Knife UK: The rise of knife culture

We could start with a murder. That's the usual way. Some shocking detail to whet the appetite and make you wonder what the world is coming to, because school certainly wasn't like that in your day. But let's start with something that may be more revealing.
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It's the story of a 16-year-old who left school after flunking his GCSEs and joined the sixth-form of a neighbouring school with the hope of re-doing them there. We might call him Ross. In the first few days he was walking along the corridor with two friends from his old school, one of whom was black. A group of four teenagers who had been at the school for years confronted the newcomers and began to prod the black boy. Ross intervened and placed himself between his friend and the assailants.

"OK, you can have it instead then," said one of the attackers. He produced a knife and stabbed Ross in the shoulder and then ran off. Ross was taken to hospital but, thanks to his thick puffa jacket, the wound was superficial and he was sent home soon afterwards. The school did not send for the police and no action was taken against the boy with the knife. Ross's parents decided he should not return to the new school and sent him back to his old one.

It happened in London, but it could as easily have been in Birmingham, Bury, Camberley, Sheffield, Louth, Neath - all of which have had serious knife incidents recently - or any British town. There are a lot of knives around.

That, at any rate, is the anecdotal evidence. And certainly "knife culture", as it is called, is a government priority. There has been a nationwide knife amnesty, local knife clampdowns and an anti-knife robbery operation by British Transport Police. The government is currently pushing through legislation to raise the legal age for buying a knife from 16 to 18. The Home Secretary wants to double the penalty for carrying a knife in public "without good reason or lawful authority" to four years in jail. There is talk of a mandatory prison sentence for anyone caught carrying a knife. Only this month the Education Secretary gave schools the go-ahead to subject pupils to searches with metal detectors.

Serious stuff then. The only trouble is that when you look at the official statistics you get a rather more confusing impression. They suggest that the number of violent crimes involving knives in England and Wales has declined over the past 10 years. And the use of knives in mugging and robbery has significantly dropped since 1995. Ten years ago 40 per cent of murders were by knives; now it is less than 30 per cent - that is around 230 out of the 820 murders last year.

But then, a couple of months ago, things seemed to take a turn for the worse. The British Crime Survey suggested that the number of muggers using knives in 2005 increased dramatically from 24,290 to 42,020 - a rise of 73 per cent. There were 91 serious attacks between May and June, 19 of them fatal. The number of people convicted of carrying a knife or blade in England and Wales rose from 3,511 in 2000 to 5,784 in 2004. The Youth Justice Board announced that carrying a knife was the most common offence among children excluded from school. And a think-tank released figures suggesting that as many as 57,900 young people could have been stabbed over the past year.

What are we to make of all this? First it's worth noting that the most recent figures suggesting a rising problem are all more incomplete, conjectural or suggestive than the set charting a decline in knife crime over the past decade. The 73 per cent rise in muggers using knives comes from the British Crime Survey which, ministers say, is the most reliable indicator of offending, but about which academics are more dubious. Moreover many of these indicators are contradictory: 30 per cent of children admit that they have carried a knife at some time, according to one survey; but the figure is 2 per cent according to another, by the Youth Justice Board.

There is no doubt that knives are a greater social menace than guns - last year seven times as many people were murdered with what the Home Office classes as "sharp instruments" than were killed with firearms. But are knives a growing problem?

One of the problems, points out Professor Marian FitzGerald of the Crime and Justice Centre at the University of Kent, is that the Home Office does not keep any statistics on stabbings, apart from the ones on murder. "There are no hard figures to show whether it is going up or down," she says. She casts doubt on the reliability of both the figures that knife crime had declined for the past decade and those that suggest an upsurge this year. Her sense, she says is that "there has been a steadily growing problem for perhaps 10 years".

Another criminologist specialising in this area, Professor David Wilson of the University of Central England in Birmingham, agrees. "It is difficult to get a handle on the reality of knife crime and knife culture - a difficulty not helped by the fact that the Home Office does not keep statistics on stabbings," he says. "When I was a kid growing up in Glasgow there were razor gangs and people said the same things about them as they are saying now. But the evidence seems to suggest that children as young as 10 are carrying weapons. And that is quite frightening because it takes the problem into our junior schools." Indeed almost one in five primary school heads have had to confiscate knives from pupils, an ICM survey found in July.

Clinical psychologists who deal with young offenders are concerned too. "People under-estimate how much young people carry knives," says Dr Derek Indoe, a consultant with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service at Bristol Royal Hospital for Children. "Things have changed significantly in the past 20 years. The courts tend to be flabbergasted at the extent to which it's part of modern youth culture, particularly in the big cities."

Knife violence hotspots cited by professionals include Brent, Lambeth and Southwark in London but Scotland also has an average of 21.6 stabbing murders per million of the population - higher than any other European country except Northern Ireland and Finland. Over half of Scottish homicides involve a knife and Glasgow has one of the highest murder rates in western Europe at 58.7 per million - double that of London.

And yet other places that might be expected to report similar concerns do not. You might think that Manchester - one of the top three places in the country, along with London and Birmingham, for gun crime - would be a hotbed of knife crime. It certainly has some. Surgeons at Manchester Royal Infirmary deal with at least a couple of stabbings a day. And yet how high is that in such a huge urban conglomeration?

Those who work most closely with young people in the city are unworried. John Hartshorn, who heads the City Centre Project - a large youth homelessness project based in the centre of Manchester working with vulnerable and chaotic 16- to 25-year-olds - says: "There are no more knives now than there ever were, perhaps even fewer."

It's a view echoed further south in the country, in Hampshire. "As a professional youth worker for the past 30 years, I have come across a depressingly consistent level of knife crime," one social worker in Hampshire suggests. Carrying a knife has always been "cool" among 15- to 18-year-old boys - from flick knives to butterfly knives to the current fad for lighter knives, blades combined with cigarette lighters. "This is neither a new phenomenon, nor one likely to be best resolved by a panic response."

Indeed Hartshorn insists there are fewer knives around now than when he began working with young people more than 30 years ago. "In those days Dads bought boys penknives as birthday presents. They were used in playground games like Stretch and Split the Kipper. But since then they have gone from a boy's toy to an offensive weapon and I've seen far fewer - apart from the Stanley knives and craft knives people carried as part of New Romantic culture in the Eighties. I haven't seen a single knife in six years here working with homeless 16- to 25-year-olds."

What everyone agrees on is the general perception that knife crime is on the increase. "The fear of knives has grown," as Hartshorn puts it. And with it the number of young people who carry knives "for protection" has increased. This is a significant shift.

In the past the main motivation for young people to carry a weapon was to increase their status. A knife was symbolic. It was a rite of passage not just to manhood but an attempt to carve out a certain kind of masculine identity with a knife. A knife was a way of earning "respect". For some that is still the point.

"It's a power thing. It's about ego," says Dr Helen Rodwell, a clinical psychologist who works with young offenders in Derby. "For some it's about imitation. It's the new thing you have to do." It is knife as fashion accessory. "But there is another group who carry knives because they feel unsafe and scared."

This is the new development, according to Professor Wilson. "Talk to young people and you find that they feel the adult world - teachers, police, social workers - does not take their fears seriously." That is why the number of children aged 12 to 14 convicted of carrying knives at school doubled between 2000 and 2004 to 170. And 37 children were convicted of carrying a knife or blade in a public place in 2004, compared with just 18 in 2000. These are, of course, relatively small numbers. But for every one caught there are dozens of others who feel they need knives as a self-defence.

There are those who are impatient with such explanations. "All this 'for their own protection' stuff is just bleating excuses," said one police officer. "Carrying a knife for self-defence purposes is not any more excusable than carrying one for status."

The forensic clinical psychologist Derek Indoe disagrees. "It's not a lie or an excuse; it's part of modern youth culture," he says. Knife-carrying among young people is increasingly motivated by feelings of fear and insecurity. Children and young people experience rates of violent victimisation at least three to four times that of adults. And 10- to 25-year-olds are twice as likely to carry knives if they had been the victim of a violent crime in the previous year.

To tackle the problem, says Dr Indoe, you have to go deeper, and ask what kind of person thinks that carrying a knife will make them safer. "It's to do with the models of behaviour they have learnt. If, at home, you have learnt that to resolve a conflict you sit down and talk about it, if parents model that, then children follow their example." If they do not, then that is where the trouble begins. Add in an early experience of violence, negative attitudes, poor anger management, being taken into local authority care, substance abuse, a delinquent peer group and the chronic trauma of growing up in an environment in which they don't feel safe and the pattern is reinforced.

Contemporary society feeds that. "Most TV, news or drama, does not offer a good model on how to handle problems," says Dr Indoe. "Nor does the world of fights in the city centre on a Friday night. Yes it's true that Teddy boys carried knives in the 1950s but that violence was shocking to their era, even a low level of it. Today we accept violence more."

It is an easy step from that to blaming aspects of modern culture. Shaun Bailey, the director of My Generation, a charity working with young people in west London and the author of No Man's Land: How Britain's Inner-City Young Are Being Failed, reported recently that youngsters as young as nine or 10 talk openly about "shanking" (stabbing) those with whom they have any kind of beef. He blames bad exemplars such as 50 Cent, Eminem and elements in the "grime" music scene for making the unacceptable acceptable. The Tory leader, David Cameron, responded recently, by calling on Radio 1 to stop playing certain types of hip-hop music on Saturday nights because it was encouraging a knife culture.

It is all a far more complex problem than can be addressed by changing the Radio 1 playlist. But how do you deal with it?

The government's response has been to pander to editorials in the Daily Mail - and jibes by the Tories that the number of children carrying knives has doubled since a Labour government came to power - and to talk of more draconian penalties. The trouble with this approach, which has been touted by successive home secretaries, is that, in the words of Chris Eades, "the government is constructing responses without any credible evidence that they will be successful".

That criticism is based on a report written in August by Eades for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College London. Knife Crime: Ineffective reactions to a distracting problem? is dismissive of the concept of knife crime in the first place. It is not knives who kill people, it argues, but other people.

Indeed the very phrase "knife crime" is symptomatic of an unhelpful philosophy that regards inanimate objects as the problem. "We need to address why individuals get into violent confrontations with each other, and not simply fixate on the weapons they use," said the centre's acting director Richard Garside at the document's launch. Yet the report showed "just how much we still don't know about knife-related offences, their causes and solutions".

It's for this reason that many criminologists have little time for initiatives such as the recent knife amnesty, which saw 89,864 dangerous weapons handed over to the police. "Knife amnesties will have a negligible impact as long as there is unsliced bread," says Eades.

"I used to think that," says the forensic psychologist Derek Indoe, "but the fact is that where a violent fist-fight might end with a black eye, one with a knife might take someone's eye out." It is no coincidence that most domestic murders are committed in the kitchen. "That's where the knives are; people pick one up and before they know where they are we are dealing with murder."

But there is far less support of the idea of harsher sentences. "There is absolutely no evidence that heavier sentences have a deterrent effect," says Professor FitzGerald. And mandatory sentences, she adds, will be unable to distinguish between a deeply disturbed or malicious youth who routinely terrorises an entire school with his knife and a victim who one day brings in a knife in response in a misguided attempt at self-defence.

"Deterrence only works if you've got someone who's prepared to weigh things up rationally. A lot of stabbings are on impulse," Dr Indoe says. But if angry individuals can't be rationally deterred from using a knife they might be deterred form carrying one in the first place - and more through education than through harsher penalties.

Those who take this view say that young people need to be apprised of a few key facts - that they will be less, not more, safe carrying a knife. They need to know that magistrates will take a much sterner view of an offence that involves a knife. They need to know that there is a real risk of their weapon being turned against them, as happened to special constable Nisha Patel-Nasri who was killed recently after taking a knife from her kitchen when she heard an intruder. They need to know that those who carry knives can develop an increased confidence that can lead them into further danger or trouble.

They also need to know that many arrested for knife crime are shocked at their act, insisting that they had no intention to kill the other person. "I don't think people are aware that as soon as they take a knife out, they become potential murderers," said Dr Andrew Murray, a surgeon at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, as he backed a recent knife crackdown. "If you stab someone in the chest, it's just a random chance whether you end up giving them a minor wound, or whether you kill them."

Others insist the deterrence approach is a blind alley. They see other priorities. Top of the list, according to Professor Marian FitzGerald is the need to collect hard data like that collected on firearms offences. "Only then will we be in a position to say what really works." One conclusion that will be thrown up, she suspects - from her work on figures from the few forces that do record detail on knife crime - is that knives in school will be only a small part of the problem. "If you plot knife incidents there is a small after-school peak but the bulk are after-pub or around the night-time economy."

The forensic psychologists start in a different place. They see the first priority as tackling the behaviour in homes that creates dysfunctional models. "You have to ask: where does violent behaviour come from," says Dr Indoe. "Increasing sentences won't address that. Those disposed to this kind of behaviour need to learn how to control anger, calm down and use words to resolve conflicts." That means teaching parenting skills in school, as well as aggression and anger management. He also insists that we need to address the level of violence on TV, in films and in computer games.

Some practical measures can be taken in school. The Business Academy in Bexley, the first of the Government's flagship city academies, has staggered its breaks and lunch periods so no more than 150 of its 1,000 pupils are out of lessons at any one time. The initiative has helped virtually to eradicate bullying and intimidation in a school where gangs once roamed free, stabbings were common and at least one teacher was attacked by students.

The Government is hoping that giving head teachers the power to search pupils using airport-style frisking metal detectors, will now have a similar impact. Professor David Wilson is not so sure. "Metal detectors will just displace the problem from school to outside the school gates," he says. "Kids will find their ways round them. If we can't keep knives out of prison how can we keep them out of school?"

The key to overcoming knife crime, he insists, lies in listening to the fears that young people have: "We need to treat their anxieties seriously and address the fundamental issues. Instead of dreaming up new penalties for carrying knives we'd be far better off investing in good schools, with well-paid and qualified teachers, and in ensuring that young people, especially young men, feel valued and included and have jobs and training when they leave school." Knives, he feels, are filling the widening gap between those who have status and prospects in our society and those who don't.

Indeed, agrees Marian FitzGerald, but where do you start? The danger of the metal detector approach is that it may just remove the knives from those who carry them for "protection" and leave them in the hands of manipulative characters with a more malign intent. "A cycle has set in which can only be broken when young people feel that they are being protected. They need to know they can rely on the authorities. But to do that the police need to work in an intelligence-led way - and that intelligence, in the end, can only come from the kids who at present are scared."

That means breaking out of the vicious circle of fear that has been building now for a decade or more. No one said it was going to be easy.