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

by Stephen Tall on June 17, 2014

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 Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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ell brown