Knife Crime - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  Statistical data about the use of knives in violent offending are contained in the Homicide Index, the British Crime Survey and police recorded crime. Hospital Episode Statistics provide information about knife injuries resulting in a victim's admittance to hospital. The Home Office Offending, Crime and Justice Survey and MORI Youth Survey have provided information about levels of knife-carrying amongst young people. We welcome the decision to extend the British Crime Survey to under-16s and to publish specific data on knives in police recorded crime as means of improving our understanding of the scale of knife violence. However, limitations remain that inhibit a fully accurate analysis, including poor reporting rates. (Paragraph 14)

2.  Between 1996 and 2005/06 fatal stabbings mirrored overall homicide rates: the number of fatal stabbings rose sharply before declining again from 2003, but the percentage of homicides that involved a sharp instrument remained relatively stable. However, since 2006 the overall homicide rate has remained relatively stable but the number of knife homicides has increased—by a dramatic 26.9% in 2006/07—to reach 270 in 2007/08, the highest total recorded since the Homicide Index was established in 1977. (Paragraph 17)

3.  It is difficult to draw firm conclusions from Home Office data about levels of knife use in non-fatal violent crime, partly because of the limitations of the source data and partly because they do not indicate many clear trends. It appears that overall knife violence recorded by the British Crime Survey fell sharply between 1995 and 2003/04, in line with overall violent crime, but rose again in 2006/07. (Paragraph 21)

4.  Hospital Episode Statistics show a big increase in knife injuries since the mid-1990s, with the sharpest increase occurring since 2006. This trend was supported by the professional opinion of two senior medical practitioners to whom we spoke. However, we note that the number of stab victims admitted to hospital is far lower than the number of stab victims suggested by the British Crime Survey. This may indicate that the majority of stab wounds are minor. The increase in hospital admissions, however, appears to indicate that serious stab wounds are becoming more common. (Paragraph 24)

5.  The picture with regard to knife possession is complicated. The 2008 MORI Youth Survey indicated that 31% of 11-16 year olds in mainstream education and 61% of excluded young people had carried a knife at some point over the course of the previous year; however the 2006 Home Office Offending, Crime and Justice Survey found that only 3% of 10-25 year olds did. This discrepancy cannot be explained by the time lag between the surveys, as the numbers reporting carrying a knife actually decreased between the 2005 and 2008 MORI Surveys. It can partly be explained by the fact that the MORI survey includes legitimate carrying and the OCJS covers a wider age range. Anecdotal evidence indicated that in certain areas levels of knife-carrying have risen to the extent that carrying a knife has almost become "normal". We therefore concluded that, although there is no definitive evidence of the extent of knife-carrying nationally, in parts of England and Wales it was at a level to be of significant concern. (Paragraph 30)

6.  The Government's Tackling Knives Action Programme has been in operation for less than a year, therefore it is difficult to evaluate its success. It does not appear to have had a significant effect on reducing police recorded crime, although there have been signs of a notable reduction in hospital admissions in Tacking Knives Action Programme areas. (Paragraph 35)

7.  A significant proportion of stabbings relate to brawling or domestic violence, but the rise in violent knife offences seen over the past few years is associated with street violence between groups of young people who share a territorial identity, often referred to as 'gangs'. While young people often offend in groups, there may be a tendency to overstate the phenomenon of streets gangs and a danger that categorising groups of young people in that way may glamorise street violence. Random stabbings of innocent bystanders remain extremely rare. (Paragraph 40)

8.  Violent knife crime is concentrated in the deprived areas of large cities. The nature of knife crime may vary between cities and is not always linked to street violence. While hospital data show a rise in the number of knife injuries sustained in rural areas since the mid-1990s, the trend does not mirror the rapid rise seen in urban areas since 2006 and incidence remains considerably lower than in urban areas. While some immigrants from countries where knife-carrying is socially acceptable may be more predisposed to carry knives, knife use is not linked to ethnicity but rather reflects the local demography. (Paragraph 47)

9.  Males in their late teens and early twenties constitute the majority of perpetrators and victims of violent knife crime, which is consistent with other types of violent offending. However, the number of under-18s affected has risen. The age at which young people carry knives is also worrying: the incidence of carrying is highest amongst older teenagers, but we heard instances of carrying by children as young as seven. 11 seemed to be a key risk age for first carrying a knife, presumably linked to the transition from primary to secondary school. Boys are far more likely to carry a knife than girls. (Paragraph 53)

10.  Hospital data analysed by the Trauma Audit Research Network indicates that the type of knife used to injure most frequently is the kitchen knife, probably because of its easy availability. However, young people tend to admit to carrying penknives, flick knives and other kinds of knives, which are also more commonly found by the police during stop and search operations. This may suggest that the knives used to cause serious injury may differ from those that are routinely carried. The MORI Youth Survey found that penknives were the most common weapon carried by young people, but to some extent this will be for legitimate purposes: only 1.2% of stab wounds recorded by TARN hospitals during the second half of 2008 were caused by penknives. (Paragraph 56)

11.  The vast majority of young people who carry knives say that they or their peers carry knives to protect themselves: according to one survey this reason is given by as many as 85% of knife-carriers. While for some questioned this may be an easy excuse to justify their actions, young people in deprived communities undoubtedly feel unsafe. In part this is down to the risk of being attacked simply for living in a different neighbourhood or "territory". There is also a strong link between past victimisation and knife-carrying. Many do not trust their "natural protectors", such as their parents and the police, to keep them safe. A perception that everyone else is carrying a knife fuels a vicious circle, compared by one witness to an "arms race". Solutions to knife-carrying should therefore focus in part on helping young people to feel safer. (Paragraph 67)

12.  Sensationalist media coverage of stabbings has contributed to this "arms race". Negative media portrayals of young people as "feral youths", when the vast majority are law-abiding, can add to a sense of being under attack. While we urge media organisations to report knife crime in a responsible manner, we also recognise the positive role that the media can play in mobilising communities against knife crime and acting as a conduit for anti-knife information and campaigns. Furthermore, responsible reporting is assisted by the provision of quality information; therefore we repeat our past recommendation for the provision of full and accurate crime data. (Paragraph 68)

13.  A smaller number of knife-carriers say they carry knives to gain 'respect' or street credibility, or because of peer pressure. Measures to tackle weapon-carrying should therefore also focus on resolving the reasons why young people seek "respect", including the appeal of violent street culture, and building confidence to resist peer pressure. (Paragraph 72)

14.  We were also concerned about evidence that knife offenders are using young children as "caddies" to carry weapons for them. This is now a criminal offence under the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 attracting a maximum sentence of four years. We would like the Home Office to state the number of prosecutions made under this legislation and recommend that such prosecutions are actively pursued by the police. (Paragraph 73)

15.  A huge factor in the decision to carry a knife or use it in an offence is its easy availability. This is clearly particularly true of kitchen knives, but we heard that it is also possible to purchase illegal knives from a number of sources and that under-18s are often able to purchase knives in shops, despite changes in the law. While we believe there is value in exploring ways of decreasing supply, particularly as a solution for those who carry knives without intention to use them, this is unlikely to reduce violent offending significantly. Those intent on committing violence will find other means. Therefore, in order to address the growing trend towards serious violence in a minority of young people, it is important to address its underlying causes. (Paragraph 77)

16.  Individuals born into social deprivation are more likely to commit violence. Key risk factors for becoming involved in street violence include coming from a dysfunctional family with poor parental support, low self-worth, poor school attendance and living in an area where aspirations are low and there are few employment opportunities. Young people who have witnessed or experienced violence as a child are also far more prone to commit violence. We were shocked by the rapid manner in which violence can escalate between young people from a seemingly minor grievance. Extreme parental neglect halts the development of faculties that enable the majority of people to regulate their aggression. Solutions should therefore focus on dealing with dysfunctional and violent families and providing opportunities for young people to develop self-worth. However, it is important to recognise that not all young people who come from a deprived background are violent and that young people from stable backgrounds can also be violent. (Paragraph 87)

17.  Evidence to our inquiry supported our view that violent DVDs and video games exert a negative influence on those who watch and play them. Watching or playing such media contributes around 10% of any person's predisposition to be violent. Of particular concern is their influence on individuals who are already predisposed to violence because they grew up in a violent environment. (Paragraph 88)

18.  The laws regulating the sale, possession and use of different kinds of knives are contained in a number of different pieces of legislation. We note calls from the Police Federation to simplify this legislation; however we consider this would be overly resource-intensive. We understand that the Association of Chief Police Officers is in the process of clarifying the provision of relevant legislation into a definite piece of guidance for use by police officers. We welcome this and urge its speedy publication. Our inquiry did not find any need for further legislation to tackle the sale or use of knives. (Paragraph 93)

19.  There appears to be a need for better enforcement of current legislation regarding the sale of knives. The voluntary charter initiated by the Safer Southwark Partnership with retailers in the London borough appears to have been successful in reducing underage knife sales. We therefore support the Government's similar national campaign with retailers. We also support efforts to design a kitchen knife with a shorter point, although note that it would take a number of years to achieve a big reduction in the number of traditional kitchen knives in circulation unless there was an incentive for people to replace their current knives. (Paragraph 97)

20.  Knife amnesties have a limited impact on crime levels and are unlikely to dissuade persistent offenders from carrying knives. We have no objection to their continued use as part of a broader set of initiatives aimed at reducing knife-carrying, but policy-makers should understand their limited value. (Paragraph 100)

21.  Stop and search operations are a key component of the Tackling Knives Action Programme. In London they have yielded only a 2% return in knives seized. However, the extent of any deterrent effect is unclear. Moreover, the British Transport Police claimed that their stop and search operation, SHIELD, has contributed to a 39% reduction in the number of crimes where knives are involved since its introduction in 2006. We heard conflicting views from communities affected by knife crime about the impact of stop and search: some pointed to the potential damage to police/community relations; others considered it an important measure to keep their children safe. Police representatives emphasised that their approach combined enforcement with prevention. We concluded that stop and search is an important short-term measure to tackle knife offences, with the caveat that it is carried out in an appropriate and sensitive manner. (Paragraph 108)

22.  The Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 increased the maximum sentence for knife possession to four years. In our Report on Policing in the 21st Century, we expressed concern that advice published by the Sentencing Guidelines Council in June 2008 that punishment for knife possession could begin at a Band C fine was too lenient. We are therefore pleased that new guidance sets a starting sentence point of a 12-week custodial sentence. (Paragraph 112)

23.  While we consider that magistrates should be allowed a degree of discretion when sentencing those convicted of knife possession, and therefore oppose a mandatory sentence, we favour a more consistent approach to sentencing and custody for the majority of offenders. We are therefore pleased to note that there is now a presumption across England and Wales that knife-carriers will be charged, and that the number of offences resulting in custody rose during 2008. (Paragraph 117)

24.  While it may be an appropriate punishment for knife-carriers, evidence suggests that the prospect of a custodial sentence may not deter young people from carrying knives. Many young people do not think about the consequences of their actions, and for a small minority who feel at risk of violence, the prospect of jail seems preferable to the dangers of being caught without a weapon for protection. Evidence suggests that the fear of getting caught acts as a stronger deterrent for young people. This strengthens our support for strong police action against knives, including the use of stop and search. (Paragraph 123)

25.  We support the aims of the Government's anti-knife media campaign and we believe it has had some impact on making young people think twice before carrying a knife. However, we are concerned that such campaigns may not reach the most at-risk young people and fail to engage with the realities of street violence. Evidence shows that children are most likely to be influenced by "real" stories, particularly the experiences of former offenders and the families of knife victims. We recommend that all Year Seven school children should participate in an assembly or lesson, delivered by trained individuals to whom children can relate, that focuses on the dangers of knife-carrying and the consequences for victims, their families and offenders. We consider that the short film made by the UNCUT Project provides a particularly powerful means of communicating with pupils about the realities of knife violence. In order to engage children effectively, the programme should be adapted to the local context, along the lines of the Leeds Weapons Awareness Programme. (Paragraph 134)

26.  The installation of knife detectors can help to reassure pupils and their families that a school is taking firm steps to protect them from potential knife violence. However, they may not be appropriate for every school and also have the potential to make some pupils more fearful. It is also debatable whether they are necessary; a University of Portsmouth study found that pupils feel safer and are less likely to carry knives at school than they are in other environments. We therefore do not recommend compulsory introduction of knife detectors in schools; rather each school community should make the decision for themselves. (Paragraph 138)

27.  Taking a knife onto school premises is a serious transgression and should be dealt with accordingly. In such cases, many would argue that the child should be excluded for the benefit of the wider school community and we do not seek to remove the discretion of school leaders to make such decisions. However, we continue to be concerned about the increased likelihood of excluded children to go on to offend. For this reason, exclusion should automatically constitute the point of serious intervention by the relevant authority to put in place the kind of diversions we explore in our final chapters. (Paragraph 141)

28.  Safer Schools Partnerships, whereby police officers are attached to a school or group of schools, appear to be an effective way of keeping children safer. We heard evidence of how they can help to reduce conflict between pupils and generate intelligence about conflicts that have the potential to spill over outside school. However, we note concerns expressed by the National Audit Office about a lack of evaluation of the different models in existence. We recommend that the Government should carry out such an evaluation with the aim of spreading best practice and ensuring the participation of all schools that would benefit from involvement in such a partnership. (Paragraph 144)

29.  Outside the school environment, young people should feel they can rely on the police to keep them safe. However a minority of young people view the police as an enemy, rather than an ally, and this minority increases as children progress through their teens. Some of these young people share the fears of some adults that the police will not respond when needed and in this respect our previous recommendations on improving public confidence in the police are pertinent. (Paragraph 148)

30.   However for some of these young people this attitude stems from a negative personal experience, particularly of stop and search. We cannot emphasise enough how crucial it is for stop and search to be carried out in an appropriate and sensitive manner. We also urge support for schemes that break down the barriers between police officer and young people, such as Safer Schools Partnerships and those that see police officers acting as mentors to young people. (Paragraph 148)

31.  Given the correlation between being a victim of violence and carrying a weapon, providing support for assault victims is key. (Paragraph 150)

32.  We hope that measures to improve the relationship between young people and the police will encourage higher levels of crime reporting and that when these young people do come forward, they are given the counselling that they need. (Paragraph 150)

33.  While we advocate the use of custody for violent knife offenders and some knife possessors, we are concerned about high re-offending rates among both adult prisoners and young offenders. Reducing re-offending is key to tackling violent crime in the long-term. There is currently insufficient work in prisons and young offender institutions to address offending behaviour. Young offenders in particularly are likely to be impulsive and not consider the consequences of their actions; evaluations of cognitive behavioural programmes, such as Enhanced Thinking Skills, appear to show positive results. We recommend that the Ministry of Justice should expand provision so that more prisoners and young offenders who are judged likely to benefit can participate in such programmes. (Paragraph 161)

34.  We heard anecdotally that the Knife Possession Prevention Programme run for all young people convicted of knife possession in Tackling Knives Action Programme areas has had a positive influence on their behaviour. We recommend that an evaluation is carried out to measure re-offending rates and, if judged to be a success, long-term funding for the programme is made available. (Paragraph 162)

35.  Improving literacy and skills can also reduce the likelihood of re-offending. More than half of prisoners leave school with no qualifications, and a third with literacy skills at the same level as or below those expected for an 11 year old child. We commend those private companies, such as Timpsons, National Grid Transco, Cisco, Panduit and Bovis Lend Lease and Travis Perkins, who are working with prisons to improve the employment prospects of prisoners. The Government should consider offering incentives for more companies to become involved in such partnerships. A Ministry of Justice study found that odds of re-offending increased by 43% for prisoners reporting both employment and accommodation problems on release. We therefore also advocate increased resettlement support targeted at prisoners who have demonstrated in prison they are unlikely to re-offend. (Paragraph 163)

36.  We were impressed with innovative gang exit and violence reduction strategies employed in Strathclyde and the West Midlands, which use different methods but share a multi-agency approach and replicate good practice from the United States and Northern Ireland respectively. We believe that local partnerships are best placed to develop solutions tailored to the needs of their communities, but recommend the establishment of a cross-departmental unit at Government level, along the lines of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit, whose role is to oversee the work of partnerships in this area and spread good practice. (Paragraph 171)

37.  Witnesses told us that Youth Inclusion Programmes are helping the young people who are most at risk of offending or school exclusion in deprived communities to stay out of trouble. About half of teenagers "grow out" of crime, but an evaluation showed that arrest rates for those who had engaged with a YIP decreased by a further 10%. We were also impressed by the comparatively low costs involved. We therefore recommend that the Government continues to fund Youth Inclusion Programmes as a means of reducing youth crime. (Paragraph 176)

38.  Homicide and wounding cost society millions of pounds a year. The organisation Kids Count has roughly estimated that knife-enabled crime costs £1.25 billion a year. We heard convincing evidence of the long-term cost benefits of applying a public health approach to violence reduction, as well as the benefits to individuals and communities. A public health approach treats violence as a disease and invests resources in prevention. (Paragraph 180)

39.  An effective public health approach depends upon accurate data about the incidence and nature of violent crime. Effective data sharing amongst local Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships about knife violence will assist in the development of preventative approaches, as well improving intelligence-led enforcement activity. Several witnesses cited the beneficial impact of an approach to sharing anonymous data about knife incidents pioneered in Cardiff on crime reduction levels. We were disappointed to learn that this has not been fully implemented throughout England and Wales and recommend that this is done immediately. All agencies within partnerships should have an equal duty to share. (Paragraph 188)

40.  The General Medical Council is currently consulting on guidelines regarding the duty of medical practitioners to report details of specific knife injuries to the police. We are sympathetic to concerns that an automatic duty to report may dissuade some victims from seeking treatment. We also appreciate that the first duty of doctors is to their patients. However, we think that it is in the public interest that the police are informed when a person arrives at hospital with a wound inflicted in a violent attack and that the draft GMC guidelines, which allow for anonymity and patient consent where appropriate, would provide adequate safeguards. (Paragraph 189)

41.  In light of evidence that children who witness or experience domestic violence are significantly more likely to go to commit violent crime, we recommend that the Home Office implements our detailed recommendations on preventing domestic violence published in June 2008. The Government should also consider introducing Treatment Orders in Family Courts so that men for whom there is not sufficient evidence to convict of a criminal offence but who are judged to be too violent to see their own children, are treated for violence before they go on to infect another family. (Paragraph 193)

42.  We were disturbed to learn that young offenders who are convicted for violent offences are allowed to watch violent DVD and video games in secure units and young offending institutions, given that they may increase the risk of violent behaviour in those already predisposed to violence. We recommend that the Ministry of Justice should institute a ban on this kind of material. (Paragraph 194)

43.  Participation in activities like sport or uniformed organisations can help young people to develop discipline, skills and confidence to control aggression, resist pressure to engage in street violence and raise their aspirations. We were greatly encouraged during our evidence sessions and visits round the country by the dedication shown by local public servants and volunteers to providing these activities. However, young people told us there is a shortage of places available for them. The Scout Association told us that a shortage of volunteer leaders in particular is preventing them from meeting demand. We recommend that the Government should work with employers to make it easier for their employees to volunteer their time. We also suggest there may be a need for a more strategic approach to provide consistent and tailored support for young people. In addition, young people told us that access to paid employment would make a criminal lifestyle less attractive. We recommend that the Government facilitates more part-time job opportunities for 14-18 year olds. (Paragraph 200)

44.  There appeared to be cross-party support for early interventions with very young children born into dysfunctional families. The Government has already begun to invest resources in family nurse partnerships and intensive fostering. It will be difficult to measure the success of such schemes in this country as they will not become evident for a generation. However, evidence from the United States indicated that investing in similar interventions can save a significant amount in future criminal justice costs. Such measures are resource-intensive, but are only needed for a small minority: around 5% of young people commit half of all youth crime, and the Government estimates that "real social failure" comes down to about 20,000 "hard core" families. The Government should target resources very specifically on these families. (Paragraph 207)

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