Nick Clegg: Tory knife crime plan a ‘step backwards’

Automatic prison sentences for people caught carrying a knife twice would be a “step backwards”, Nick Clegg has claimed.

In an intervention that is likely to anger the Liberal Democrats’ coalition partners, the Deputy Prime Minister said such a law would “undermine the role of judges” through a lack of flexibility in sentencing.

The comments are likely to heighten tensions with Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, who has called for an automatic six month jail term for offenders caught more than once with a blade.

Mr Grayling is pushing for mandatory jail terms to be introduced in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill on its return to the Commons next week.

But writing in the Guardian, Mr Clegg said such a law threatens to turn young people into “hardened criminals”.

“When someone is caught carrying a knife, we need to do something about it,” he wrote. “But six months in prison is not always the right answer.

“Imagine a vulnerable young girl hanging around with members of a gang. She could be forced into carrying a knife by another gang member; it happens a lot. When stopped by the police, she doesn’t mention that she was forced to carry the knife, fearing retribution from the gang.

“Putting someone like that into prison could push them into the arms of hardened criminals, and let the gang leaders off the hook. Instead of prison, we need to divert vulnerable young people away from gang culture.”

The Tory proposal comes after the fatal classroom stabbing of teacher Ann Maguire in Leeds.

Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas, the most senior judge in England and Wales, has also called for an urgent review of sentencing for youths carrying knives, saying it was a “major problem” among 12 to 14-year-olds.

Mr Clegg described Mr Grayling’s plan as a “headline-grabbing” measure – but warned it may not be effective in practice.

He called for decisions on sentencing to be left to judges so as not to undermine the justice system, adding: “This is why I believe this proposed law would be a step backwards.

“It would undermine the government’s progress in establishing a rehabilitation revolution and reducing crime. We need to treat knife crime very seriously by letting judges choose the sentence to fit the crime.

“Turning the young offenders of today into the hardened criminals of tomorrow is not the answer.”