Article16 December 2004

Knife culture? Cut the crap
There is little evidence for a 'rising tide of knife crime' in Britain.

by Brendan O'Neill

Is Britain in the grip of a 'knife culture'? According to the Home Office, the Department for Education and Skills, the Association of Chief Police Officers and just about every front page of every newspaper, it is.

The police speak of a rising tide of knife crime, where everyone from misguided schoolkids to inner-city hoods are apparently arming themselves with flick knives, pen knives, machetes and swords. The last thing David Blunkett did before stepping down as home secretary was to propose new measures to 'tackle knife crime', including banning under-18s from buying them and allowing headteachers to frisk pupils for anything with a sharp edge (in the event, however, Blunkett failed to turn up to yesterday's launch of the 'fight against knives', instead leaving it to his junior Home Office minister Caroline Flint). In effect, as one report put it, the government has decided to 'wage war on knives' (1).

It started with dire warnings from the cops. In November, London's Metropolitan Police expressed 'fears' about a worsening knife problem in the capital (2). The Met had already unveiled Operation Blunt, a campaign against the menace of knives, which included trialling a metal detector at Hammersmith bus station in west London in an attempt to catch out knife-carriers. Also in November, following claims that more children are bringing knives into school, then education secretary (now new home secretary) Charles Clarke said airport-style X-ray machines might be introduced in schools too, if he thought it was 'the only way to tackle knife-carrying' (3).

In December, the relatives of stabbing victims - including the parents of 14-year-old schoolboy Luke Walmsley, who was murdered in a school corridor in January 2003 - launched a campaign called 'Knives Destroy Lives'. They called on the government to introduce a five-year minimum jail term for carrying an object with a blade longer than three inches, and a six-month minimum jail term for carrying a blade shorter than three inches. They also warned, according to the Independent, that there could be 'civil unrest' if the government didn't do more to tackle the problem of knives (4).

It didn't take the government long to get involved. Blunkett announced a raft of proposals to tackle knife crime (even though he admits that 'the number of incidents involving knives remains low, [but] I share the concern of the public about this issue'). The Metropolitan Police and others are organising a conference to cast a 'Spotlight on Knife Culture in the UK', because 'the time has undoubtedly come for the government, law enforcement agencies, schools and social services throughout the UK to come together and formulate strategies to reduce knife violence and prevent further tragedies from occurring.' (5)

Eventually even prime minister Tony Blair expressed concern about Britain's 'knife problem', telling ITV1's This Morning that: 'You now get a mandatory five-year sentence if you carry a gun. And I think some of these people are switching to knives, which is why we are now looking at how do you make that tougher.' (6)

What's going on? How did knives become the biggest issue in British politics? There have been various knife panics over the past 10 years - but now, in the space of six weeks, knives seem to have been fully transformed from everyday objects that we use at home and work into evil things, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake and potentially threatening civil unrest. Yet the evidence for a 'rising tide' of knife crime is thin indeed. The anti-knife campaign, it seems, has little to do with fighting crime, and much more to do with launching a moral crusade against something, anything, that can make the authorities feel useful and perhaps even a little virtuous.

When it comes to the facts and stats of knife crime, the authorities can't seem to keep their story straight. The furore over the so-called knife culture was triggered by London's Metropolitan Police at the end of November. The London Evening Standard reported the police's concerns about the knife culture 'spreading in London', claiming that '361 incidents involving knives' are recorded every week in the city, representing a rise of 13 per cent from last year (7).

Yet a Met spokesperson tells me that, 'There has been little fluctuation in the number of offences involving knives over the past three years'. In the year April 2001 to March 2002, there were 18,854 offences involving knives in London, accounting for 1.78 per cent of all reported crime. From April 2002 to March 2003, there were 19,107 offences involving knives, 1.77 per cent of all reported crime. The latest figures, covering the 10 months from April 2003 to January 2004, show that there were 17,362 offences involving knives, 1.96 per cent of reported crime.

So where did that claim in November come from, of 361 knife offences taking place every week in London representing a 13 per cent rise on last year? 'I don't know where it's from', says the spokesperson. If one does the sums, it seems that, if there are 361 offences involving a knife in London each week, that is actually little different from previous years. The 2001/2002 figure of 18,854 offences involving knives works out at 362 offences a week; the 2002/2003 figure of 19,107 translates into 367 a week. So 361 seems fairly ordinary, rather than evidence of a 'spreading knife culture', or even a 13 per cent rise.

What's more, the Met's category of knife offences apparently covers everything from cars being scratched with a knife to assault and murder with a knife. Even more strikingly, for all the headlines and handwringing about knife-assisted robberies and murders, it turns out that a 'knife offence' does not necessarily involve the use of a knife. According to the Met spokesperson, the Met's stats on knife crime include 'all offences where a knife has featured in some way'. 'Many of the offences…do not involve the actual use of a knife. [It] includes offences where a knife has been discovered by police during the investigation of another offence - for example, a knife discovered on a person arrested for shoplifting'. So stealing from a shop can become a 'knife crime' if the shoplifter had a knife somewhere on his person but didn't use it.

Is a breakdown of these 'knife' offences available, to show how many are minor, how many are major, and how many involved the 'actual use of a knife'? Apparently not. We do know, however, that of the 18,854 knife offences in London in 2001/2002, 70 were homicides, and of the 19,107 knife offences in 2002/2003, 67 were homicides. In both years, the other 18,000-odd offences cover everything from car-scratching to threatening behaviour to assault to offences not actually involving the use of a knife but where a knife was later discovered.

The Home Office, which compiles crime stats for all of Britain, not just London, likewise seems to make conflicting statements. In the year 2002/2003, a total of 1,007 homicides were recorded across all of the UK (this is higher than most years because the 172 victims of Dr Harold Shipman, Britain's first serial killer GP, were added, although they were murdered at various times over the past 20 years). In November 2004, according to one report, Home Office minister Hazel Blears claimed that of these 1,007 victims, 272 were killed in knife attacks. But a Home Office spokesman tells me it is misleading to refer to these as knife murders; they are categorised under 'homicide by a sharp instrument', which includes not just knives but 'broken bottles and glasses'. Perhaps the government should consider banning bottles as well as blades.

In a population of 60million, 272 killings with a sharp instrument a year seems a fairly low figure. Of course we'd all like it to be lower still, but will metal detectors in bus stations, more stop-and-search laws and the regular frisking of schoolkids do anything to tackle knife killings? Those suggesting such measures overlook one fact: at least as many murders, and usually more, take place in domestic settings as they do on dodgy street corners.

Of the 1,007 murders by all methods in the UK in 2002/2003, 410 took place in a domestic setting, between family members, friends or acquaintances, compared with 414 listed as 'stranger' murders - and it should be remembered that in 2002/2003, the stranger category included, as usual, murders where the relationship between the perpetrator and victim was unknown and, unusually, Shipman's 172 victims, where the relationship was classified as a 'commercial, business or professional relationship, where the suspect killed a customer or client in the course of carrying out their occupation', which also falls under the 'stranger' heading. In most years, there are more family or acquaintance murders than stranger murders (8).

And according to one Home Office report, which analyses the Scottish experience, around 60 per cent of murders with a sharp instrument take place indoors, usually in a domestic setting. The logical conclusion, then, if restricting access to knives is seriously seen as a means of reducing the murder rate, is to make all of us empty out our kitchen draws and ban knives from the home.

In other parts of Britain, the apparent rise in knife crime is itself the result of the authorities' obsession with knives. At the end of November the Scotsman reported that 'Knife crime soars by 50 per cent in four years'. The paper said: 'The number of people caught carrying knives and other deadly weapons in Edinburgh has risen by 50 per cent, shocking new figures today revealed…. A total of 430 crimes involving possession of weapons were recorded last year, compared to 283 in 1999 - an increase of 51.9 per cent' (9).

But there seems a simple explanation for this: Scottish police have prioritised searching the general public for knives, above just about anything else. As a spokesman for Lothian and Borders Police said, the 50 per cent rise is the result of the police being more 'proactive'; for example, they have 'extensively used stop-and-search powers' on the streets of Edinburgh and elsewhere in their war on knives (10). They went looking for knives, and they found them. Surely, this is less evidence of 'soaring knife crime' than of a soaring obsession with knife crime. It also suggests that talk of a knife culture can become a self-fulfilling prophecy - the more knives are seen as a great evil, the more the police look for them, and the more the police find them, the more we are told we face a great evil. We will no doubt see a similar effect in London when the Met rolls out Operation Blunt to cover all boroughs.

What of the claims that more schoolchildren are carrying knives? Here, too, reports have been heavy on hysteria and light on evidence. Media reports have quoted from two surveys - last year's Youth Survey 2003, conducted by the polling company Mori for the Youth Justice Board, and this year's Youth Survey 2004, again conducted by Mori for the Youth Justice Board. Both surveys have been quoted out of context to paint an unrealistic picture of flick knife-wielding schoolkids.

The first thing to note is that the Youth Survey is just that - a survey of young people's experiences, where around 5,000 school pupils aged between 11 and 16 self-complete questionnaires on their experiences and perceptions of crime. So it needs to be read with the usual rider that young teenagers, for various reasons, don't always tell the whole truth and nothing but.

Despite the fact that the Youth Survey 2004 was published in July, some have chosen to quote from last year's survey - perhaps because its figures for the number of schoolchildren who claim to have carried a weapon appear that bit higher. The London Evening Standard reported that, 'A Mori survey last year found that 29 per cent of secondary schoolchildren admitted having carried a knife' (11). Guardian columnist David Aaronovitch repeated these claims on 13 December, writing that 'in a Mori survey for the Youth Justice Board, 29 per cent of 11- to 16-year-old school pupils admitted to having carried a knife - a figure that rose to 62 per cent of pupils excluded from school' (12).

In fact, that part of the 2003 survey is not of secondary schoolchildren in general but of secondary schoolchildren who claim to have committed an offence. The survey interviewed a total of 5,549 school-attending and excluded pupils, 1,692 of whom claimed to have committed an offence. And of these 1,692, when asked 'What offences have you committed in the last year?', 29 per cent of school-attending pupils and 62 per cent of excluded pupils said 'carried a knife'. Yet this response of a sample of schoolkids who claim to have committed an offence has been transformed by some into a snapshot of the knife-carrying habits of all schoolkids everywhere.

The reporting of this year's Youth Survey has been equally dubious. The Daily Mirror claimed that 'a Mori poll has revealed that 28 per cent of 11- to 16-year-olds carry knives'; the paper claimed that some 'arm themselves with penknives' while others 'admitted they had flick knives' (13). Yet one of the Mori pollsters who was involved in checking and signing off this year's Youth Survey for the Youth Justice Board tells me that the press coverage has been 'massively misleading'.

In a section titled 'Possession of potential weapons' (note the use of the word 'potential'), it is true that 28 per cent of young people in schools said they had carried some kind of knife 'in the last year'. But 25 per cent of these young people said they had carried a penknife, a fairly harmless device which has been beloved of schoolboys in particular for generations. The Mori pollster tells me the figures have been 'dramatically taken out of context': 'It doesn't mean they are walking around with a knife everyday, it might only have been once. And the vast majority are penknives! They might be going whittling for all we know.' As the Youth Survey itself stated, in a passage that funnily enough was not quoted amidst all the claims of school pupils 'arming' themselves with penknives: '[I]t should be noted that a large proportion of the knives being carried by young people…are penknives, which are, of course, used for a wide variety of innocent purposes.' (14)

Knife culture? What knife culture? The Met can't seem to make its mind up over whether there has been 'no fluctuation' in knife crime in the past three years, or a steep rise. Scottish and other police forces are finding more knives largely because they have made it their job to find more knives. And while there may be isolated incidents of violence, schoolchildren are not, whatever the headlines might say, turning up to class armed with machetes and bad intentions.

Today's anti-knife frenzy is bizarre. Ask yourself - why knives? Why not fists and feet, which have been known to cause serious injury and even murder if used inappropriately (in 2002/2003, 160 people were murdered through 'Hitting, kicking, etc')? Why not 'blunt objects', which were used in 47 murders in 2002/2003? Why not newspapers, which as every football hooligan knows can be folded up to form the 'Millwall brick', hard-edged enough to smash anybody's face in? Or ropes and scarves (there were 68 murders by strangulation in 2002/2003)?

There is little logic to the war on knives, because it has little to do with knives themselves. Rather, this looks like another attempt by the authorities to attach themselves to a cause in a desperate bid to appear caring and right-minded. In the absence of any political vision, or much of a political programme, the government is a sucker for moral crusades, where everything can be reduced to a simple clash between good (those who express concern about knives) and evil (knives). That's one reason why the campaign snowballed so quickly, from the Met's comments in November to the launch of the victims' families campaign in December to Blunkett, Blair and Clarke getting involved; government officials always on the lookout for seemingly simple moral issues were not about to let a campaign against evil knives pass them by.

And if it meant putting a dagger in the heart of rational debate about crime and society, so be it.

(1) First we need to find the knives, David Aaronovitch, Guardian, 14 December 2004

(2) Met fears growing 'knife culture', London Evening Standard, 30 November 2004

(3) School X-ray checks possible, BBC News, 21 November 2004

(4) Knives as deadly as guns, say stab victims' families, Independent, 13 December 2004

(5) Addressing Knives and Violence, Capita conference, January 2005

(6) Blair talks tough on crime, Guardian, 14 December 2004

(7) Met fears growing 'knife culture', London Evening Standard, 30 November 2004

(8) Crime in England and Wales, Home Office, 2004

(9) Knife crime soars by 50 per cent in four years, Scotsman, 19 November 2004

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