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Idris Elba argues against mandatory prison sentences for carrying a knife

Idris Elba has argued against mandatory prison sentences for carrying a knife amid a deepening public discussion over how to tackle an “epidemic” of street violence.

The actor and campaigner said there was no “one size fits all” that would banish weapons, and warned against criminalising young men caught up in a cycle of violence.

His comments came the day after the family of one of the Nottingham stabbing victims, Grace O’Malley-Kumar, called for compulsory prison sentences for those caught carrying a knife.

The Home Office will put forward secondary legislation to tighten the ban on zombie-style knives in England and Wales, which was first introduced in 2016.

Previous attempts to ban the weapons defined them as having a cutting or serrated edge and “images or words that suggest [the knife] is to be used for the purpose of violence”. The new law, which will not come into effect until September, will also ban “zombie” knives that have no threatening words or images, the Home Office said.

The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, who visited Milton Keynes on Thursday alongside Labour’s leader, Keir Starmer, said the ban “goes nowhere near far enough and it is also too little, too late”. She told broadcasters: “It doesn’t include ninja swords, it doesn’t include a whole series of dangerous weapons.”

Elba, who has long campaigned on the issue, met Home Office ministers on Wednesday to discuss the changes.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, he said many young people carried knives because they were scared, because they had been stabbed or had seen someone else attacked. “He’s walking through a neighbourhood, and thinks I’m going to protect myself here – he ends up in jail for five years. You wonder, are we winning?” he said.

Knife crime statistics

He added that a deterrent to make young people know that they would pay a penalty if they carried a knife was an important step, but that there were “gradients” to the issue.

“As a deterrent it’s a really important step to consider, but it’s not one size fits all,” he said.

On Wednesday, O’Malley-Kumar’s mother, Sinéad O’Malley, a consultant anaesthetist, said carrying a knife was no different to carrying a gun. “I believe there has to be mandatory prison sentences for carrying a knife. It is not just an offensive weapon or something you could eat your food with. It is a lethal weapon.”

In the same interview, her husband, Sanjoy Kumar, a GP, said knife crime in England was an epidemic and that existing legislation on the issue appeared “easy going”.

The court heard this week that O’Malley-Kumar, 19, had shown “incredible bravery” trying to defend her fellow student Barnaby Webber from Valdo Calocane before being fatally stabbed herself.

Amendments to the criminal justice bill will raise the maximum sentence for the possession of banned weapons from six months to two years. They will also give police the power to seize and destroy knives found in homes, if there are reasonable grounds to suspect they will be used for serious crime.

Labour said the government’s proposed changes had already been promised by six Conservative home secretaries and that closing “loopholes” was not going far enough.

The party plans to launch a programme of action plans for young people caught with a knife, which could lead to their being subject to curfews, tagging or behavioural contracts. Labour first made this announcement at their conference in the autumn.

Hospitalisations for stabbings

Starmer vowed this week to ban ninja swords if Labour won the next election. The party also said it would launch a £100m Sure Start-style programme to tackle knife crime. Labour’s programme, called Young Futures, would require coordination of local services to identify those most at risk of falling into knife crime.

The number of knife and sharp instrument crimes has risen by 5% in the last year, new Office for National Statistics data show, mainly driven by an increase in robberies.

There were more than 48,700 knife and sharp instruments crimes recorded by the police in the year ending September 2023, equivalent to 85 incidents for every 100,000 people in England and Wales.

That was up from 84 in the previous 12 months. However, the volume of knife crimes reported to the police remains below the pre-pandemic peak of 91 per 100,000 people in the year ending March 2020.

Although overall knife crime has risen by 5%, ONS data show a 19% increase in the number of robberies involving a knife or sharp instrument in the last year.

Rishi Sunak told broadcasters during a visit to North Yorkshire on Thursday that the zombie knife clampdown, combined with police stop and search powers, would make a difference.

The prime minister sidestepped a question on growing calls for those found in possession of a knife to face a mandatory prison sentence, saying only that “penalties and sentences for people carrying knives have gone up over time” under the Tories.

Elba put pressure on the government when this month he launched the Don’t Stop Your Future campaign to tackle youth violence. As well as a ban on zombie knives and machetes, the campaign is calling for more funding for youth services.

In the year ending March 2023 there were just over 19,000 cautions and convictions for possession of a knife or offensive weapon in England and Wales. In about 18% of cases the offenders were aged 10 to 17.