In 2019, there were 43,516 knife crime offences in England and Wales. This was an 80% increase from the low-point in the year ending March 2014, when there were 23,945 offences, and is the highest number since comparable data was compiled. A similar pattern can also be detected in the number of knife-related homicides, with 272 in 2007 falling to 186 in 2015, but rising every year since with a steep increase in 2017-18 when there were 285 killings, the highest figure since 1946. These figures are backed up by the NHS which has seen 8% increases in admissions for assault by a sharp object in the last year. Of further concern for policymakers, is that evidence suggests that victims are getting younger, with an increasing number of girls involved. Furthermore, one in four victims in 2017-18 were men aged 18-24, while 25% of victims were black – the highest proportion since data was first collected in 1997.
Since the publication of their Serious Violence Strategy in April 2018, Conservative Governments have been trying to tackle knife crime by investing in law enforcement and ‘evidence-based early interventions.’ While it arguably seeks to put a greater emphasis on “robust” law enforcement, there has been increased funding for projects that aim to divert young people away from crime. With inspiration coming from Scotland, which established a public health approach to violent crime in the mid-2000s, the government has invested £200 million over ten-years to the Youth Endowment Fund. The Fund provides direct funding to individual early-intervention projects with the aim of catching young people before they go down the wrong path and encouraging them to make positive choices.
While there has been growing cross-party consensus supporting early intervention projects and treating knife crime as a public health problem, the Home Affairs Select Committee argued that the government is unclear as to what “sustained and coherent preventative measures” look like and that its “lack of understanding of the reality on the ground” has resulted in a “failure to get a grip on this problem at the national level”.
Since July 2017, the Home Office and the National Police Chiefs Council have been running ‘weeks of action’ to prevent knife crime, called Operation Sceptre. Although Operation Sceptre has not been entirely about stop and search, it has been a key component. The Home Office has been encouraging forces to use stop and search powers more frequently in their day-to-day operations. Between March and July 2019, it slowly repealed strict guidance restricting ‘no suspicion’ stop and search powers introduced when Theresa May was Home Secretary in 2014. With more freedom and encouragement to use stop and search powers, the number of searchers increased for the first time since 2009/10 in 2018/19, though it is still much lower than at the beginning of the decade.
Senior police officers have linked stop and search to recent reductions in knife crime. However, the effectiveness of the power is not clear. Home Office statistics show that most searches (around 60% in 2018/19) were conducted to find drugs rather than offensive weapons like knives. When officers did search for offensive weapons, they didn’t always find what they were looking for. Only around one in 10 of these searches resulted in an outcome linked to the reason for the search. Long-term studies, including one of Metropolitan Police data, show that stop and search has only a marginal impact on crime reduction.
In reflection of the Serious Violence Strategy, increased funding for the Youth Endowment Fund, greater use of Stop and Search and Operation Sceptre, this symposium offers an invaluable opportunity for practitioners across the police service, education, health and third sector to examine the Government’s latest strategies to tackle serious youth crime, share best practice and consider the next steps in confronting gang culture in order to significantly reduce the level of violence on our streets. Delegates will also explore how to implement a coordinated early intervention approach to identify those most vulnerable; divert young people away from crime and build more positive futures.