A huge amount has happened in the past week. On Saturday evening, three people were killed and three more injured after a stabbing attack in a park in Reading. The prime minister failed to read a government report on projected poverty levels in the UK. The government reluctantly accepted Marcus Rashford’s plea to help feed 1.3 million vulnerable young people across the country, and at the same time seems intent on spending £900,000 to rebrand the prime minister’s RAF Voyager.
In light of all that, it is hardly an overstatement to say that Boris Johnson may want to reconsider his priorities. If he doesn’t, more and more innocent lives will be lost or ruined by Britain’s most ubiquitous problem: knife crime.
The government report that Keir Starmer used to grill Johnson on last week stated that the number of children in the UK living below the poverty line is up 600,000 on 8 years ago and is anticipated to reach 5.2 million (currently around 4 million) by the end of 2022. These increases were predicted even before the impacts of Covid-19, meaning that those horrifying numbers are now a best-case scenario.
Rising unemployment and over-stretched services are extremely harmful in themselves. But if drastic action is not taken very soon, they will also lead directly to an increase in knife-related crimes. Across the world, high levels of poverty and inequality have always been linked to knife crime and violence epidemics.
The Office for National Statistics reported that there were 45,627 recorded cases involving knives or sharp instruments in 2019, a 7 per cent increase on the year before, and a 49 per cent increase on 2011 (when comparable records began).
It is time for the prime minister to accept that deploying more police officers to the streets and increasing prison sentences is not the answer here. It implies that the prime minister has accepted these crimes as inevitable and is more concerned with punishing offenders than tackling the issue at its roots and trying to prevent it.
To make things worse, the charities, youth clubs and community centres that have worked so hard over the past ten years – with little government support – to fight poverty and knife crime, give young and disadvantaged people their first opportunity, and give older people a second opportunity in life are set to be the hardest hit by the current crisis.
Charities are having to cancel fundraising events, costing some of them over half of their annual income. Youth clubs are already closing down. Community centres are reducing staff numbers. Current services are being slashed to increase these organisations’ chances of survival in the long run.
The government must begin to address the causes of these issues, not the outcomes. They might, for instance, take inspiration from Scotland, who treated the problem as a public health issue and invested time and money into a new violence reduction unit and a programme called “No Knives, Better Lives”.
In light of this, the number of recorded incidents of carrying a knife or sharp instrument has fallen by 69 per cent in Glasgow in the last decade. In Scotland overall, the number of teenage lives lost to knife crime fell from forty (15 in Glasgow) to eight (zero in Glasgow) in the ten years since the programme began.
The government should also shore up charities, youth clubs, early intervention practices and community centres so that they are not forced to reduce their operations, cut staff or shut down entirely. Given the inevitability of a huge rise in unemployment, these organisations will need to expand their operations, not scale them back.
The way the police deal with knife crime must be reconsidered too. Stop and search leads to gangs grooming and coercing young and vulnerable people, who are less likely to be targeted, into carrying out illegal tasks for them such as transferring drugs, weapons and money across county lines. Once young people find themselves in this world of crime, it is near impossible to escape from.
Police forces should also stop posting pictures of confiscated weapons on social media. It offers no tangible benefit, only advertising to young people the calibre of weapon they might need to carry for self-defence.
Why not also consider giving young and inspiring people such as Athian Akec a platform to speak and raise awareness in the way that Keir Starmer has done? Has Boris Johnson ever endorsed someone young and genuinely connected to and empathetic with these social issues?
The government should not take pride in or take credit for the recent drop in statistics reported by Dame Cressida Dick during the Covid-19 pandemic, as Priti Patel attempted to do in one of the government’s recent daily briefings.
The decrease in crime is in no way attributable to government intervention while the numbers don’t even reflect the extent of the country’s lockdown. In May and June so far alone, a 19-year-old lost their life in Southwark, a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old lost their lives in a gruesome attack in Ilford, a man lost his life in Haringey, and a 24-year-old NHS worker lost his life.
More deaths and serious injuries were recorded in Birmingham, Coventry, Bath, Gloucester, Peterborough, Leyton, Essex, Northampton and Newcastle during this period, and three incidents were recorded at last weekend’s illegal rave in Greater Manchester. People from all over the country, at all ages, including police officers have been attacked, showing that no one is disconnected from the problem.
The director of the National Centre for Gang Violence, Dr Simon Harding, anticipates that an “explosive crimewave” is on its way as lockdown eases. It is simply not enough to listen to that warning and assume that the offenders will be caught and punished. The warning needs to be heeded and effective preventative measures put in place.