Page last updated at 17:45 GMT, Monday, 7 July 2008 18:45 UK

Jail knife carriers, says Cameron

Conservative leader David Cameron calls for tougher measures to tackle knife crime

Anyone caught carrying a knife without a good excuse should expect to go to prison, Tory leader David Cameron says.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has argued that anyone over 16 caught with an illegal knife should be prosecuted, rather than escaping with a caution.

But Mr Cameron says the presumption should go further - so anyone convicted of carrying a knife should be jailed.

Jack Straw says ministers will review sentencing guidelines on knife crime when they come into force on 4 August.

Currently, about a third of those found with offensive weapons receive only a caution or final warning.

'No excuse'

The Conservative leader spoke out at the launch of his party's campaign in the Glasgow East by-election, which he dubbed "the broken society by-election".

There have been a number of high-profile knife murders in London recently; 19 young people have met a violent death so far this year.

The latest victim, 14-year-old David Idowu, died on Monday three weeks after being stabbed in south-east London.

According to Home Office figures, 17% of people prosecuted for carrying a knife went to prison in 2006, compared with 6% in 1996. The average sentence length has increased by almost a third over the same period.

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Mr Cameron said knife crime was a problem of "epidemic proportions" in the UK.

"We have to send a clear message that carrying a knife on our streets is completely inexcusable and unacceptable in a civilised society," he said.

"So we're proposing that anyone convicted of knife crime should expect to go to jail. I don't believe the government's presumption to prosecute is enough. It doesn't send a strong enough signal. We need a presumption to prison."

He urged police to exercise "common sense" by not prosecuting people carrying penknives for angling, or for bringing home kitchen or garden equipment from the shops.

"This is about kitchen knives stuffed down the front of tracksuits," he told The Sun.

"We're talking about mainly young people carrying knives as part of a culture. That culture has to stop."

In his speech, Mr Cameron claimed society had become "far too sensitive" about what was good and bad or right or wrong behaviour.

He argued that in the Glasgow East poll, Tories would make it their "mission" to repair the broken society - "to heal the wounds of poverty, crime, social disorder and deprivation that are steadily making this country a grim and joyless place to live for far too many people".

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The guidelines for magistrates in England and Wales say people caught in possession of a bladed article or offensive weapon may be given a fine or community order if the weapon "isn't used to threaten or cause fear".

Mr Straw, the justice secretary, said there was an "overwhelming case" for all hospitals to collect anonymous data on injuries caused by knives and other weapons.

An Independent on Sunday suggests almost 14,000 people a year have become victims of knife attacks in Britain and there has been a massive rise in hospital admissions.

Straw's son 'mugged'

At the moment gunshot wounds have to be reported to police, but stab wounds do not.

In an attempt to play down fears of a knife crime "epidemic", Mr Straw pointed to a survey of accident and emergency departments by Cardiff University which suggested that the number of people needing treatment for injuries caused by serious violence was falling.

The survey, published in April, does not, however, break down injuries by weapon used.

Mr Straw suggested that knife crime had always been a problem in certain urban areas, recollecting that one of his sons was mugged at knife-point on his way back from school in London in 1991.

Chris Huhne, the Lib Dems home affairs spokesman, accused the Conservatives of "posturing" on knife crime penalties.

"The issue is not the toughness of penalties, the issue is whether or not we catch the people who are carrying knives and using them," he said.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "The government takes tackling knife crime very seriously. One knife crime is one too many. It is crucial that public have confidence in sentencing, particularly around this critical issue."

He added that the minimum age at which someone could be sold a knife had risen from 16 to 18 and the maximum sentence for carrying one had doubled to four years.

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