A huge stop-and-search operation, which is at the heart of a government drive to clamp down on knife crime among Britain's teenagers, is failing to clear the most dangerous blades from the streets, The Independent on Sunday has learnt.
Police in knife-crime hot spots are making as few as one arrest in every 200 searches for possession of weapons, despite swoops on schools, pubs and other public places, aided by electronic "knife arches" and search wands.
Latest crime figures reveal that the number of killings involving a knife fell by 12 per cent in the three months to December 2008, compared with the same period the previous year. But police reported a 5 per cent rise in robberies involving knives or other sharp instruments.
There were fresh concerns yesterday about efforts to reduce knife crime as police questioned three people after two men died from stab wounds in Gosport, Hampshire. A man was also being held under the Mental Health Act over a knife attack on Ann Driscoll, 82, in north-west London.
The former home secretary Jacqui Smith announced government backing for 10 police forces with the worst knife-related problems in June last year. The £12m Tackling Knives Action Programme (TKAP) aimed to reduce the number of teenagers carrying bladed weapons or being seriously injured by them, while at the same time ensuring that more offenders were sent to prison.
The Home Office claims that figures for knife crimes and arrests from the knife-crime hot spots show the scheme is already working.
But two reports have cast doubt on the success of the scheme, and a survey last week found that one in 10 teenagers in the TKAP areas carries a knife to feel safe.
Figures obtained by the IoS show that only 0.5 per cent of searches in some TKAP target areas result in arrests for weapon-related offences.
The Metropolitan Police said its TKAP scheme has helped to cut knife crime by 12.9 per cent. More than 560,000 "Section 60" stop-and-search operations took place in the 10 months to January 2009, one in 20 of which produced an arrest. But only one in 200 searches resulted in an arrest for an offence involving offensive weapons or firearms – and the figure is falling.
In Greater Manchester, more than 13,000 police searches produced 250 knives, a rate of one weapon for every 52 searches. Officers made 125 arrests and 76 individuals were charged.
On Merseyside, police conducted 56,000 searches between April and December last year, and 585 people – more than one in 10 – were arrested for possession of an offensive weapon.
However, Home Office figures reveal that only one in 10 of the recovered weapons were kitchen knives, which are responsible for more than a third of all stabbing injuries. A "significant proportion" were flick knives and penknives, which are often carried by young people but account for fewer than one in 20 stab wounds.
The Home Office's own TKAP management information showed that between June 2008 and March 2009, police conducted more than 150,000 stop and searches and seized 3,000 knives – a 2 per cent return. An MPs' Home Affairs Committee report last month heard complaints that stop-and-search powers were being used too widely.
Criminologists warned yesterday that the "obsession" with searching, rather than a more targeted strategy, was holding back efforts to reduce the number of knife attacks.
"The jury is still very much out on the performance of TKAP," said Dr Roger Grimshaw, research director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College London. "There are real doubts about the productiveness of stop and search – there are very few weapons being brought to light relative to the number of searches, and those that are being recovered are not the most damaging."
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Alfred Hitchcock, the former head of the TKAP project, said officers used "behavioural assessments" when deciding whom to stop and search. He said: "We have developed this particular type of training as a result of the overall terrorist threat."