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Police begin knife amnesty

A nationwide knife amnesty begins across the country today - the first of its kind for 10 years.

For the next five weeks - until June 30 - people will be able to hand in all bladed instruments without fear of reprisal.

The initiative is being backed by police forces throughout England, Northern Ireland and Wales. Scotland is running its own amnesty concurrently.

Secure bins will be placed in the public reception areas of most police stations to encourage people to hand in their weapons.

Individual police forces may also decide to leave bins in churches, supermarkets, schools and youth clubs to encourage the handover.

Families of victims killed in knife attacks questioned the effectiveness of the amnesty and called instead for tougher sentencing.

Today's amnesty involves all legal knives - such a kitchen knives - and offensive weapons, such as flick knives, butterfly knives and swords.

The police ask that all offending blades are wrapped in card or paper, partly to prove they are part of the amnesty and partly to prevent injury at the site of delivery.

Scotland Yard said only those weapons believed to be significant to police inquiries would be forensically examined.

The scheme was announced in February by then Home Secretary Charles Clarke, who said: "The message of this campaign is simple - carrying knives on the streets will not be tolerated."

A Home Office spokesman said the emphasis of the campaign was to try and stop people carrying knives because of the risk that the weapon could be used against the carrier.

He said tackling knife culture, especially among young people, was paramount to community safety.

Evidence suggests that the most likely group to carry knives are males youths aged between 15 and 16.

The spokesman said the amnesty was part of a wide range of actions being taken to tackle knife crime, including toughening the law on carrying blades.

Other proposals include raising the age at which people can legally purchase knives from 16 to 18 and giving teachers power to search pupils for knives at school.

In conjunction with the amnesty, the police are running a campaign educating people about the dangers of carrying offensive weapons.

Forces around the country will roll out the specialised red "wheelie-bins" for the weapons and set up a high-profile poster campaign.

Kent Police's Assistant Chief Constable Dave Ainsworth said: "We obviously want to reduce the number of knives and lethal weapons on our streets that are designed to kill or maim, such as combat knives, flick knives and swords."

Referring to the murder of 18-year-old Christopher Alaneme, he said: "As we have witnessed recently with the tragic incident in Sheerness where a young man lost his life, knives can damage and destroy lives, leaving families and communities devastated."

In Oxford, anti-violence groups and police are attending a private conference today, backed by the Home Office.

Discussions will centre on how to get rid of knives and guns on the streets of Britain.

Dee Edwards, of the campaign group Mother's Against Murder and Aggression (MAMAA), said workshops at the Kassam Stadium would focus on how to change the UK's knife and gun culture.

Ms Edwards said such events had proved useful in the past, but she called on criminal court judges to attend in the future.

"Judges are never represented at these kind of conferences," she said. "They should come, as judges are the ones who hand out sentences."

Amnesties have a history of producing results. During a similar amnesty in 1995, 40,000 potentially lethal weapons were handed in.

Records over the 12 months following a four-week knife amnesty in Scotland in 1993 found murders fell by 26%, attempted murder by 19% and offensive weapons possession by 23%.

West Midlands Police, which began its knives amnesty in March, said the campaign had successfully raised awareness about knife crime, especially among young people.

More than 1,600 knives and bladed weapons have already been handed in as part of the initiative.

Once the amnesty period has finished, police forces across the country insist they will "robustly" defend the law.

Anyone found carrying an offensive weapon in a public place could be imprisoned for up to six months and receive a £5,000 fine.

Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust, said knife crime was out of control in Britain and that amnesties did "litlle or nothing" to protect the public.

He dismissed the amnesty as a public relations exercise and instead called on police chiefs to lobby Government for the introduction of mandatory prison sentences for anyone caught carrying a knife without lawful authority.

He is calling for anyone caught in possession of a blade in excess of 3ins, without reasonable excuse, to face a minimum jail sentence of five years.

Mr Brennan, founder of the Knives Destroy Lives campaign, said: "Amnesties are not the same as real preventative and punitive action on the streets.

"The Victims of Crime Trust previously supported the Government?s knife amnesty in 1995. However, since then fatal stabbings have spiralled out of control.

"It is very clear to those bereaved through knife homicide that amnesties do little or nothing to protect the public from a knife wielding culture.

"The knives amnesty launched today is felt to be no more than a public relations exercise and does not tackle the now deep rooted causes of knife crime."

Antoinette Rodney, whose 15-year-old son Kieran Rodney-Davis was stabbed to death in the street in Fulham, west London in June 2004, said: "The previous knives amnesty did not save my son and nothing has changed since.

"Knife crime on the streets of Britain is as bad as it ever was. Every day of every month of every year I will serve the true life sentence."

Michael Hegarty, whose brother Bernard, an architect, was stabbed to death in east London in August 2004, said: "It is not until threats of being sent to prison become reality that any deterrent will be understood by those who carry knives and believe they are untouchable.

"The current knives amnesty will do nothing to make the streets safer and is being used as a diversion from tackling knife crime head on. My family knows the true devastation that knife crime can cause."

Paul Walmsley, father of Luke Walmsley, who was stabbed to death by a fellow pupil at Birkbeck Secondary School in North Somercotes, Lincolnshire, in November 2003, said: "Our son Luke had his whole life ahead of him, but another pupil who took a knife into a school has taken our wonderful son, who can never be replaced.

"I fully support mandatory sentencing for those that carry knives on the streets and in schools."