Page last updated at 14:53 GMT, Friday, 11 July 2008 15:53 UK

Is knife crime really increasing?

By Tom Warren
BBC News

Collection of knives

After another four men are stabbed to death in London, are we right to worry that knife crime is becoming an epidemic?

It is the scourge of our cities, according to many observers, with each day seeming to bring a new fatal attack.

Twenty teenagers have now died violently in London since the start of the year, including some at the hands of guns and other weapons.

Outside of London, a man was found with fatal stab wounds in West Bromwich, in the Black Country, on Thursday.

There was another death in Nottingham, where the victim had suffered multiple wounds.

It might seem at first glance that none of the UK's major cities are safe from the phenomenon, as politicians queue up to condemn the crimes and promise tougher measures against those who wield blades.

We do have a very specific problem today and a problem we should be seriously worried about.
Prof Doug Sharp, criminologist

But are we right to worry that things are worse than ever?

Knife-wielding gangs have a long history in the UK.

In the 1950s Teddy Boys, the original teen rebels, were notorious for their use of flick knives and switchblades.

Originating from deprived areas of London, their use of ruthless violence and blend of Edwardian clothes supposedly inspired the costumes for the 1971 film of Anthony Burgess's novel, A Clockwork Orange.

'Problem for years'

For a short period during the 1960s Mods and Rockers represented a sharp split in British youth culture and the two groups infamously clashed at resort towns on the south coast, inspiring the film Quadrophenia.

During the 1970s and 80s football hooligans engaged in running street battles and mass brawls on the terraces, often using weapons.

Only last year, gun crime was seen as the biggest problem facing some parts of UK cities, with incidents such as the shooting of 11-year-old Rhys Jones causing outrage. Now it is knifings that are making the headlines.

Doug Sharp, professor of criminal justice at Birmingham City University, said knives had been a problem for many years in cities such as Glasgow.

He said it was hard to know if things really were worse today.

"It's very difficult to say in terms of absolute numbers, because it's only very recently that we've started to keep statistics that are specific on knife-related violence.

Jacqui Smith
The Home Secretary has vowed to change how crimes are recorded

"Previously the weapon would only have featured in the charge.

"What we do know is that in the Metropolitan area [London] recorded incidents of knife crime are lower this year than at the same point last year.

"In terms of the prevalence of knife crime, we do know anecdotally and from research in respect of young people and gangs in certain parts of the UK, knives have been a problem for many, many years.

"The use of knives and their use by violent men goes back to the turn of the 20th Century."

Violence decreased

Prof Sharp said many current problems related to the fact that more young people were carrying weapons.

"We do have a very specific problem today and a problem we should be seriously worried about.

"Research that I and some others have done show that knives are being carried more by young people.

"It's more likely that young people, who are faced with a situation when threatened, are likely to draw their knife."

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

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.

Fear of crime

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

BBC Home Editor Mark Easton said that in Manchester and Liverpool, according to hospital figures, gunshot wounds were a bigger problem than stabbings.

He said no child in the whole of south-east of England - outside London - was treated for stab wounds in hospital last year, and juvenile violence seemed to be a predominantly urban problem.

Roger Grimshaw, research director at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, said homicides were now being reported for the first time by the media in "real-time".

"One of the difficulties we are having in interpreting what's happening is the alarm that appears to be focused on this instrument itself [knives] instead of looking at the causes and locations of the violence.

"Young people in poor areas and who have been victimised tend to carry knives more often - it's about a fear of what might happen."

Prof Sharp said 20 years ago people in Birmingham, Manchester or Liverpool would not have found about about knife crimes in London - and vice versa.

"News took longer to get into the public domain and tended to have different focus," he said.

Brown pledges anti-knife measures
09 Jul 08 |  UK Politics
Jail knife carriers, says Cameron
07 Jul 08 |  UK Politics

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