Serious youth violence Contents

1The scale of the problem and its impact


1.We began taking oral evidence on serious youth violence in October 2018, with the intention of giving victims’ families the opportunity to make their voices heard. In our first session, we heard from four parents who have lost their sons to serious violence. We are incredibly grateful to Yvonne, Darren, Philippa and Caroline for speaking out about their terrible loss.

2.Yvonne Lawson, whose son Godwin was murdered in London in 2010, told us: “As a mum, when you have a child, the child then becomes your world. When they are taken away from you in this senseless manner, your whole world just rips apart”.1 Yvonne gave us a devastating account of her son’s death, which appears in the box below. Since that first evidence session, hundreds more families have lost someone to serious violence.

3.Police-recorded knife crime increased by 71% between 2014 and 2018,2 and the number of murder victims aged 16 to 24 rose by 45% in the year to March 2018.3 After several years of these worrying trends, the Government launched its Serious Violence Strategy on 9 April 2018. We had previously questioned Ministers and policing leaders about their response to rising knife crime, but we recognised that the gravity of the situation called for more focused and sustained scrutiny. In June 2018, we launched an explicit inquiry and invited written evidence on a number of subjects, including what progress had been made in combatting serious violent crime in recent years; whether the Serious Violence Strategy was likely to be effective in reducing serious violence; and whether there were sufficient resources in place to make that strategy successful.

4.During the course of our inquiry, we received nearly 60 pieces of written evidence, held seven oral evidence sessions, and met psychologists and community consultants from a youth project in Haringey, North London. We have undertaken a parallel inquiry to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Macpherson report on the murder of Stephen Lawrence, which has taken evidence from Black, Asian and minority ethnic young people about their relationship with the police—we refer to some of their comments in Chapter 5 of this report. Valuable input was also received from two Specialist Advisers, Sir Peter Fahy and Dr Nicola Rollock. We are hugely grateful to all those who contributed to these important inquiries.

5.As we will outline below, youth violence appears to be growing at a particularly concerning rate—as does knife crime—and these two trends inevitably became the focus of a lot of the evidence we received. As a result, our focus throughout this inquiry has primarily been on the Government’s response to serious youth violence, in the context of the 2018 Serious Violence Strategy.

The impact on victims’ families

6.Statistics are essential for understanding the scale of the problem we face, but they risk masking the human impact of serious violence. In our first evidence session, we heard from Yvonne Lawson, whose 17-year-old son Godwin was murdered in London in 2010, in a brutal knife attack; Darren Laville, whose son Kenichi Phillips was shot dead in Birmingham in 2016, at the age of 18; Philippa Addai, whose son Marcel was murdered in 2015 at the age of 17; and Caroline Shearer, whose 17-year-old son Jay was stabbed to death in 2012.

7.Yvonne Lawson, whose heart-breaking story is outlined below, is now CEO of the Godwin Lawson Foundation. The Foundation delivers preventative interventions to teenagers, including an annual leadership programme to develop the life skills of young people in North London.4 She described some of their achievements to us during the evidence session, including over 3,000 workshops delivered to young people on building resilience and other soft skills.5

Yvonne Lawson’s story

“I am Yvonne Lawson and my son’s name was Godwin Lawson, and he is still Godwin to me. Godwin, at the age of 16, got a scholarship to play football at Oxford United because he was really talented at sports. That meant that Godwin had to leave home and move to Oxford, which was a challenge because Godwin was born and brought up in Stamford Hill. He had never moved away from London before. That was an excitable moment for him. It was a challenge for the family. Nevertheless, he decided to move to Oxford.

“In Oxford he settled and he was really enjoying football. He had a really beautiful future ahead of him. Godwin, however, would come to London every fortnight to see family and friends.

“[ … ] On that particular night, he went to see friends, and he had known these boys from nursery. I knew the family as well. As they were walking down the street, one brother apparently had a problem with a few of the local boys. When they saw Godwin’s group, four boys got out of the car and started chasing his group. One of them had a knife. He ran past Godwin and went to the brothers. He started to stab the brothers randomly. One I think received four stab wounds. I think the other one received about six. Godwin was able to run away from the scene, but for some reason he decided to come back and stop the fight. As he was trying to stop the fight, the boy who had a knife told Godwin, ‘This is nothing to do with you’. As he was saying that, trying to push Godwin out of the way, the knife just went to Godwin’s heart and within two minutes Godwin collapsed and died on the street.

(continued overleaf)

“I remember being at home. There was a knock on the door. Typically, I just thought it was Godwin knocking on the door. There were three police officers who came to tell us that Godwin lost his life. I remember hearing that word that Godwin died. I was in denial, ‘I don’t think it’s Godwin’, not that I was wishing that it would be somebody else. I just kept ringing Godwin’s number. I just could not believe that the police officers were saying that Godwin has taken his last breath on the street alone. After going through mixed emotions of denial, angry, furious, painful, all emotions are running through you, laying on the floor and rolling from one end to the other, we had to go and view Godwin’s body. I was not able to do that. I just remember going and there was this tent. I looked at the tent and I could not go in to see Godwin. Godwin’s dad came and said, ‘It is actually Godwin’. He nodded his head and he said, ‘It’s actually Godwin in that tent’.”

8.Philippa Addai told us that her son was stabbed 14 times by a gang of seven. When she went to visit the site where he died, “there was still blood on the floor”.6 Caroline Shearer told us about the devastating ripple effect of Jay’s death on the rest of her family:

[ … ] my dad died of a heart attack because of it. We were foster parents for teenage boys and teenage girls, and the foster child that had been brought up with Jay later committed suicide to be with Jay. After that, the young girl that was there when Jay was murdered—our foster child at the time [ … ]—was found murdered four months ago in Basildon.

[ … ] Jay was stabbed a few times. He was stabbed in the alleyway and then they ran after him and hit him over the head with a bottle and then they stabbed him again through the heart just for good measure. [ … ] That is when the new life started and the old me, I don’t know who she was. I can’t remember her.7

Caroline now runs a charity called Only Cowards Carry Weapons, which she founded in response to Jay’s death. It delivers weapons awareness sessions in schools and pushes for tougher action in response to knife crime.8

9.Darren Laville is founder and CEO of Epiphany People, which supports families with the challenges of bringing up children in urban communities.9 He told us that his son’s death had broken his family “completely”:

My son, Kenichi Phillips, was shot dead on 17 March 2016. This was a day where he had quite a positive day. He went out and he went for an interview for an apprenticeship. We later found out that he got the job as a personal trainer, and he was at a point where he was really at a high point in his life. He was looking forward to the birth of my grandson, which he never got to see. This just rocked and broke us. My oldest son was present there. He was there at the time. It just broke us, just broke us. Yes, it just broke us completely.

10.He also spoke of the traumatic events stemming from his son’s death, including five criminal trials:

We had to wait four days to see him because he was property of the state, evidence. Even then, we could not touch him because he was behind a glass screen. It was then three months before we could bury him. It was just unbelievable. Before we could really start to see those being held accountable—I struggle to call it justice—in a legal setting, it took five trials. [ … ] In that time, there were two “Crimewatch” appeals for an offender. [ … ] It was pretty much a case that rocked the West Midlands. Everybody knew. It was then that I realised also how popular he was and how many people knew him [ … ].10

11.Since Philippa, Darren, Yvonne and Caroline gave evidence to us about their sons’ deaths and legacies, many more young people have had their lives cut short in tragic circumstances. We cannot hope to tell all their stories on these pages, but we can at least pay tribute to the witnesses who sat before us and laid bare their pain and loss. We cannot express strongly enough our sympathy for them, and we thank them for their determination and bravery. Recent rises in serious youth violence are a social emergency, which must be addressed through much more concerted Government action at a national and local level. The Government must make it a central priority to keep young people safe, and prevent more families from going through this terrible trauma.

Crime figures

12.Every death from violence is one tragedy too many. Nevertheless, figures and statistics can tell us a lot about what is happening on our streets: what forms of violence are increasing, trends in victim characteristics, such as age and gender, and where in the country these crimes are happening.

13.Police-recorded homicides have increased by 37% since 2014, following downward trends during the previous decade. In the year to December 2018, the police recorded 732 homicides: 6% more than the year before, and a 12% rise when the victims of the London and Manchester terror attacks are excluded from the previous year’s figures.11 Compared with the year to December 2017, there were 77 additional victims. Homicides involving knives accounted for around four in ten of all murders.12 After a significant fall in knife crime homicides between 2008 and 2013, they increased by 31% (from 195 to 285) between the year to March 2013 and the year to March 2018.13

14.The number of crimes involving knives or sharp instruments has also increased sharply in recent years. Police-recorded knife offences in the year to December 2018 were at their highest since 2011, the earliest comparable dataset, at 44,443 offences (or 40,829 offences excluding Greater Manchester Police (GMP), which has changed its methodology). Without GMP figures, there was a volume rise of 2,287 offences (a 6% rise in the last year), which represents a 71% increase since 2014.14

15.Police-recorded crime figures are not always the most reliable measure of offending and victimisation. For more common offences, the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) is regarded as a more reliable measure of offending and victimisation, because it is a representative household survey of victimisation; in contrast, police-recorded crime figures depend on recording methods, which have changed over time, and not all offences are reported to or recorded by the police. The CSEW suggests that violence overall has shown little change in recent years, after decreasing by 67% between 1995 and 2015. However, the CSEW is not very effective at measuring high-harm offences such as stabbings, because these crimes are much more unusual than robbery or fraud, for example, so not many people will report them during a household survey. CSEW figures on violence encompass minor assaults such as pushing and shoving, harassment and psychological abuse (including offences that do not cause physical harm), as well as attempted offences, all of which are much more common than knife crime and homicide. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) confirmed in recent bulletins that the CSEW is unable to provide reliable trends for knife crime, and police-recorded figures are a better measure.15

16.NHS data also supports the picture painted by the CSEW and police-recorded crime figures: that violence overall is falling, but levels of serious violence have increased substantially in recent years, following long-term downward trends. A recent analysis by Cardiff University found that the number of hospital admissions related to violent attacks fell by 1.7% in 2018, compared with the previous year.16 The data on which it was based, the National Violence Surveillance Network survey, has recorded a downward trend in overall violent crime since it was launched in 2002, with some levelling off in recent years.17 In contrast, admissions for assault by a sharp object rose by 15% between April 2017 and March 2018, and by 36% between 2013–14 and 2017–18.18

17.The last few years have seen a drastic increase in murder rates, along with enormous rises in police-recorded knife crime. Although violence overall has decreased over the long-term and shown little change in the last few years, the most serious forms of violent crime have spiked in recent years. This is confirmed by NHS data, which shows that more people are being admitted to hospital with knife wounds every year.

Where is serious violence happening?

18.Knife crime is disproportionately concentrated in metropolitan areas, and particularly in London. In the year to December 2018, a third of all knife crime happened in the capital. The medium-term increase in violence in London has also been striking: the Metropolitan Police recorded 52% more knife crime offences in the year to March 2019 than in the year to March 2016 (the earliest available date on the weapon-enabled crime dashboard from the London Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, or MOPAC).19 In the same period, gun discharges in the capital increased by 63%, which contrasts with downward trends in firearms offences across England and Wales. Recent research by the Centre for Social Justice found that over one in ten Londoners said they or a friend knew someone who had been killed in London with a knife or gun in the last 12 months. That proportion increased to over one in five over the last two years, and almost one in three at any time in the past.20

19.The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, has suggested that these trends might be abating: giving evidence in March, she told us that there had been a 15% reduction in knife injury victims under the age of 25 in the previous year, which she attributed to “the huge efforts we have been making recently”.21 In July, she told us that the same figure was down by 20%,22 and in the year to December 2018, the Metropolitan Police experienced a much lower increase in knife crime than in previous years—just 1%, compared with a 31% rise in the year to December 2017.23 More recent figures from MOPAC are mixed: they show a very small fall in knife offences in the last year (1%), but against the backdrop of a 13% increase between the year to June 2017 and the year to June 2019, and a 52% rise since 2016.24

20.Although the capital has been most heavily affected, knife crime has increased across the country, and rising numbers of lives have been lost in other cities and towns. The majority of police forces in England and Wales (31 of the 43) recorded a rise in knife crime offences in the year ending December 2018. After London, the highest rates were in Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and the West Midlands.25 Merseyside had the largest rise in knife or sharp instrument offences over the last year, at 35%,26 and significant increases have also occurred in the home counties, which may be linked to the growth in ‘county lines’ drug distribution networks (which we explore further in Chapter 4). A recent analysis by The Guardian found that knife crime rose by an average of 45% in the counties surrounding London over the previous eight years, compared with an 11% increase in London. In Kent, stabbings increased by 152% during that period.27

21.Crime figures show clearly that it is not just London and other major cities that are being blighted by recent increases in serious violence. There is a clear need for a concerted action across the length and breadth of the country, including the many communities now affected by county lines drugs violence, which we explore further in Chapter 4.

The growth in youth violence and homicide

22.The most alarming recent trend in violent crime has been the growing number of child victims of homicide. Figures obtained by Channel 4’s Dispatches in early March revealed there had been a 93% rise in hospital admissions for knife attacks on under-16s since 2012,28 and NHS data shows a 36% increase in knife admissions for under-18s between 2013–14 and 2017–18.29 The latest statistics on homicide victims, covering the year ending March 2018, show that the most common age-group was 16 to 24 year olds, closely followed by 25 to 34 year olds. The number of victims aged 16 to 24 increased by nearly a half in the year to March 2018, (45%), and the number of victims aged 25 to 34 increased by over a fifth (23%).30

23.In London, almost half of all people killed with a gun or knife are 15–24 years old, despite only accounting for 12% of the capital’s population. People in that age group are over six times more likely to be murdered with a knife than the rest of the capital’s population.31 We took evidence in October 2018 from NHS clinicians about the impact of serious violence on the health service, and the types of injuries being seen. Duncan Bew, a leading London trauma surgeon, said that South East of England’s trauma network had seen “an increase of all ages coming in as victims of violence”, but particularly those between the ages of 12 and 18.32 Injuries are more frequent around school closure times, “with peaks in attendance [in hospital] between 4.00 pm and 6.00 pm and then later in the evening, after school time”.33 Last year, Martin Griffiths, a trauma surgeon at Barts Health NHS Trust in London, told BBC Radio 4: “We routinely have children under our care–13, 14, 15 year olds are daily occurrences. [ … ] Whereas a young boy being stabbed five or six years ago was a horror story, now it’s normal”.34

24.Dave Thompson, Chief Constable of West Midlands Police, outlined to us the nature of serious violence in his force area, confirming the younger age profile. He told us that rising violent crime locally has “three elements”: stabbings of younger people on the “periphery of urban street gangs, involved in street-level drug-dealing or on the edges of county lines”; violence connected to robberies, including vehicles, which is also connected to county lines and money laundering; and a “proliferation of weapon carrying”, which means that the “fist-fight becomes a knife-fight”.35 He also suggested that murder figures might have been even higher in the past, in the context of current levels of violence, because trauma care has improved significantly.36

25.Increases in youth violence seem to have been driven predominantly by a rising number of young males killing other young males—particularly with knives. The latest homicide statistical bulletin shows that the number of male victims has increased at a much faster rate than females: 54% since the year ending March 2015, versus 23% for female victims. Males account for 69% of victims overall.37 There are a number of different trends affecting male and female homicide figures; for example:

26.We continue to apply vital scrutiny to policy developments relating to violence against women and girls, domestic abuse and domestic homicide: our latest report on this important issue was published in October.39 We are also concerned about the rise in the number of women killed by a stranger, or for whose murder there is no suspect. Based on the trends outlined above and the evidence we received, however, this report focuses predominantly on knife crime and other forms of serious violence among young people, and particularly young males.

27.Black, Asian and minority ethnic people are over-represented among victims and suspects of serious violence. Between 2013–14 and 2017–18, there was a 43% increase in hospital admissions for knife crime among ethnic minority groups, compared with a 17% increase for White victims, and 69% of under-25 knife crime homicide victims in London are people of Black African-Caribbean ethnicity.40 We will explore this complex relationship in further detail in Chapter 6 of this report.

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16 Sivarajasingam, V, Page, N, Green, G, Moore, S, & Sheperd, J; Violence in England and Wales in 2018: An Accident and Emergency Perspective, April 2019

17 Sivarajasingam, V, Page, N, Green, G, Moore, S, & Sheperd, J; Violence in England and Wales in 2018: An Accident and Emergency Perspective, April 2019

19 MOPAC website, Weapon-enabled Crime Dashboard, accessed 5 June 2019

22 Oral evidence: The Macpherson Report: Twenty Years On, HC 1829, 10 July 2019, Q396

23 Home Office Official Statistics, Knife crime open data year ending March 2009 onwards

24 MOPAC website, Weapon-enabled Crime Dashboard, accessed 17 July 2019

28 The Guardian, No link between knife crime and police cuts, says Theresa May, 4 March 2019

34 Today Programme, BBC Radio 4, 5 April 2018

39 House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, Domestic Abuse (HC 1015), 22 October 2018

Published: 31 July 2019