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David Eyles: Judges, knives and the law

David Eyles is a Dorset livestock farmer.

At last, it seems there has been some common sense on the issue of carrying knives. It seems a judge shocked a jury in a case involving a youth and a stabbing, by pulling out his own knife and demonstrated that he was within the law to carry it in a public place, because the blade was less than three inches in length and he needed two hands to open it. Although at the time of writing, the case continues, I suspect that the case will hinge on the act of stabbing, rather than the act of carrying the knife, as the judge has now demonstrated his own legal right to carry such an item. So, as things stand at the moment, it seems that as I empty my pockets at the check-out to pay for bread and milk with the pound coins that I know are in there somewhere, and bring out baler twine, bits of straw, washers, miscellaneous bolts, half a cattle ear tag, knife, more straw... I am not committing an offence provided the knife blade is less than three inches long. But David Cameron has now stated that it should be an offence for carrying such an item “without a reasonable excuse”. And therein lays a problem. 

In the course of a normal day, I usually carry at least one knife in trouser or jacket pocket. I think there are two in the tractor and probably one in the Land-Rover underneath piles of fencing pliers, hammers, staples, dagging and footing shears, billhooks and all manner of other offensive weapons. Or rather, tools which could be used as offensive weapons, if I was so minded. The knives are all folding. One can be opened with one hand, but the others need two hands and may well be longer than three inches. Depending upon how you define a “public place” I am probably committing an offence of some sort most days of the year, bearing in mind my fields are criss-crossed with public footpaths and my cattle are usually grazing in a nature reserve with considerable public access.

It may be relatively easy for me to claim “a good excuse”. After all, I am fifty-odd, grumpy, harassed, often scruffy and looking as if I have just been rugby tackling sheep or been dragged backwards through a hedge (one event often follows the other); the Land-Rover I have just got out of is so muddy that car thieves have been observed crossing to the other side of the street to get away from it. In short, I look like a livestock farmer and could be said to have good reason to carry sharp instruments with me. But what about a keen gardener; or a fisherman or yachtsman; or a chef; or a carpenter or other tradesman; or a farrier; or anyone who lives and works in the countryside? Why is it that we will all now have to prove our innocence? For this, ultimately, is the import of David Cameron’s new policy on knife crime. Once again, the headline grabbing part of the policy embodies a presumption of guilt. We will have to prove that we have a good excuse. At least part of the problem is related to the fact that virtually all politicians, and certainly most of those in the Conservative Party, have had so little contact with the wider world that they have never learnt that large numbers of us use our hands; and that those hands need tools to put into them. 

In due deference to the tragedies of late, I will allow that a furtive youth wearing a baseball cap on the wrong way round, a hoodie and an eight inch cook’s knife stuffed into his belt whilst going to a football match is adequate grounds for suspicion. But for the rest of a predominantly law-abiding population, this policy if turned into law could suddenly, unexpectedly and very unreasonably become just another piece of hassle where we are left to explain ourselves to sceptical policemen, aided and abetted by target culture and career aspirations. Of course, the assurance that the police have to be reasonable offers some comfort until we remember  the instances where the police have been very visibly unreasonable - as in the case recently of the poor man who was arrested for defending his home against the attacks from a bunch of rock throwing feral youths. He came out brandishing a stick at the youths and subsequently found himself charged with carrying an offensive weapon. The case was widely reported and I don’t know what the outcome was, but I really hope that the Chief Constable of Wiltshire is thoroughly ashamed of himself and the officers responsible for their complete loss of perspective.

In the end, the existing laws are adequate and don’t need to be fiddled with, as Justice Roger Connor has demonstrated. But the most important parts of David Cameron’s policy are the correction of a generation of broken homes and families; lack of discipline and boundaries in schools and families; the lack of activities for children, especially teenage boys, which imbue a sense of personal responsibility whilst letting off steam; a failure to take responsibility for our own actions and the invidious and all embracing blame culture. Dealing with these problems is the only way to bring about a reduction in knife crime. It will take time and determination on the part of a lot of committed people, which will not grab the headlines. But, above all, it must not be the standard nauseating socialist shouts of “There oughta be a law…” whenever something goes wrong with our society.


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