When Sunderland recently played against Newcastle at the Stadium of Light, the families of two murdered teenagers walked onto the pitch. They wanted to bring attention to the impact of knife crime. The police and crime commissioner was also present and said that: “Regardless of these football rivalries, knife crime is everyone’s problem.”
According to a House of Commons Library report (Knife crime statistics, 13 October 2023) knife crime is associated with more than 50,000 offences and more than 200 deaths each year in England and Wales. Knife crime disproportionately affects boys and young men.
The Conservative MP James Daly has claimed that most children with problems, including those involved in knife crime, are the “products of crap parents”. His views are shared by a group of Tory MPs, some Tory councillors and some right-wing journalists. Behind these views is the concept of “small state”, according to which the state should do as little as possible, leaving individuals to take responsibility for their own lives.
What do we know about the causes of knife crime?
Knife crime is more common in urban areas and a number of contributing factors have been identified: social deprivation, low educational attainment, exclusion from mainstream education, adverse childhood experiences (including abuse, neglect, parental criminality, being taken into care), mental illness, drug addiction, as well as gang involvement. The College of Policing recognises these circumstances as contributing factors.
An All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) published a report on knife crime in 2019, which described the reasons why young people carry knives. Some carry knives with the purpose of committing a crime like theft or assault, but most carry knives because of a misconceived perception that knives are a protection, or because carrying knives has become the norm in their community.
The APPG met with young people who had either been convicted or had been victims of knife crime. These young people reported that schools were not always good at engaging with those starting to get involved with street gangs or low-level criminal activity. Being excluded from school resulted into more time spent getting into trouble.
The APPG concluded that mentoring and youth work can play a role in supporting young people at risk of involvement in violent crime. Unemployment and reductions in community police officers were thought to be detrimental, whilst custodial sentences were not perceived as effective in terms of rehabilitation.
Another interesting analysis comes from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and their study on homicide (Global Study on Homicide 2023). In the Americas the homicide rate is much higher, and firearms are more frequently used, whereas in Europe the homicide rate is lower, and knives are a more common weapon. Young men are most likely to be both the victims and the perpetrators, whereas women are disproportionately affected by homicidal violence in the home.
UNODC recommends investing in homicide prevention. Poverty and inequality are recognised causes, as well as organised crime and gangs. Firearms and knives regulations may need to be tightened. UNODC also emphasises the need to give young people the skills required for jobs and to provide better mental health care.
The Conservative have been in governments for 14 years and they have some responsibility for where we are with crime. The police, the justice system, the prisons and the probation service are all in crisis.
We cannot reduce crime if the communities do not trust the police or if the police and justice system do not have the resources to achieve high conviction rates. We also need a custodial system that rehabilitates rather than produce hardened criminals.
Not everybody has a stable family, some parents are not resilient or have mental health or drug/alcohol addiction. Blaming parents, though, does not help. What would help is funding for schemes like “Strengthening Families, Protecting Children” which aims at providing safe and stable family environments, so that fewer children need to be taken into care.
Those who attended the Sunderland-Newcastle derby, and expressed their support for the knife crime awareness campaign, know that both government action and community action is required.