Cherie Blair admitted yesterday that she fears for the safety of her children when they go out on the streets. She also claimed that government figures drastically underestimate the scale of knife crime among children in Britain.
In a dramatic intervention, the wife of the former prime minister told MPs that while chairing a "street weapons commission" she found alarming evidence of rising violence involving knives among children.
Mrs Blair attacked government statistics which, she said, "did not acknowledge what is happening to young people" and called for a new approach to tackle the "lethal fashion accessories".
Mrs Blair, who has four children, told the Home Affairs Select Committee: "As a parent, I am concerned about what's happening when my children are on the street and I know I am not unique in that by any means. If young people think they can carry knives and no one is ever going to pick them up carrying a knife, then they are more likely to take one out.
"Whereas, if they think when they carry a knife that's going to be detected, that may well make a really big difference."
She said research carried out for Channel 4's street weapons commission, which will report later this year in a documentary, highlighted the failure of current crime figures in reflecting the reality of what is happening on the streets on Britain's cities.
She said: "We know younger people are carrying knives. This is almost a new phenomenon – that younger people are carrying knives and, sadly, using them. The statistics are not looking at the right areas; they need to broaden what they are looking at. Anecdotally, it seems clear the perception is that it's much worse."
Her remarks were seized upon by the Conservatives, who described them as a "sad indictment" on the failure of Mr Blair's 1997 promise to get tough on crime and its causes. It follows a spate of killings of teenagers at the hands of their peers. So far this year, 31 young people have been stabbed to death in Britain. In London, 17 teenagers have died as a result of gun or knife crime.
Crime statistics produced by the Government suggest the use of weapons in violent crime is stable, accounting for 24 per cent of woundings in 2006-2007, compared with 22 per cent in 2005-2006. But there is growing evidence from other statistical sources of a catastrophic rise in injuries to under-16s, in particular related to knife crime.
Latest figures show an89 per cent rise in the number of under-16s admitted to hospital with serious stab wounds during the past five years and a 75 per cent rise for older teenagers. Department of Health statistics show that in 2002, 429 people aged 16 to 18 and 95 under-16s were treated at accident and emergency units for wounds inflicted with a sharp instrument. In 2007, the figures had risen to 752 and 179 respectively.
Mrs Blair said there was a need to "take the glamour out of" carrying weapons and called for more "high-visibility" policing in inner city areas where officers know young people are regularly and increasingly carrying weapons, singling out the success of such an initiative in Hackney, east London.
Mrs Blair is the latest senior female Labour figure to display concern about safety on the streets. Two months ago, Harriet Harman, the party's deputy leader, attracted criticism when she wore a stab-proof vest while accompanying police officers on a tour of her south London constituency. Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, said earlier this year that she would not feel comfortable walking alone after dark in deprived areas of the capital.
Mrs Blair received backing for her assertion that official statistics were failing to reflect the reality of how many young people now carry knives in the mistaken belief that they offer protection. The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) at King's College London said it had recorded a 30 per cent rise in all hospital A&E admissions for assault with a sharp instrument in the past decade. The number of robberies in which a knife was used rose from 25,500 in 2005 to 64,000 in April 2007, according to CCJS research.
Enver Soloman, the CCJS's deputy director, said: "What the official numbers are failing to pick up is that these crimes are affecting heavily victimised sections of communities within poor areas where they have little confidence in the criminal justice agencies and, therefore, are less likely to report these offences when they have a disproportionate share of them."
The Home Office said last night it had widened the scope of the British Crime Survey, the most authoritative source of statistics based on police data, to include specific data on knife crime.
Dominic Grieve, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "This is a sad indictment of 10 years of failure. Tony Blair promised to get tough on crime and its causes but failed to do so. Under Labour, drugs use, alcohol abuse and family breakdown have increased, fuelling crime, especially violent crime."
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "Anyone would think Cherie Blair was not in Downing Street while violent crime doubled. Labour's record on gun and knife crime is appalling. Young people do not feel safe on our streets."