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The knife crime ‘epidemic’ and British politics


During 2008 the British media, the public and British political institutions alike, became seized by a wholly unprecedented concern with ‘knife crime’. According to the media reporting, the problem seemed particularly concentrated in certain inner city areas, especially parts of London. Like the earlier reporting of ‘gun crime’, the problem seemed to involve young black men disproportionately as both victims and perpetrators. Each stabbing was reported in lurid detail, prompting profound concerns about a growing crisis of youth violence and urban safety. Yet the apparently simple message about rising youth violence conceals a more complex set of issues and explanations, which the public and political debates have largely overlooked. The knife crime ‘epidemic’, as it came to be called, coincided with a series of youth justice policy measures being rolled out by the government, and significantly influenced them. Although the broad thrust of the new policies had involved some more preventive and supportive measures, a renewed commitment to robust policing and tougher sentencing also came to be asserted. In turn, this commitment to tough reassurance policing (itself, arguably, part of the problem) seems likely to ensure that more fundamental questions about the roots of youth violence and the reproduction of conflict, fear and insecurity in urban areas remain sidelined.

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  1. 1.

    Andrew Neil's commentary on the ‘Broken Society’ agenda in the Spectator catalogues the main themes of this vindictive discourse: ‘many people are in no doubt … that we are blighted by a feral youth, often financed and fuelled by drugs, which is out of control and beyond the law. Every day brings fresh horror stories from the frontline of the Broken Society: teenagers are shot in their beds in gangland tit-for-tat killings; a youth is chased through the streets of West London by a gang of 14-year-olds shouting ‘Kill him, kill him’ – which they do when they catch him, with a stab to the heart. This week another schoolboy was murdered in a pre-arranged mass gang brawl in Beckenham: he was beaten to a pulp with chains and baseball bats, then stabbed in the back. Britain is now living with the consequences of allowing an underclass to take root and fester …’ (Neil, 2008).

  2. 2.

    Section 42 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 had doubled the maximum sentences for possession of a knife in public ‘without good reason’ (s.42) from two to four years; this legislation also further restricted sales of knives to persons under 18 and established new search powers within educational establishments. Two years later, the implementation of an interdepartmental Tackling Violence Action Plan (Home Office, 2008b) sought to facilitate police searches while equipping them with new portable search arches and search wands. New initiatives targeted at the parents of young people suspected of carrying weapons and educational campaigns ‘to challenge the ‘glamour’, fear and peer pressure that motivate young people to carry knives’ soon followed, as did knife crime initiatives within the CPS and YJB.

  3. 3.

    The sociological concept of ‘moral panic’ is generally referred to as a rapid increase in public perceptions of potential threats to social order, values or interests because of strident media reporting. Cohen's (1973) study of the reporting of bank holiday violence between gangs of mods and rockers launched the concept and set the template for this phenomenon. Behind the, often lurid, reporting of ‘moral panics’, there are frequently to be found some profound political and ideological agendas which work their way out through debates regarding how to resolve the problems that are said to be causing the problems.

  4. 4.

    Most, but not all, stabbings will involve knives. The actual annual number of stabbing murders peaked at 265 in 2002–2003; even in 2006–2007 the number had not reached this level again. The overall number of homicides also peaked in 2002–2003, the number also being inflated by the inclusion of the 172 victims of Dr Harold Shipman in this year's figure. Overall homicide numbers fell for the next 4 years, the only reason the final year of the graph shows the highest percentage of stabbing murders is because it represents a fairly constant rate of stabbing alongside a declining overall murder rate.

  5. 5.

    Wounding offences involve the cutting or piercing of the skin – in Figure 2 ‘more serious woundings’ have been catalogued over time. Not all woundings are the result of knife attacks (for example, broken bottles, sharpened sticks or other tools may be involved). New counting rules impact upon the figures after 1998 and the statistical year is henceforth no longer based upon a calendar year. Given the general nature of the graph, I have continued to represent the figures by the year in which the statistical year ended. The Home Office statistical year 2002–2003 is therefore recorded as 2003 for the sake of Figure 2.

  6. 6.

    ‘Gun crime’ represents less than 0.5 per cent of all police recorded crime (18 489 offences in 2006–2007). If crimes committed with air weapons are set aside this figure falls by about a half, to 9650 offences, or 0.2 per cent of recorded crime (Kaiza, 2008).

  7. 7.

    These ‘crime-recording’ issues (relating to both guns and knives) have recently been the subject of criticisms that the government is deliberately under-recording weapon possession offences. The criticisms first arose in the Sunday and Daily Telegraph (Barrett, 2008; Leach, 2008; Peterkin, 2008) but were subsequently taken up by opposition MPs. In fact, this method of recording weapon-involved offending long predates the present government, although the substantive complaint remains true; a large number of weapon offences, chiefly, perhaps, illegal possession, are not included in the Home Office totals of gun or knife crimes. A Sunday Telegraph survey of police forces suggested that some 5600 extra gun crimes (a 60 per cent increase) would be recorded if the possession and trafficking offences were counted and likewise it was suggested that the figure for knife crimes would also rise by approximately two-thirds if illegal possession offences were similarly recorded. The problem with recording ‘illegal possession’ offences is that they are, as police have acknowledged, largely a product of the diligence with which police search for them.

  8. 8.

    The data referred to in Figure 4 are not routinely collated by the police in their quarterly statistical returns to the Home Office but were specifically gathered by the Home Office for the Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry.

  9. 9.

    As Eades et al (2007) point out, the question MORI put to their respondents changed significantly in 2003, resulting in an apparent increase in the frequency of weapon carrying by their respondents. Many commentators noted the apparent increase in knife possession without acknowledging the changed questioning.

  10. 10.

    Eades et al (2007) develop their own calculations of upper and lower estimates of rates of knife usage for different British Crime Survey categories of violence (domestic violence, acquaintance violence, stranger violence, robbery and wounding) (2007, pp. 13–18). These figures relate to offenders and victims of all ages, however.

  11. 11.

    A different point about global/local dynamics influencing weapon carrying and knife use was made by Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Equalities and Human Rights. He argued that one of the causes of knife crime was a lack of support for refugee children, many of whom had witnessed untold horrors in their early lives. He said ‘There is a very specific issue for some minority communities … We have had a generation of refugee children who have come from unimaginable levels of violence, absolutely terrifying situations’. For Phillips the issue was about appropriate support to vulnerable young people, although other commentators sought to turn the issue into one of immigration controls (Hope and Edwards, 2008).

  12. 12.

    Police have a number of stop and search powers but for present purposes two are of particular relevance. The power under section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) allows officers to search on ‘reasonable suspicion’ of an offence being committed. Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 applies, however, where a senior police officer has designated an area as one in which serious violence is likely. Here officers are permitted to stop and search any person or vehicle for weapons without having to show reasonable suspicion. The Act provides for the area ‘designation’ to last for 24 hours (or, exceptionally, for 36), leading some to question the near-permanent application of the designation in some areas.

  13. 13.

    Glasgow has long had the unenviable reputation as the ‘knife crime capital of Europe’ (WHO, 2002) while (per population) knife murders in Scotland as a whole exceed the rate in England and Wales by over three times. The policy of anonymised information sharing was developed to ensure adequate analysis of the effects of interventions and to avoid discouraging injured persons from attending A&E.


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Squires, P. The knife crime ‘epidemic’ and British politics. Br Polit 4, 127–157 (2009).

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  • youth crime
  • violence
  • knives
  • weapons
  • policing
  • law and order