Lib Dem opposition to mandatory jail terms for second knife offences show our principles are intact

The Court House - Warwick - Coat of ArmsThe Lib Dems have sold our soul, abandoning all principle, since going into Coalition – so goes up the cry from the party’s detractors, both internal and the very many beyond.

That trite claim doesn’t sit very comfortably with the party’s actions today, voting against Labour and Conservative MPs’ united support of mandatory jail terms for any adult convicted in England or Wales of a second offence involving a knife. As the BBC reports:

Conservative MP Nick de Bois championed the policy, which won wide support among Conservative and Labour MPs – but was opposed by Liberal Democrats. … His proposals were agreed by 404 votes to 53, a majority of 351. The measures aim to ensure that adults receive a minimum six-month jail term on their second conviction for carrying a knife, while 16-year-olds would be given at least a four-month detaining and training order.

Two Lib Dem MPs, Cambridge’s Julian Huppert and Colchester’s Sir Bob Russell, directly challenged Nick de Bois to address the points raised by the Home Affairs Committee report on knife crime. Here’s Julian’s question:

The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. He carefully avoided the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) about whether he had had a look at the Home Affairs Committee report on knife crime. I urge him to do so. It is clearly against mandatory sentencing, but it also highlights that evidence suggests that the prospect of a custodial sentence may not deter young people from carrying knives. Does he accept that evidence from many people? Has he seen any evidence to the contrary?

The Tory MP’s response? “That is entirely possible”. Still, who needs evidence that your policy will be at all effective when a tough-sounding piece of legislation does the job of sending a message?

Here, by the way, is an excerpt from the summary of that Home Affairs Committee report:

It is difficult to estimate how many young people carry knives but there are fears it is becoming ‘normal’ in some areas. Young people tend to carry pen knives or flick knives, but kitchen knives are more commonly used in stabbings. Most young people who carry knives say they do so for ‘protection’; status and peer pressure are also factors. This perceived need for protection is compounded by the sense, reinforced by media coverage of stabbings, that everyone else is carrying a weapon, as well as experience of victimisation. In terms of knife-users, socially excluded young people from dysfunctional families are more predisposed to be violent, particularly those who witness or experience violence in the home.

Our findings convinced us of the need to target knife-carriers and violent offenders separately. For the former, we advocate education in schools about the realities of knife-carrying and measures to help young people feel safer, such as improving confidence in the police and better victim support. Evidence suggests that the prospect of being caught can deter young people from breaking the law. We therefore support the use of stop and search, providing it is carried out in an appropriate manner.

While we encourage the use of custody as an appropriate sentence for the majority of knife-carriers and for violent offenders, high re-offending rates highlight its ineffectiveness as a long-term solution to violent crime. We recommend the expansion of offending behaviour and resettlement programmes as a means to reduce re-offending by prisoners, as well as interventions with young people on the cusp of more serious offending.

Of course jail terms will often be the right verdict for those caught carrying a knife a second time. But for everyone? In every instance? No matter what the circumstances? Regardless of what the judge thinks? That’s what Labour and Conservative MPs think. It’s not what Lib Dems MPs think and it’s not how they voted. That’s principles for you, right there.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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This entry was posted in News and Parliament.


  • Patrick McAuley 17th Jun '14 - 8:22pm

    I agree it shows our principles are in tact, however I think this particular liberal principle is somewhat naive. I think some liberals either have no or lose all sense of context when rejecting policies like this. Everyone is intitled to a mistake but when the law identifies a pattern of behaviour then action must be taken. That said, all policy should have some objection so from that point of view I’m glad Our MPs provided the facility in this instance even if the electorate think we are daft Woolley Liberals for doing so.

  • Jonathan Pile 17th Jun '14 - 8:23pm

    Well done lib dem MPs for standing firm to principles tonight – is that why we stand by Clegg ? By my counts he has knifed the party more than twice – tuition fees, bedroom tax, hs2, welfare cap etc

  • Tony Dawson 17th Jun '14 - 8:30pm

    Is twice a ‘pattern of behaviour’?

    I thought that we appoint judges to make judgements after considering all the evidence. Is not this motion a statement that judges only ned to be cyphers in this situation?

  • Chris Manners 17th Jun '14 - 8:40pm

    So you’ve opposed something bad that went through by a majority of 350.
    But you didn’t oppose all sorts of other bad stuff which your votes would have stopped.

    Sorry, not buying it.

  • Stephen Hesketh 17th Jun '14 - 9:03pm

    Lib Dem opposition to mandatory jail terms for second knife offences show [[some of]] our principles are intact

  • Richard Harris 17th Jun '14 - 10:44pm

    Wow, all those unfair, utterly illiberal government decisions you’ve enabled by voting with the government, and THIS is where the LibDems draw the line. Good to see you put the civil rights of repeat knife offenders above the higher education of my children.

  • The problem with the headline is that going along with any illiberal measure shows your principles are _not_ intact. You can’t redeem yourself later on by saying “no” to a different one.

    It’s rather like a previously promiscuous person saying “My refusal to have sex with him/her shows I’m still a virgin”. Obviously it doesn’t.

  • @Richard Harris

    Nope, it is called actually a justice and legal system worthy of the name. Automatic sentences side-step the court system. A repeat offender sent to prison after trail is one thing, one sent to prison automatically is another. It is a vital principle. In many murder cases the verdict is a forgone conclusion, but we still need the trail process to assess and examine and everyone deserves their day in court – some may even call it a British value. If we don’t allow a Judge to Judge, what is the point of having them?

    Also, more children in total and propotionall more from diverse backgrounds are in HE than ever before…and they don’t owe anything unless they earn over £21k and pay back less each month than I did under Labour when I was earning £15k.

  • Daniel Henry 17th Jun '14 - 11:56pm

    We need to be careful with the headlines.
    When I hear “knife crime”, my first thought is that it means an actual stabbing, which should involve a prison sentence.

    The fact we’re just talking about people carrying knifes isn’t a detail the public necessarily picks up on when they hear the phrase “knife crime”.

  • Nick de Bois claimed that the amendment allowed judges discretion in “exceptional” or “specific” circumstances which meant a prison sentence would go against justice. If that’s true then this isn’t actually a mandatory sentence measure at all. If it’s not true then he was dissembling.

  • Stephen Hesketh 18th Jun '14 - 7:03am

    I agree with Daniel Henry.

  • andrew purches 18th Jun '14 - 8:10am

    Going back some 65 years , it was almost mandatory for a young chap in the Boy Scouts to wear,for all to see, a sheaf knife hanging from his belt. The main aim of which was to whittle sticks and skin rabbits. Richer kids even had a wicked throwing knife secreted about their person. How life has changed – we would never defeat Hitler now, or even Jihadists come to that.

  • I don’t feel safer walking my local area with this policy and perhaps it shows a disconect with LiDem and EU human rights law with the electorate.

  • David Evans 18th Jun '14 - 8:28am

    Our liberal principles have always been intact. Nick on the other hand doesn’t share many of them, Secret courts being a prime example.

  • Ron Tindall 18th Jun '14 - 9:13am

    Well Done MPs. Should we prepare to oppose the next regressive law – capital punishment for stealing a shilling.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Jun '14 - 1:47pm

    Yes, ok, but this seems to be part of the pattern where some seem to want our party to be only about those aspects of liberalism which are not in conflict with right-wing economics. When people accuse us of “abandoning our principles”, it is more to do with the fact that we have developed a form of liberalism which recognises that inequality of wealth is a great barrier to freedom, and that freedom in general is enhanced by state support even if that is at the cost to some of the lessening of freedom due to having to pay taxes.

    Ever since I first joined the party in the 1970s, there’s been regular calls from right-wing commentators for us to be a party which views “liberalism” purely in terms of absence of state intervention, with suggestions there’s a big pool of voters out there waiting for such a party. Now it seems most of the electorate think we ARE such a party, and they aren’t interested in it.

    So, sure, I think an aspect of liberalism is that we do take a principled stand on issues like this. I can very much see the point that mandatory punishments are a dangerous thing – it should be left in the hands of the judiciary considering each individual case what the most appropriate punishment should be. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re opposed to dealing harshly with those who commit crimes with knives, but it means we can foresee cases where forcing a prison term would be seen to be unjust, probably something along the lines of some clearly harmless person who carries a knife boy-scout style, is given a nominal ticking off conviction once and just by some strange circumstances happen to be picked up again with a knife.

    However, if taking a principled stand on issues like this is ALL our party is about, it’s never going to attract widespread support. In a country with a list-type electoral system where a party can bumble along forever on around 5% of the vote, dropping in and out of coalitions as circumstances dictate – like much of Europe – it’s a possible pattern of continuation. In our country with its electoral system, it isn’t.

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