Page last updated at 10:50 GMT, Monday, 29 December 2008

Five stab deaths a week - Tories

Tory shadow minister James Brokenshire on the significance of the statistics

Fatal stabbings in England and Wales have risen to their highest level in three decades, say the Conservatives.

They say police figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show 277 stabbing deaths in 2007-8.

If confirmed they would be the highest since records began in 1977. Ministers say overall violent crime is falling.

The government is announcing plans to make unemployed people caught carrying knives do at least 18 hours' community work a week and face curfews.

The Conservatives obtained the crime figures from all police forces in England and Wales, except Bedfordshire.

Broken bottles

They showed stabbing murders in London rose by a quarter, up from 68 in 2006-7 to 86 last year.

In both West Yorkshire and Northumbria fatal stabbings rose from 10 to 15 and in Lancashire deaths more than trebled from four in 2006-7 to 13 last year, according to the statistics.

It is understood the figures may change before their official release in the new year if the police or the courts decide some homicides should be reclassified.

I think this information is very disturbing because it's at an all-time high in terms of the people who have lost their lives
James Brokenshire
Shadow home affairs minister

The Home Office said the data used by the Tories might overstate the problem of knife crime as the figures related to sharp instruments, which could include broken bottles.

They also pointed out overall violent crime had fallen by a third in the past decade.

Shadow home affairs minister James Brokenshire told BBC Radio Five Live: "When you consider that, on these figures, 277 people lost their lives through stabbing incidents - I don't think you can really consider it as a minor event."

Community sentences

He added: "I think this information is very disturbing because it's at an all time high in terms of the people who have lost their lives and certainly with the government trying to rush out information just a few weeks ago. I think it perhaps put that into context."

Earlier this month Home Secretary Jacqui Smith apologised for using unofficial statistics to suggest the number of hospital admissions with stab wounds had dropped significantly.

BBC political correspondent Iain Watson said the government wanted to get on the front foot politically, on knife crime.

The government is announcing that from 5 January courts will be given the power to hand out tougher community sentences for possession of a knife.

It says that while jail would sometimes be the best option, it wanted tougher and more effective community-based sentences for those who were not jailed.

Justice minister Bridget Prentice told the BBC the new measures were aimed at unemployed people who were convicted of carrying a knife.

"They will be expected to do at least 18 hours of work a week - that's the equivalent of three days," she said.

"They will also possibly be subject to a curfew, they will also be expected to attend appointments with their probation officer and they may also be expected to go on a programme that will divert them from the idea of carrying knives."

She said the point was to give courts a variety of options to decide which was the most appropriate. But the Conservatives say there should be an automatic presumption of a jail sentence for those who carry sharp weapons.

Mr Brokenshire said only "tough messages" would stop people carrying knives in public.

Government measures already introduced to tackle knife crime include doubling the maximum sentence for possessing an illegal knife to four years, increasing the use of "stop and search" tactics and raising the age at which you can be sold a knife to 18.

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