Criminal Justice Bill (Third sitting) Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Home Office
Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q What about bringing the age limit down to bring in children of 10, up to adulthood?

Nick Smart: Again, it relates to the accountability for everybody’s actions. It is not just older people who commit antisocial behaviour; it is often youth-related and it is linked to families. We welcome the provision allowing social housing providers to remove nuisance tenants, but we understand that they have an obligation to rehouse them, so it is not just about moving them from one place to another and the same behaviour happening. There has to be community safety partnership work to ensure that there is the health, education and social care provision to change their behaviour. Otherwise, you are just displacing the problem from one area to another.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
- Hansard - -

Q I would like to go back to the issue of knife crime, which I am particularly interested in. You mentioned clause 18, but are there any other measures in the Bill that will help to tackle knife crime? There was a recent national police initiative to tackle knife crime. Could you tell us how that went?

Nick Smart: On the powers, possession with intent is a really useful operational tool for officers. It is similar to firearms legislation, in which there is an offence of possession of firearms with intent to endanger life. Having an offence for knives with a similar intent is welcome. We have seen gangs taunting each other with knives on social media, on podcasts and things like that. Possession with intent is a welcome operational tool, used in line with intelligence and obviously monitored with the usual safeguards. Operationally it is very welcome, and if it saves lives we are all for it.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
- Hansard - -

Q Absolutely. And how did the operation go?

Nick Smart: I cannot comment on that, because I am not aware of it. I can get you a written response if you would like me to come back to you.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
- Hansard - -

Q That is fine. You said that the measures in the Bill are welcome. Are there any other measures that you would have liked to see in it that would help to tackle knife crime? I realise that it needs a holistic approach and that you need to work with others, but we can only give you the powers.

Nick Smart: The powers on sale and manufacture are welcome in addressing those who use social media such as Snapchat to sell knives to groups. The prohibited knives in a public place distinction is welcome. We have tried for some time to do that. For example, you have to prove three different elements to prove that something is a zombie knife, but now there is a provision in the Bill. I guess an aggravating factor that might be linked to the sentencing guidance is having that prohibited knife in your possession. Again, taking that into account in a court of law is welcome. The set of provisions around knife crime is very welcome.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q We have plenty of time, so I would like to read you a quote. In the first evidence session on Tuesday, I asked Nicole Jacobs, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales, what we could build on in the Bill. She said:

“Police-perpetrated domestic abuse related issues—and that means three key things to me. One is being more proactive about removing warrant cards if someone is under investigation for crimes relating to violence against women and girls or domestic abuse. The second is the specified offences that I believe should be listed that would constitute gross misconduct; again, I think they should be defined as domestic abuse, sexual harassment, assault and violence, so-called honour-based abuse, and stalking. The third is stronger provisions in relation to police vetting—requiring that every five years, and ensuring that if there is a change in force, police vetting takes place. Tightening up those provisions is not currently in the Bill and I think it should be.”––[Official Report, Criminal Justice Public Bill Committee, 12 December 2023; c. 24, Q55.]

Do you agree?

Nick Smart: If we take the last point first, vetting more frequently during an officer’s service is welcome, and if they change force, entirely appropriate. We agree with that.

On gross misconduct, if you permit me, I have some data to share. We are talking about not just domestic-based issues, but superintendents served gross misconduct papers in the past few years for various things. In 2018-19, 19 of our members were served and two sacked; in 2019-20, 19 were served and four sacked; in ’20-21, nine gross misconducts, two sacked; and in’21-22, 12 with one sacked.

What that shows about gross misconduct is that roughly 80% of officers who are served with gross misconduct papers have NFA—no further action—taken against them. We suggest looking at cases on a case-by-case basis and, if it involves serious wrongdoing, that should be a matter for the appropriate authority to look at a severity assessment and to make that assessment straightaway. We believe we find that a quarter of our professional standards departments go to gross misconduct almost immediately, and if 80% to 85% of officers have no further action taken when they are given those gross misconduct papers, that indicates to us that the severity assessment is wrong in the first place. If there is wrongdoing and it is clear, however, then gross misconduct papers should be served.

We would say, again, that at the merest hint of a suggestion, police professional standards departments serve a gross misconduct, but we think that there should be more of an investigation to establish the facts before gross misconduct papers are served. But where there is a clear chain of evidence that relates to an individual and wrongdoing, it is entirely appropriate, and we support gross misconduct papers being served.

--- Later in debate ---
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Q Do either of the Opposition spokesmen want to come back? No. Can each witness give me a couple of minutes on something you have not been asked about that you think ought to be in the Bill, or something you think is good in the Bill? Let us start with you, David.

David Lloyd: I am broadly supportive of the Bill. I am particularly interested in suspending short custodial sentences. I think that makes a great deal of sense and I would highly recommend that. I have covered the piece on nuisance begging and rough sleeping that I was interested in. As a real victims champion and someone who has pushed hard on violence against women and girls since 2012, the aggravating factor for murder at the end of a relationship and MAPPA for controlling and coercive behaviour is something that, again, I highly commend and think that we need to do.

The other thing I picked up from the earlier session was the question around vetting. We need to just consider whether we need to, in many ways, vet to values. We are clearly doing it more and more in our recruitment process, but it strikes me that there are very few officers who have met the criminal threshold and therefore are likely to have on their file a criminal conviction. That does not mean to say that we do not have misogynists or racists or homophobes within the organisations. We have much to do around that. We need to just think about what else we might be able to do to vet to values, so that we make sure we have police forces that are fit for the public. I think that the very vast majority are fit, by the way—I am not suggesting for one moment that they are anything other than that—but we might want to look at that quite closely.

Emily Spurrell: I echo some of what David said there about some of those challenges. To go back to the begging point, which is a wider issue and I know that it is linked with what is going through to the Sentencing Bill, there is a real emphasis and a real push to try to reduce the number of short-term sentences and we want more people in the community. I worry whether some of the provisions for the Criminal Justice Bill, such as the aggressive begging provisions, will actually see an increase in that, which is not what we want, and the two will work counter to each other. I would just say to be mindful around that.

As for some of the bits that David alluded to around vetting and some of the work that is under way to try and increase trust and confidence, there is probably scope to go further. I know there is work being done. The Mayor of London has been quite keen to push some of that and I think he has been working with Harriet Harman on an additional level of scrutiny around the ability to dismiss officers who have been convicted of serious criminal offences and more flexibility around pension forfeiture, for example. There is more scope to do more around that building of trust and confidence within policing in terms of that scrutiny.

Around the vetting, there is work under way. I am aware that there is a national project to try and increase vetting. Echoing what the superintendent said in the previous session, trying to make sure that there is that regular touch base, particularly when officers are crossing forces, is really helpful.

The only other thing I will say around that is that the big challenge we face is around how long these things are taking. It would not matter so much that people were going through a process if it was resolved quickly. Instead, we see some of the examples the superintendent was referring to, where officers accused of gross misconduct sit for years waiting for an outcome and then it gets an NFA or gets downgraded. There is a real challenge here around capacity in the system, both internally in professional standards and with the Independent Office for Police Conduct, and how we can speed up those processes so that we have a robust system that is not taking up so much time and taking officers off the streets.

My only other comment would be in relation to the introduction of the express power for the courts to direct prisoners to attend their sentencing hearings. You will obviously be aware that this came up quite strongly after Olivia was murdered on Merseyside and her family have been very clear about the insult to her mum and her family when the offender did not turn up to hear the victim’s personal statement. I really welcome this, notwithstanding some of the logistical challenges, because it is a really welcome change: offenders should be expected to listen to the impact of their crimes on their victims and their families.

Councillor Sue Woolley: Very briefly, and following on from the point that Emily just made, I would just make a point about the capacity issue, particularly around child sexual abuse reporting. We must be very careful that justice needs to be seen to be swift. What has been shown with various reports on child sexual abuse is that reports have been made but it is taking too long for those individuals—those young people—to be supported when they have then been taken through a process.

Therefore, although it is laudable and the right thing to do to ensure that reports are made in a timely fashion, let us make sure that we have the capacity at the other end to be able to support those young people.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
- Hansard - -

Q I recognise that you are strategic rather than operational, all three of you. However, as you may have heard in the previous session, I am particularly interested in knife crime, as I am sure all of you are, as well. Are you content that the provisions in the Bill and the powers that they confer will make a difference in tackling knife crime? Is there anything else that you would have liked to have seen in the Bill to assist you in representing—well, in the case of the PCC, the people who elect you, and of course you, Sue, although I am sure that all of you are equally concerned about knife crime?

Emily Spurrell: From my perspective, the way that we tackle knife crime is actually not through the criminal system; I think it has got to be through that early intervention space. I welcome the provisions in the Bill. Again, the comments made by the superintendent about better provision for identifying zombie knives, getting weapons off the streets and strengthening things like the sale of knives, which has been done in recent months, is all very welcome. But for me, it comes down to that early intervention space: the investment in youth services. The work we are doing on violence reduction units, for example, which is being led by PCCs, is very positive. I will say that it needs to come with long-term, stable funding.

The Minister will have heard me say that many times before, but it is something that we really need, because that long-term, public health approach is how you really tackle knife crime, although I think the provisions in the Bill are very welcome, just in terms of giving police that extra ability to seize those weapons and identify those individuals who are likely to pose a threat.

David Lloyd: I agree entirely. Clearly, I am not operational, so to that extent I do not know. But clearly there is a fear of knife crime among the public. We do need to do something about that. And zombie knives and the work of one of the members of this Bill Committee on them is noted.

However, it strikes me—this relates to Emily’s point—that there was a case some years back, where 80% of the bladed injuries in a hospital in Buckinghamshire were not known of by the police, because there is not the sharing of data between health and the criminal justice system. In many ways, if we want to get up the line, we need to be able to find where some of these problems are happening, and better sharing of data might do a lot more than even some of the provisions in this Bill.

Councillor Sue Woolley: I suppose that what I would say to you is that I would probably like to take one step back and go a little bit more upstream, and probably not see knives getting on to the street in the first place. That may mean taking out the ability to order one through the post, as it were, etc. I would feel more comfortable if they were not there in the first instance.

From the council’s point of view, we would therefore plead that trading standards is the obvious arena for making sure that that happens. Anything that supports trading standards officers to be able to take those weapons off market stalls, etc. would be very helpful.

Emily Spurrell: I will just add one other point on the police powers. Again, we always have a balance to strike. We welcome giving the police the tools to do the job better, but this is where our role as scrutineers is really important, so that we make sure that where they are using those additional powers, they are being used in a fair and proportionate way. That is very much something that we would look to focus on as well.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
- Hansard - -

Q Sue, you mentioned trading standards. Are you saying that you do not think they do have the powers? As a constituency MP, I have reported to the police the sale of these knives. They have then got trading standards involved, and trading standards went and seized vanloads of this stuff.

Councillor Sue Woolley: Sorry, I am not saying trading standards staff do not have the power. I think, again, it is a capacity issue. We could do with 10 times the number, and that would go a long way towards stopping these knives getting on to the streets in the first place.

Andrew Jones Portrait Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q May I pick up on a point that you made earlier, Councillor Woolley? It was about rough sleeping. You mentioned that this is often about dealing with people with very complex issues; often, having access to addiction services is critical, and progress is made by different agencies working together. I agree very strongly about how making progress and helping those on our streets is most important. Do the provisions in this Bill help or hinder that work?

Councillor Sue Woolley: It helps, but more could be done. On the duties, it would be good if we could have language that said, “We expect, as members of the public, that you will work together.” It would be good if the language, rather than telling various agencies, “You have to do this and you have to do that,” was, “Our expectation is that as organisations, in the first instance, you will work as a team, as a community safety partnership.” If you work as a partnership, everybody has an equal responsibility, and that is the bit that I would really like to see emphasised.

David Lloyd: To underline the concern that I had earlier, there is a real danger, if it is seen that the police have the power to do something about homelessness or rough sleeping, that it might be left for only the police to pick that up. In Hertfordshire, we really believe in, and the whole of our policing is based on, prevention first. In many ways, it would be best if we did not have to use the police at all and everything was done further up the line. I think that if we end up at a point where councils can say, “Well, this is not entirely our responsibility; the police have a responsibility for it,” there is a danger, in the same way as with mental health.

We had the issue with mental health authorities not picking up the issue of people who were mentally unwell. It ended up with the police doing far too much and mental health nurses not enough. I fear that, especially in a time of tight budgets, we may well find that this is pushed more towards the police, so we just need to recognise that. It might be that by working even better through community safety partnerships we get over it. But it is better to go in with our eyes open to it.