the new law. It only came into effect in December last year.
The Ministry of Justice told us it won’t be a sign of failure if there isn’t a big increase in these percentages. A spokesman told us the change in the law was more about creating a deterrent and “sending a clear message that people cannot expect any kind of leniency”.
What does Labour want?
Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan has been a consistent critic of Mr Cameron’s failure to introduce mandatory sentences for knife crime, which might lead you to suppose that Labour think it’s a good idea.
Somewhat surprisingly though, the party is unable to tell us what its official policy on knife crime actually is.
In Scotland, the party has made a commitment to jail everyone found guilty of carrying a knife, but a spokesman in Westminster told us Labour “will be making announcements shortly” and could not go into more detail.
So as things stand, Labour frontbenchers are clear that they think the prime minister has done a U-turn, but they can’t tell us what they would do if elected.
By Patrick Worrall