Before COVID-19, another epidemic had been sweeping the U.K.: knife crime. The extent of this social disease was revealed last week, when the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced that 45,627 knife offences had been carried out in England and Wales in 2019. This was the highest annual number since records began. The figure is 7% higher than in 2018 – a record year in its own right. Perhaps one of the grimmest aspects of this latest development is how unsurprising it is. Reminders of the gruesome reality of British knife crime have become a regular feature of the national news cycle. With each new incident and statistic, the government, activists and experts claim lessons need to be learnt. Last week’s figures suggest that they still haven’t been. This all begs the question, how did things get so bad?
In March 2014, knife crime in the U.K. was at a historic low point. The ONS announced that 23,945 offences had been committed over the previous year, nearly half the 2019 total. This news led Archie Bland, of The Independent, to ask whether the ‘‘knife-crime epidemic’’ (that had seen 21 people stabbed in a single day in 2008) was finally over. His article now reads as bleak foreshadowing. Knife-related offences in England and Wales began rising again in 2015. The increase was gradual at first, but by 2017 the number per year had risen by 50%. However, the number of offences in Scotland continued to fall. In 2015, crimes north of the border involving offensive weapons had fallen to their lowest point in 31 years. Conviction rates for people under 19 carrying weapons had also decreased by 82% since 2006/7. These contrasting fortunes, and their causes, would become a hot button political issue over the coming years.
The Scottish Model vs the Rest of Britain
But why was the story in Scotland so different from the rest of Britain? One possible answer is Scotland’s policing policy. In 2005, 83 homicides were committed in Glasgow as the WHO labelled the city as the ‘‘murder capital of Europe.’’Scottish authorities responded to this violence by establishing the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU). The VRU was unique in that it treated knife crime as a public health issue rather than just a policing issue. Its aim was to prevent violence by tackling its social roots. The VRU worked with the NHS and social services to nurture those who were likely to join a gang: youths from poorer backgrounds and those who had been left behind by the education system. It introduced the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) scheme to schools to teach young people to be kind to other students. The VRU also worked with businesses to provide young people with jobs and other opportunities. This holistic ethos has governed the country’s response to the issue ever since with undeniably positive results.
The U.K.’s coalition government took a very different approach to curbing knife crime. Its main strategy was to clamp down on gangs. This meant introducing new laws against anti-social behaviour, injunctions against suspected gang members and harsher criminal sentencing. The government’s approach remained largely unchanged until 2018. In April that year, after repeated calls for the whole of the U.K. to adopt the VRU’s model, Theresa May’s government published a ‘Serious Violence Strategy’ that shifted the focus of knife crime policy to early intervention. It then announced plans in October 2018 to introduce a public health approach to violent crime, as Scotland had done 13 years earlier. This change of tack will take time to make a difference. Its focus on youth engagement means we will hopefully see benefits in the years to come. However, the continuing increase in knife offences suggests that other issues, beyond government strategy, are contributing to the current levels of violence.
A Social Problem?
Former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission Trevor Phillips has claimed that cultural issues have fuelled knife-related offences. Phillips has argued that this connection becomes clear when we look at the demographics of those involved. The victims and perpetrators of knife crime are disproportionately young BAME men in urban areas. According to the ONS, a third of knife offences in 2019 took place in London. 61.5% of these cases involved people under 24 and 25% of the victims were black. Phillips and his supporters, such as writer Mutaz Ahmed, see gang culture, certain types of music such as drill and grime, and the lack of assimilation in immigrant communities as the drivers behind these skewed figures. They claim that political correctness has left these problems go unchallenged at the expense of saving lives.
However, Phillips’ argument fails to adequately explain why knife crime has risen specifically within the last few years. The issues he has raised are not new. David Cameron declared an ‘‘all-out war’’ on gangs back in 2011. Drill and grime have been around since the start of the decade or earlier. So why the spike in cases since 2015? Blaming music for the corruption of youths is also a tried and overly simplistic trope. While many MCs have promoted gang-like behaviour, others including Drillminister and Akala have used their voice to urge young people to avoid violence. Where do artists like these fit into Phillips’ argument? It seems, therefore, that while the factors highlighted by Phillips should not be dismissed, they aren’t enough to account for changes in knife crime trends by themselves.
Or the Result of Underfunded Policing?
Another explanation of the current crisis is the lack of public investment in policing over the last decade. In an interview with the Financial Times, Cambridge criminology lecturer Peter Neyroud linked the rise of U.K. knife crime to government austerity. Between 2011 and 2018, 20% of the police budget was cut and 20,000 officers lost their job. Neyroud believed that the violence on Britain’s streets showed that the government’s ‘‘chickens [were] coming home to roost.’’ Theresa May dismissed this suggestion in 2019 and denied any association between police cuts and knife crime. However, leaked reports from her own government stated that decreasing police numbers have ‘likely contributed’ to the rise in violent crime.
Upon coming to power, the actions of Boris Johnson’s administration clearly indicated that it accepts austerity’s role in the crisis. It promised to pump another £1.1 billion and put another 20,000 police officers the street. Recently it also announced plans to recruit a further 6,000 officers. Nevertheless, John Apter, the chair of the Police Federation, believes these measures are still not enough. Quoted in the Mail, Apter lamented that the number of policemen and their funding is still barely above 2008 levels. It seems that state officials and experts finally agree that a lack of public investment has contributed to the escalation of knife crime. It is now up to the government to match this realization with investment that goes beyond just undoing the harm caused by austerity.
A Potential Way Forward
Finding a definitive cause of the U.K.’s knife crime epidemic is immensely complicated. Finding a solution is even more so. Adopting the VRU’s model is an encouraging starting point, but its effects will only be seen in the long-term. In the meantime, more victims of violence are dying year on year, especially young people in urban areas. Addressing the cultural issues that likely play into violence amongst this demographic may help turn them away from crime. However, these youths are not responsible for all of the U.K.’s knife crime, nor do cultural factors explain why cases have skyrocketed in the last 5 years. Increasing the number of police might also make a difference. The state has made a positive decision in stepping up police funding, but far more will be needed. These issues all appear to feed into our current crisis. Only with a coherent and extensive government response that addresses them all might we finally see some light at the end of the tunnel.