Offensive Weapons Bill – Bishop of Newcastle asks Government to think again on Knife Crime Prevention Orders

On 6th February 2019 the House of Lords considered the Government’s Offensive Weapons Bill in its third day of Committee. The Bishop of Newcastle, Rt Revd Chrisine Hardman spoke against Government amendments to create new Knife Crime Prevention Orders. The amendments were withdrawn following the debate, but the Minister indicated they were likely to be returned to again at a later stage:

The Lord Bishop of Newcastle: Before becoming Bishop of Newcastle, I was an archdeacon in south-east London. In my archdeaconry, sadly, was Eltham, where Stephen Lawrence died. I do not, therefore, underestimate the sheer heartbreak and devastation of knife crime, particularly when young people are involved. This crime is growing and growing. I have sat with families whose children have been victims of knife crime. I have officiated at a funeral where that has been the case. The circles of devastation and heartbreak just go on and on. I do not underestimate the seriousness of this problem; nevertheless, I object to this amendment and hope that it will be withdrawn, so that there is more time to reflect on it.

I wish to make two points. First, a legal process that treats children and adults in exactly the same way cannot be right. We have learned a lot as we have come to see how we were blind to what was happening in cases of the sexual exploitation of children. The girls who were involved—it is not always girls, but it often is—were just seen as bad girls, who had absconded from care and were drinking and taking drugs. These children were not seen as children in desperate need of our protection and were not seen as victims. I think about the situation in which a child of 12 is carrying a knife, probably because they are terrified, and then I look at the purpose of this measure, which is to protect the general public. Of course we need to protect the general public, but we, the general public, have a duty of care to the children in our society. We owe a duty to protect some of the children who might be caught by this legislation. We need to see what is happening when young teenagers are in this situation, where they are being seen as perpetrators but they are, as has been said, at least as much victims. I hope that we will look at the age-blind element of this proposal, as it cannot be right.

My second point is more general, although it still applies to children more than to adults. Up in the north-east, I have been seriously engaged in meeting governors and chaplains in our local prisons— HMP Durham, HMP Northumberland and HMP Low Newton, the women’s prison. One thing that I have been told again and again is that sentences under 12 months are disruptive to people’s lives in a completely dreadful way but serve no rehabilitative purpose. All the evidence shows that to be the case. The proposed sentences go up to two years, but that maximum may not often be applied and, as I said, a sentence of 12 months or less has no positive effect. If that is true for adults, it is even truer for young people. I hope that the sentencing structure can also be looked at again.

Baroness Meacher (CB): My Lords, I support many of the comments made by other noble Lords—the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham and in particular the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle. There are many problems with these prevention orders. We may need orders of some sort, but surely not these. I hope we have a really serious discussion about how to protect children….

Lord Hogan Howe (CB)…The right reverend Prelate said that she hoped the law would acknowledge the difference in age. The sad reality is that the criminal law makes no distinction about age other than by criminal responsibility. Murder is murder. Whether you are 16 or 33, it is murder. From 14 onwards, it is absolute liability; from 10 to 14, one has to prove a certain intent. We have to accept that that is true. The thing that concerns me in some of the contributions is that we seem almost to be giving a defence to someone who is terrified—which I accept—that it is therefore okay to carry a knife. That means that the offensive weapon law is useless. I understand that it is a sincere belief—I do not challenge that—but that is what everyone says. Sometimes it is true, and sometimes they are the aggressor. However, even if it is true, unless we are going to agree to people carrying guns and any offensive weapon justified by their fear about defending themselves, it is a real difficulty. It may be something on sentencing, or it may be that you can show reasonable cause—I do not think you can ever show reasonable cause for carrying an offensive weapon—the definition of an offensive weapon is something intended, made or adapted to hurt people. It is important that we keep an eye on that because if we put a defence of that type in, it will be abused…

Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab)…The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, made some excellent points as did my noble friend Lord Ponsonby with his experience as a magistrate in youth courts. He has experience of dealing with these people when they get to court. A lot of them have form. That is an important point. The right reverend Prelate also made some good points about the work that she has done in Newcastle and in south-east London. I used to go to a youth club—the Crossed Swords youth club—which was run by St Paul’s, a Church of England church. Reverend Shaw used to run it. I am a Catholic, but I used to go there because it was a very good club. All the kids from the estate went there. It is important that we have those things. In many parts the country they have disappeared. Whether voluntary or local authority, they have all been lost, and the people are lost there. We need to get those things right…

Baroness Williams of Trafford (Con, MInister)…As the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle said, young people are often the victims. Other noble Lords made the same point. We have a Catch-22 situation where they are both victims and perpetrators…

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