Living on a Knife Edge - What are the root causes behind the national spike in knife crime?
Living on a Knife Edge - What are the root causes behind the national spike in knife crime?

What are the root causes behind the national spike in knife crime?

A CLP member looks closely at the evidence and points the way towards long-term solutions.


THE recent murders of Jodie Chesney and Yousef Makki once again brought our attention back to the scourge of knife crime among Britain’s youth.

I recently attended a debate on knife crime, drugs and gang-related violence. It covered the ground you would expect, focusing on what motivates young people to join gangs (feelings of security, power and excitement) and a prolonged discussion about the social aspects of drugs, whether they should be legalised/decriminalised, and to what extent.

At one point, I decided to raise ‘the elephant in the room’ – unspoken but ever-present through the night’s discussion – austerity. There was a momentary pause, some shuffling of feet and eyes fixed on the ground.

I’d moved our conversation into the party-political arena – and no-one wanted to go there.

But we must. The national debate on knife crime has focused primarily on police cuts and judicial solutions. There has been nowhere near enough discussion on how an environment ripe for the rapid increase in violent crime has been created.

While young people continue to die in knife attacks, we should be addressing every element of this crisis. Even though the attacks on Chesney and Makki were not linked to the ‘county lines’ drugs trade or to other criminal activities, we could – and should – be having a national debate on the decriminalisation and even the legalisation of drugs, citing the successes of Portugal in this field.

Decriminalisation would certainly undermine the criminal gangs who thrive on this trade. But this, in itself, will not be a solution. Focussing all our attention on national drugs policy will inevitably obscure other pressing factors that are feeding into and fuelling the current crisis. We need to consider the context in which, in today’s society, our young people are being driven to carry knives.

The violence of austerity

Austerity has ripped the heart out of publicly-funded services, negatively affecting the lives of young people. As of 2016, youth services had already suffered drastic cuts, to the tune of £387 million, while there has been a 13% reduction in sixth-form education in real terms between 2013-14 and 2017-18.

Childcare systems have been decimated, with the NSPCC reporting in November 2018 that approximately 150 children were being turned away from child and adolescent mental health services each day.

Schools are under greater pressure than ever to achieve higher grades in order to move up league tables and secure higher funding. According to research by the Royal Society of Arts there is a spike in admissions to Local Education Authority (LEA) Pupil Referral Units (PRU) in the autumn term of Year 11 – months before pupils complete their GCSEs. Moving students with lower academic expectations into referral units helps to ‘massage’ the figures and improve the school’s funding prospects.

Students eligible for free school meals, with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND), or from certain ethnic minority groups, are the most likely to be excluded.

The lack of investment in Pupil Referral Units is itself a concerning development. They are increasingly overwhelmed by the levels of exclusion and in some areas may only be able to offer part-time education. There is also evidence to suggest that grouping excluded children together in understaffed and inadequately resourced PRU’s pushes them further down the road towards crime.

The cuts to schools have created a situation in which some head teachers have been forced into serving school lunches themselves in the absence of paid auxiliary staff, and to enforce early school closures on Friday afternoons because they no longer have the money needed to pay their teachers for a full week’s work.

Schools have also seen the loss of vital Special Needs and Disability services and counseling staff. These incremental cuts to staffing levels mean increased class sizes and pupils not receiving the support and attention they require.

Close to Home

Gloucestershire has not escaped the force of austerity, with the county’s secondary schools now languishing towards the bottom of the school funding league tables, ranked 130th out of 149 on block funding, receiving on average £4,886 per pupil. The English average is £5,229.

Add to this picture a special needs crisis in Gloucestershire, with the number of children who require special education, health or care plans in the county almost doubling over the past four years, leading to overspend on Special Needs and Disability, which is set to reach £4.7 million.

Gloucestershire County Council has reduced financial support for individual children with SEND, forcing schools to pick up the financial burden, sucking up general funds and resulting in these schools’ inability to meet even the basic needs of their pupils.

Even when young people leave the compulsory education system and make plans to continue their studies, they are faced with roadblocks. The abolition of the £30-a-week education maintenance allowance hits young people from working-class backgrounds the hardest.

Children who are excluded from school are instantly vulnerable to gang recruitment, but for those at risk who are still in full-time education there are clearly issues beyond the school gates.

System failure

In the years of austerity there has been a concerted erosion, and finally a complete collapse in those elements of social provision that once provided security and structure for young people outside of school hours.

The dismantling of the welfare state, the failure of wages to keep up with the cost of living and the rise of the gig economy with its unreliability – all these result in parents working longer hours, rising early in the morning and returning late at night, often having to hold down more than one job to make ends meet.

And they don’t always meet. There are currently over 79,000 homeless families in England. This doesn’t mean they are all on the streets – many are forced into staying with friends or family, or to live in hostels, refuges or B&Bs due to the ever-rising cost of rental accommodation.

London is the epicenter of the housing crisis. Between 2011 and 2017 average rents have leapt up by as much as 42% in boroughs such as in Barking and Dagenham where wages have only increased by 2% over the same period. Deposits for private accommodation are impossible to save, with an average of £1,750 required in the capital city. Overcrowded and chaotic households do not create an environment in which adolescents can thrive, denying children the space to think, to be creative and, importantly, to study.

Closed door policy

There used to be places where children could go to find this quiet and security. Over 130 Libraries were shut down in 2018 alone, forced to close their doors following the loss of more than £30m in funding from local authorities.

Youth clubs used to be central in providing a secure location for young people struggling to cope with unstable home lives. They could meet there and spend time with their peers. They could use the in-house facilities for creative projects. They could study or talk with professionals who were on hand to offer support and advice. But as with all other forms of provision, English councils have savaged their spending on youth services since 2010.

We know that 760 youth clubs across the country have closed in the past seven years, with 4,500 youth workers’ jobs lost over this period. As a result, these neutral zones have effectively vanished.

Youth centres could be an important factor in the fight against knife crime, deploying ‘zero tolerance’ towards the carrying of weapons. Outreach workers – now sacked for lack of funding – were often from similar backgrounds to the young people they worked with and could provide invaluable advice and direction.

Children are now left to their own devices. As Clan Brent, a youth club worker who has watched this process unfold says: “You take away those places where people can touch base with someone else, you are just leaving them to work it out for themselves with all of the pressures they have on them.”

Gangs on the rise

The problems across education, youth services and the welfare state have provided opportunities for criminal gangs to target vulnerable individuals. Children from impoverished backgrounds or broken families, excluded from school or involved with social services, offer prized targets for gang leaders, particularly those involved in the county lines drugs trade.

Gangs may appear to offer a sense of identity and camaraderie, the promise of excitement, safety and money. If children are not members of a gang, the threat from other gangs in their locality may also lead them into joining one that promises security.

Data released by Thames Valley Police identified a 51% rise in drug trafficking in the area in two years. Local police services have been unable to evolve to meet this new threat, particularly as gangs from London spread beyond the remit of the Met, bringing with them new organization and methods unfamiliar to provincial services.

Retreat from policing

The ability of our police force to counter this new threat has been harshly restricted by the reductions in officer numbers since austerity began. Since 2010 there has been a fall of over 14% in real terms to police budgets.

In London the safer neighbourhood teams that spent their time learning local streets and key personalities have been lost. Once playing a role in child protection, they are now unable to identify children potentially at risk whilst also providing a presence that would keep them safe.

Police officers were a familiar fixture in and around schools in the not-so-distant past; this has all but ended. At the same time there has been an increase in drug-related incidents within schools.

There have been calls to reinstate stop-and-search to levels seen under the last Labour Government, but this alone will not be a solution. It requires officers on the ground to work with the local community to ensure that stop-and-search is targeted, intelligence-led and respectful. The number of police officers required to do so just isn’t there.

This view was reinforced recently by police chiefs in Scotland, who acknowledged that stop-and-search in its rawest form produced only a 2% success rate in terms of convictions for carrying knives.

The Scottish example

But Scotland has led the way for the rest of the UK, showing us that it is possible to tackle knife crime through a strategy that does more than rely solely on increased police presence.

In 2005 Scotland was the most violent country in the developed world. In order to find a solution to violent crime in its major cities the publicly-funded Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) was set up to use a public health approach in solving the problem, rather than a strictly police-led strategy.

Education, health and the social work sectors were vital elements in this approach. The outcomes were substantial. Over the course of a decade the number of young people carrying knives fell by 69%.

A judicial change was the first step, with the sentence for carrying a knife more than tripled, from four months to an average of 13 months. At the same time, the VRU worked to identify individuals most at risk of becoming involved in gang violence and knife crime.

Young people at risk were offered a programme of education. They were shown how easy it is for police to identify those involved in knife crime. The judicial implications of being caught carrying a knife were spelt out. They were given horrific insight into the injuries resulting from knife crime and they were able to listen as family members spoke to them about the death of a child. They were offered assistance with employment, housing and education. They were given a message of hope.

The result – many turned away from gangs and violent crime.

A question of trust

There remain questions over whether it would be possible to take the Scottish example and simply drop it into England – London in particular.

The Scottish programme relied heavily on trust in the police. Demographics across Scotland differ greatly from London. In October 2018 a joint report by the London School of Economics and Stopwatch suggested that the use of stop-and-search had become more discriminatory, despite Theresa May announcing measures to make stop and search less biased during her tenure as Home Secretary.

The report found that black Britons were stopped and searched at 8.4 times the rate of white citizens, more than double the figure from 1999 when the Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence was published. Macpherson labelled the Metropolitan Police “institutionally racist” in his report and twenty years on, this perception is unlikely to have changed.

Building trust between minority communities and police services is absolutely essential if such programmes are going to succeed in more ethnically diverse areas. Trust remains low and a reintroduction of stop-and-search based upon ethnic profiling will only exacerbate this.

Scottish knife crime was more often the result of the escalation of an argument than of underlying criminal activity. If we are going to tackle knife crime effectively there will have to be further consideration given to removing the risk of young people being sucked into crime, and in particular the drugs trade.

Copying Scotland ‘like for like’ is not the answer, but we should embrace some of their solutions. It is evident that the answer to knife crime does not rest solely on police numbers, stop-and-search, or extended prison sentences. A holistic, embracing approach is required and that entails a fundamental change of direction to Government policy.

The view from No. 10

Last week Downing Street hosted a four-day conference on knife crime. Home Office minister Victoria Atkins announced an increase in stop-and-search powers and also promised an extra £970m to the police.

The head of the National Police Chiefs Council has described this as a positive sign, but it is clearly not enough. Indeed, this represents little more than a sticking plaster on a gaping wound.

Atkins also said that some of the £100m announced in the Spring Statement would be used to set up Violence Reduction Units, in line with the Scottish model. A focus would be placed on early identification of children at risk, she said, through their families, youth workers and schools. The premise of the proposals may be welcomed, but there was a worrying level of accountability placed on already stretched teachers and nurses, while there remained a glaring omission in the minister’s response.

There was no mention whatsoever of the underlying issue – the ‘elephant in the room’. A VRU will not work if the vital components of education, health and social care are too under-resourced to contribute effectively.

Healing our Communities

The solution is clear. We need to end austerity. Sufficient funds must be ploughed into those public services devastated by Conservative governments over the past nine years.

Welfare, health, schools, policing, social and youth services all need to receive the funding required – not just to work effectively but to be ‘world class’. We have to ensure that the living wage is raised up to become what its name suggests and legislate to protect gig economy workers, strengthening trade unions to protect and fight for rights and wage increases.

At the same time, more affordable and social housing must be built, with stronger regulations placed upon landlords to protect tenants.

While over two million children live in poverty in the United Kingdom, more and more will fall out of a failing system. Many will face increasingly unstable home lives. They will drop out of school, with no other support network at hand, and many will be drawn in by the protection and the perceived profit offered by gangs.

When this happens, the next stages will always be painfully predictable. We can stop this, but not while the disastrous Tory austerity project continues to eat away at our social fabric.

Labour will reverse these decisions.

Cheltenham Labour Party member.


References for statistics and further reading:

Youth service cuts:

Mental health services:


Gloucestershire funding:

Homeless families:

London rental increases:

London deposit increases:

Youth clubs and worker cuts:


Police budgets:

Thames Valley Police:

Scottish Knife Crime:

Stop-and-search and racial bias:


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