Sajid Javid’s knife ASBOs won’t work. Here’s a better solution

The Home Secretary's new measures to tackle knife crime will waste police time and money. A public health approach is needed.

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As of today, the government’s Offensive Weapons Act has Royal Assent - and Sajid Javid’s controversial Knife Crime Prevention Orders have now become law.

The biggest of many problems with these Knife Crime Prevention Orders - or KCPOs for short - is that you can get one even if you’ve not been carrying a knife. Even if you’ve not committed any crime at all.

That’s why Liberal Democrat peers, led by former Met Deputy Assistant Commissioner Brian Paddick, voted against these measures when they were inserted in the House of Lords. We would have defeated them if Labour had joined us, but only 17 of their 186 peers turned up to vote. When MPs had our one, brief chance to consider the proposals, I continued to challenge them – and to propose a far better alternative.

There’s no doubt that we need urgent action to tackle the knife crime epidemic that is claiming far too many young lives. We need more police on our streets, more youth workers to help steer children away from gangs and violence, and a proper public health approach spanning youth services, community groups, schools and the NHS.

But that all costs money – money this Tory Government isn’t prepared to spend. So instead, Javid has come up with KCPOs. It's a cheaper policy that certainly sounds tough. But history tells us it won’t work. And evidence shows us there's a better way.

KCPOs are essentially ASBOs for knives. They could be imposed on children as young as 12, even if they’ve never been caught carrying a knife or convicted of any crime. Yet breaching their conditions – being in the wrong place, hanging around with the wrong people, or even just failing to notify the police of a change of address – would be a criminal offence, punishable by up to 2 years in prison.

I can’t imagine what it is about the experience of ASBOs makes Javid think they’ll work for knife crime. In some communities, ASBOs were seen as a “badge of honour”. Many young people openly flouted them. The threat of prison simply doesn’t work as a deterrent for a lot of young people.

Even worse, ASBOs consumed a lot of police time and resources, whether applying to the courts to get one or enforcing its conditions afterwards. And that was at a time when we had far more police.

If Javid doesn’t remember what a failure ASBOs were, he should just ask his boss. Theresa May, as Home Secretary, described them as “bureaucratic” and “gimmick-laden”. “They were too time consuming and expensive,” she said. “And they too often criminalised young people unnecessarily, acting as a conveyor belt to serious crime and prison.” She was right, and that’s why as Home Secretary, she abolished them.

The good news is that some police and local authorities developed an alternative method of tackling anti-social behaviour, as it became apparent that ASBOs weren’t working. And this tool worked: Acceptable Behaviour Contracts, or ABCs.

The idea is fairly simple: a young person signs an agreement with their local authority and the police, promising not to engage in anti-social behaviour. There’s no need to go to court, so they are much quicker and cheaper to impose compared to ASBOs. The idea is to make young people – and their parents – think about the consequences of their actions and take responsibility.

The evidence is clear. ASBOs didn’t work. ABCs do. They are more effective at getting young people to change their behaviour, and far less costly in terms of police time and resources. Even before ASBOs were abolished, the use of ABCs had far outstripped them.

So instead of Sajid Javid’s knife ASBOs, I’m proposing knife ABCs: Anti-Blade Contracts.
 
They could be imposed the first time a young person is caught with a knife, but could also be used proactively for children involved in gangs or who might be considering carrying a knife. The young person would sign a contract saying “I will not carry a knife.” In return, they could be guaranteed services to help them feel safer: a police officer or social worker to call whenever they need them, for example.

Crucially, these new ABCs would be backed up by education and engagement: proper conversations with young people about knives. And by making clear that there are consequences for breaking these contracts: perhaps larger fines or tougher community sentences if they are convicted for carrying a knife in future.

That would be far more effective, far less time-consuming for police, and far more compatible with a broader public health approach than Javid’s poorly-designed, badly-evidenced KCPOs. They may have passed into law, but the Liberal Democrats will continue to oppose them – and to make the case for a better way to get tough on knife crime.

Edward Davey MP is the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats