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Now it's the age of the knife

In the past 10 years, the number of under-18s found guilty of carrying knives has doubled. Today, one in six of all British murders will result in the arrest or conviction of a teenager

Andrew Johnson,Ian Griggs,Brian Brady
Sunday 03 February 2008 01:00 GMT

One in six murders committed in Britain in 2007 has resulted in the conviction or arrest of a teenager, research by The Independent on Sunday reveals. The figures, gathered by a poll of every police authority in the country, come as statistics from the Ministry of Justice indicate an alarming rise in the number of young people carrying knives, leading to accusations that the Labour government has failed an entire generation.

The number of teenagers under 18 convicted of carrying knives has more than doubled in the past 10 years from 482 in 1997 to 1,256 in 2006. The number of convictions for adults rose from 2,878 to 5,058 during the same period.

The increase in knife crime among young people – one in five teenagers admits carrying a knife – was illustrated on Friday when a 14-year-old boy was stabbed in the chest in a school in Leeds. A 13-year-old was arrested.

Last week also saw the controversy over stop and search laws reignited, with Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, suggesting that police may get powers to stop and search individuals without giving a reason. A report on the issue of police bureaucracy is to be published this week. Tory leader David Cameron also backs the increased stop and search powers.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is reportedly preparing to announce that airport-style metal detectors will be installed in some secondary schools, in an attempt to clamp down on knife crime. So far this year five teenagers have died from knife attacks and five more have been seriously injured.

The government figures also reveal an alarming trend in the numbers of people convicted of carrying other offensive weapons, including hammers, flick-knives and sharpened screwdrivers.

The number of adults successfully prosecuted for carrying offensive weapons rose from 8,554 to 11,845 in the decade to 2006. But the toll of under-18s convicted of the same offence more than doubled, from 1,427 to 2,916.

The human cost is clear from hospital statistics for England that show a 56 per cent rise in assaults with a sharp object since 1998 to 5,720 incidents last year.

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, claimed the figures presented a stark insight into the Government's failings on criminal justice. "This shows how Labour's failure to tackle crime and its causes is betraying a whole generation," he said. "It also shows why David Cameron is right to say that the solutions to our broken society lie in the home and the classroom."

Professor David Wilson, a criminologist at Birmingham City University, has interviewed young people in several UK cities, asking why they carry knives. He attributed rising youth knife crime to a failure by the adult world to take seriously young people's fear of attack, which led to them carrying knives for protection, and to a vicious circle of violence. "More young people are carrying knives than ever," he said, "and they will use them more frequently than when fewer people carried them."

Ellis McNorthey-Gibbs, 18, a theatre studies student and a Victim Support volunteer, was mugged at knife-point after school when he was 16. "I walked a different way home to get to the train station with a friend and his brother, and we were surrounded by a gang. The people behind us had knives and the people in front told us to hand our stuff over. Young people carry knives for social status, although... some say it is for their protection. [They] join gangs because of safety in numbers – I think it is that same lack of confidence which makes them carry knives."

Alf Hitchcock, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and knife-crime spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers, said recent research revealed a fifth of teenagers admit to carrying a knife. "We have no idea if they are telling the truth," he said. "It used to be the 17- to 21-year-olds now we're having more cases of 15- and 16-year-olds and younger."

But, he added, knives accounted for only 1.5 per cent of all crime. Stop and search needed the support of the community, and the use of metal detectors in schools needed to be targeted, and for a limited period.

A Home Office spokesperson said: "The increase of those convicted of carrying knives or other offensive weapons illegally shows that the police service and courts are taking appropriate action... to tackle knife crime.

"The risk of being a victim of crime remains historically low, but we recognise that young people, particularly, are fearful of becoming victims and some are carrying weapons. We will shortly publish our Tackling Violence Action Plan which will address these issues in detail."

Additional reportingby Jane Wild

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