Page last updated at 17:00 GMT, Tuesday, 27 May 2008 18:00 UK

Is knife crime as common as we think?

By Chris Summers
BBC News

A spate of stabbing incidents have dominated the headlines in recent weeks. But what are the facts behind knife crime and which young people are in greatest danger?

See the Home Office's new anti-knife crime poster

"Tackling knife culture, especially among young people, is paramount to the safety of our communities, and I am determined to reduce the devastation caused by knife crime," then Home Secretary Charles Clarke said in the spring of 2006.

Since then there has been a knife amnesty, numerous government initiatives and photo opportunities, with ministers slamming home the same message - that knives will not be tolerated.

But still the deaths caused by knives go on.

The real picture

According to the British Crime Survey (BCS), overall violent crime has decreased by 41% since a peak in 1995.

A selection of knives found by police
The average age of homicide victims overall has been going down, with younger and younger victims
Richard Garside

Knives are used in about 8% of violent incidents, according to the BCS, a level that has largely remained the same during the past decade.

But the BCS figures do not include under-16s, something which the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announced this month would change.

Criminologist Kevin Stenson, from Middlesex University's Crime and Conflict Research Centre, said the politicians needed to do more to address the problems of those aged under 16 and added: "They are the people who fear being attacked with knives, they carry them because they are scared and for respect. It is about macho status."

But Ife Igunnubole, a youth worker in Hackney, London, said knives and guns brought a sense of power to youths who felt powerlessness.

He said: "There is a level of desperation on the streets, brought about by poverty, which is creating a culture of fear."

Mr Igunnubole, who runs mentoring and leadership projects, said tougher sentences and stop-and-search powers were all very well in the short term, but ultimately they were "just scratching the surface" and in the long term there was a need to address issues of poverty and materialism.

'Poorer most at risk'

Richard Garside, the director of the Centre of Crime and Justice Studies at Kings College London, said: "If you look at the figures for the last 10 years the number of knife victims has remained relatively stable - although there have been spikes - at 200 to 220 a year.

"But there is some evidence the demographic has changed. The average age of homicide victims overall has been going down, with younger and younger victims."

The falling age of victims is something that has been found with both knife and gun crime.

People give all sorts of reasons why they carry knives, including protecting themselves. But a knife is not a weapon of defence, it's a weapon of offence
Karyn McCluskey
Strathclyde Police

Mr Garside said: "Those living in poorer parts of town are inevitably most at risk. For many years the murder capital for knife crime has been Glasgow, but now we are seeing it as a major problem in Manchester and London and other cities."

One Scottish police officer told BBC News: "If you think you've got it bad down in London, you should take a look at Glasgow."

Scotland, and Glasgow in particular, has some frightening statistics when it comes to knife crime.

  • Last year there were 73 murders in the Strathclyde Police force area, 40 of which involved knives

  • Knife crime levels in Scotland are 3.5 times higher than in England or Wales

  • Scotland has a homicide rate of 5.3 per 100,000 in the 10-to-29 age group, which compares with one per 100,000 in England and Wales

    Scott Breslin
    Scott Breslin was paralysed from the neck down in a Glasgow knife attack
    Karyn McCluskey, head of Strathclyde's Violence Reduction Unit, said knife crime was endemic and dated back to the "razor gangs" of the 1920s.

    She said: "People give all sorts of reasons why they carry knives, including protecting themselves. But a knife is not a weapon of defence, it's a weapon of offence."

    Ms McCluskey said: "Much of it is to do with bravado. Machismo is a huge issue up here and the lack of role models too. We often get knives being used by grandfathers, fathers and sons.

    "Part of the problem is that they don't have the skills to walk away. If they're in a taxi queue and it's raining and they've been drinking, if someone looks at them in a funny way there will be a fight. It's as simple as that."

    She said some offenders mistakenly thought they could stab a rival in the buttocks without harm, but she added: "You can bleed to death if you hit a femoral artery. There is no safe place to stab anybody."

    Tougher sentences

    In the past few years politicians both north and south of the border have steadily increased the penalty for carrying knives, but Richard Garside said there was no evidence tougher sentences act as a deterrent.

    Beatriz Martins-Paes (left) and Charlotte Polius
    Beatriz Martins-Paes (left) is serving life for stabbing Charlotte Polius

    "Many of these youths say they are carrying a knife for their own protection, but if they are calculating to commit a serious offence they will not think about the prospect of getting caught," he said.

    No doubt 18-year-old Beatriz Martins-Paes was not thinking about tough sentences when she went out one night in April 2005 armed with a 4in (12cm) kitchen knife.

    She is now two years into a life sentence.

    The teenager plunged the knife into the chest of 15-year-old Charlotte Polius at a party in Ilford, east London, after over-reacting to a perceived slight.

    It is a shame courts are not televised, because the evidence of a Home Office pathologist would have been extremely educational viewing in schools.

    Charlotte's mother wept quietly as Dr Vesna Djurovic described how the blade entered the heart and cut through two major blood vessels, causing huge blood loss.

    When asked if the teenager could have been saved by paramedics, she said: "No, I don't think she had any chance of survival."

    But perhaps even more powerful for a class full of inner-city and streetwise youngsters would have been to witness Martins-Paes when she gave evidence.

    Girls pay their respects to Rob Knox
    Girls pay their respects to Rob Knox in Sidcup, Kent
    "I cannot explain it. It was all unreal. I did not believe it happened. It was just, like, shocking," she said.

    The weapon she used was a simple kitchen knife and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair, said on Tuesday: "The knives we are seeing are not nearly as often home-made constructed weapons, as weapons you would take from the kitchen drawer.

    "Parents have a duty now to be asking their teenagers: 'Are you involved in this knife carrying?'"

    It may be that the recent spate of knife deaths is simply a spike on a graph - a statistical quirk - but there is no doubt the carrying of knives and guns has not gone out of fashion.

    Whether this home secretary, or this government, can turn the tide remains to be seen.

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