Could Labour and Tories unite to pass tougher knife crime sentencing? How should Liberal Democrats react?

FSI working at crime sceneLast Friday, Joe Otten wrote about the leak of letters  revealing that the Liberal Democrats were opposing Tory plans to introduce a six month mandatory sentence for those convicted a second time for carrying a knife.

Today’s Daily Mail makes two claims. The first is that Labour is getting ready to “humiliate” the Liberal Democrats by siding with the Tories and they could pass this together. Secondly, they say that Nick Clegg was “bouncing off the walls” when he discovered the leak.

We know from the feature on yesterday’s Sunday Politics that Nick thinks that the leaking of the letters was silly and didn’t help resolve anything. While the Deputy Prime Minister can very occasionally be grumpy as hell, he’s not the bouncing off the walls type. I don’t actually think that the leaking of the letters does the Liberal Democrats any harm at all. Our position is clear and fits in well with the evidence.

We had a similar debate in Scotland during the 2011 elections when Labour proposed a mandatory 6 month sentence for anyone convicted of carrying a knife. This was vigorously opposed by the Liberal Democrats and Labour made a complete hash of building the case for their plan. For a start their justice secretary told us that knife crime cost the NHS in Scotland £500 million a year. That was hogwash and he later had to admit he got the dodgy figure from a press report. What really skewered the idea was the evidence. The Police and Police Federation both favoured the success of initiatives like Srathclyde’s No Knives, Better Lives campaign. Earlier this year, research showed that it’s education more than anything else that is effective in the fight against knife crime.

The Police are going into schools up here and frightening the living daylights out of kids by telling them just how easy it is to kill or be killed from a stab wound, making the point that more knives equal more dead people. In the long run, that’s what’s going to work. In the short term, there are some people who do deserve to go to jail if they’ve persistently broken the law but the discretion on that should lie with someone who has heard all the evidence in that particular case, not with a one size fits all law voted for by Parliament.

So what happens now? Well, the Crime Bill comes back to the Commons next week, there will be an amendment from Tory Nick De Bois introducing mandatory sentences. It could be that Labour and Tories vote for it. It’s important that Liberal Democrats stay in this debate and make the evidence-based case. Nobody else will do it for us. We may not be able to stop a bad law being passed, but we need to oppose it calmly, clearly and without rancour.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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13 Comments

  • Melanie Harvey 5th May '14 - 1:13pm

    I do love the way the Labs and Cons are quick to make a crime of one which is non existant, but do not have the capacity to deal with those which are. People carry weapons when they have been threatened and feel the need to defend themselves. If the L & C actually dealt with the original crime against those carrying and therefore felt the need to arm themselves then hey guess what, that victim would not feel the need would they?

  • Graham Martin-Royle 5th May '14 - 4:25pm

    One size fits all sentencing does not work and does not make sense. Each case is different and needs to be treated separately. Doing otherwise is foolish.

  • Julian Dean 5th May '14 - 6:22pm

    We need both deterrents in place, knife crime education and the mandatory custodial sentence.

    Sorry, if a person is stupid and reckless enough to carry a weapon that could inflict physical harm or worse to someone and be caught a second time then I have absolutely no sympathy at all.

    I’d rather my child grew up in the safest possible environment and Im with the other two parties on this one and I suspectthe majority of the UK.

  • Stephen Donnelly 5th May '14 - 10:33pm

    Julian. But what if it is a swiss army knife on a camping trip with no malicious intent. Should we impose a Jail sentence to obey the letter of the law, or allow the judge to use his or her discretion.

    What will Liberal Democrats MPs do ?

    Probably find some way that they can at least vote three different ways on the bill. On the Today programme no spokesman will come forward leaving the field open for the presenters or Lord Oakeshot to define the ‘liberal’ position.

    What should they do ?

    Have the courage of their conviction and argue strongly in favour of judicial discretion. Not holding my breath though.

  • Antony Hook

    “Instead of “tougher sentences” I think it is better say they are “taking away decision making from judges abd magistrates”.”

    Or perhaps the shorter “Sentencing by politicians” as that is what thy are asking to impose.

  • Ian Hurdley 6th May '14 - 7:55am

    For fourteen years until I retired in 2007, I served as a magistrate on a busy, metropolitan bench, and so have a fair amount of experience of dealing with “knife crime” cases. The first thing that has to be said is that this is a catch-all political and journalist term; it does not describe a homogeneous group. There are defendants charged with possession of an offensive weapon, or of a bladed instrument, and the items involved can and do vary enormously in size and nature. Some defendants (admittedly only a few) have a plausible explanation for what still amounts to a criminal act, and can be dealt with leniently. Others are shown to have intentions which could easily amount to “threats to kill” or “attempted murder”. The majority are to be found somewhere on the continuum between these two.
    If justice is to be done, then it is imperative that each case is heard in detail and sentenced on its individual facts. Minimum mandatory sentences play well with the media and some parts of the electorate, but they must not be allowed to masquerade as justice.

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th May '14 - 9:46am

    Much of the criticism of the Liberal Democrats in the Coalition has taken the form “As you hold the balance of power, you can get anything you want out of it, so the fact that the Coalition isn’t producing 100% LibDem policies is because you have given in to the Tories”. This issue shows why that line is silly. In any case where we do stand up for principles against the Tories, chances are Labour will seize on it as a LibDem-bashing opportunity, and join with the right-wing press and the Tories in misrepresenting what we’re saying and rubbishing us. What we can do in the Coalition is swing the balance our way when it’s fairly evenly divided among the Tories, or get through minor policies which don’t bother the Tories either way. Anything more than that, well if we turn round to look for moral support from Labour, forget it. As it means we will be on our own, it WILL be painted by our opponents – which include almost all of the press – as LibDem loonies trying to have their loony way, and how dare a small party like the LibDems oppose what everyone else wants?

    I’m not saying this means we should never take a stand, just pointing out that it isn’t as easy-peasy as the “you’re dirty rotten opportunists because you could have achieved anything from holding the balance but chose not to” critics make out.

    Opposing mandatory sentencing doesn’t meaning opposing that sort of sentencing in all cases, as some of the attacks on us over this might suggest. It just means leaving open options, as has been pointed out by several people here.

    In addition, I think it needs to be considered that sending a silly kid who’s been trying to play macho to prison for it may in effect giving him a highly expensive state-funded training in how to become a proper criminal, and making sure he’ll never get a proper job (who wants to employ someone who’s been in prison?), so if he wants to get on in life, that’ll be his career anyway. I would very much prefer it to be left to professionals who consider the individual cases to be making the decision on whether that is the best path to take for an individual offender. I very much suspect that the amount of money it costs to keep a kid in prison for six months if spent in some other way could have a much greater beneficial effect.

  • David Evershed 6th May '14 - 12:00pm

    Nick Clegg should not be angry about the leaking of Lib Dem policy on knofe crime sentencing. Lib Dems should never be ashamed of our policies nor wish to hide them from the public.

    It is a clear and rational policy to allow judges to determine sentences for knife crime and not have politicians setting a high minimum. However, it is accepted that politicians have a right to set broad sentencing guidelines for judges to follow.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 6th May '14 - 4:38pm

    I read that this is about a six month mandatory sentence for those CONVICTED a SECOND TIME for carrying a knife. How many times before the law sees that the person is always armed? Sorry Scouts but you can kill with your knife. Lib Dem policy could be daft on this – so think it through. We need clear policies not legal ways to prevent a court case. Too clever by half comes to mind in this thread. Arrest, charge, go to court and examine previous convictions. It is not the job of the police to examine every case of knife carrying. Please don’t tell me that Lib Dems know people will weigh up all the subtleties of this point before it comes to court. Courts decide these issues. Support the proposal but take the arrested person to court.

  • Ian Hurdley 7th May '14 - 8:30am

    @Tony Rowan-Wicks
    “Courts decide these issues.”
    Precisely!

  • But what if it is a swiss army knife on a camping trip with no malicious intent

    That would be a knife with a folding blade less than three inches long, and therefore perfectly legal to carry whether or not on a camping trip; if you’re on a camping trip that counts as a good reason to carry a longer knife, too ( https://www.gov.uk/find-out-if-i-can-buy-or-carry-a-knife ).

    So the person carrying either a legal knife (folding blade, less than three inches) or a knife with a good reason, would not be convicted, and so would not be affected by any minimum sentencing.

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