Knife Crime - Home Affairs Committee Contents

2  The scale of knife crime

6. We begin by examining data on knife offences, injuries and possession to assess whether they justify public perceptions of an increase in knife crime. In the following chapter, we consider what the data tell us about the characteristics of knife offenders and victims, particularly the extent to which they involve our key subjects of interest, children and teenagers.

Sources of data

7. There are three main sources of data on different aspects of illegal knife use: Home Office crime statistics in various forms, National Health Service (NHS) hospital statistics and a number of surveys with young people to determine the extent of knife-carrying. The Ministry of Justice also publishes data on knife possession. Analysing these data demands a cautious approach because of some inherent limitations, as well as difficulties in comparing one source against another owing to differences in what is measured.

8. In terms of Home Office data, the Homicide Index has been published annually since 1977 and contains details of all cases of murder, manslaughter and infanticide that were recorded in England and Wales over the course of the previous year. Given the definitive nature of fatality and its likelihood of coming to the attention of the police, we can presume that it is probably the most complete source of data on those knife offences which it covers. However, fatal stabbings comprises only a tiny minority of knife offences and accurate data is not published until nine months after the year end.

9. The British Crime Survey has, until recently, been the main means by which the Home Office has measured the use of knives in non-fatal violent crime. The survey records the amount of crime experienced by adults over 16 years of age living in private households in England and Wales. It includes a question asking if the respondent has been a victim of a violent crime over the previous 12 months and, if so, whether or not a knife was involved. From the responses, researchers estimate the total number of incidents likely to have taken place in England and Wales. However, Dr Bob Golding, giving evidence in November 2008 on the basis of research he has carried out for the Policy Exchange think tank, argued that it is difficult to obtain a complete picture of knife offences from the British Crime Survey:

    Whilst the survey is helpful it has some limitations particularly in the context of the subject we are talking about today: knife crime. Notably, the British Crime Survey does not count the under-16s which from the research is one of our target or problem populations. It does not collect data from people without access to a home telephone or private residence and it is of limited scale.[3]

(From January 2009, the survey has been extended to include 10-16 year olds.)

10. Since July 2008, police forces have also been required to publish statistics for recorded use of knives in the most serious offences, namely attempted murder, wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm (GBH), wounding or inflicting GBH, robbery of business property and robbery of personal property. While this improves our understanding of knife use in violent crime it is also unlikely to reveal its full extent, as it has been estimated that only 50% of stab victims who present at hospital actually report their assault to the police.[4] This trend was confirmed anecdotally by a young man giving evidence anonymously with The Prince's Trust, who said:

    A couple of people that I have been involved with have not even reported stuff, so even if they have been stabbed or whatever they cannot be seen to be snitching. I do not know whether the statistics are really picking up what is out there.[5]

11. Data from health agencies may therefore allow for a more accurate assessment of stabbing trends.[6] Hospital Episode Statistics (HES) contain information on patients admitted to hospital who receive care provided by the NHS, including their main diagnosis—recorded as 'Assault by a sharp object' in the case of stab victims. The statistics have some caveats. For one, they do not include assault injuries to individuals that are dealt with solely in Accident and Emergency departments and do not require admission to a hospital bed. Professor Brohi, a trauma and vascular surgeon at the Royal London Hospital also cautioned that, while he had not heard of victims being "treated in back streets", "undoubtedly there are people who are injured who do fine without going to hospital and therefore may not need to go to hospital."[7] Equally, the statistics will not include the majority of injuries resulting in death, as a comparison of HES mortality data with ONS mortality statistics in 2005 suggested that around 80% of deaths caused by stabbing occurred before admission to hospital took place.[8]

12. Finally, there are a number of self-report surveys asking young people about their experience of knives. The largest of these are the MORI Youth Surveys, commissioned by the Youth Justice Board and carried out annually between 1999 and 2005 and again in 2008 with 11-16 year olds in mainstream education and excluded 11-17 year olds; and the Home Office's Offending and Criminal Justice Survey carried out annually with 10-25 year olds between 2003 and 2006. Frances Done, Chair of the Youth Justice Board, told us "it is generally accepted that self-report surveys are the most accurate way of finding out what is happening on the ground in terms of offending".[9] As well as giving an indication of incidence, they explore motivations.

13. The Ministry of Justice publishes convictions for possessing a bladed instrument. This year it also published data on the sentences awarded to those convicted of possessing an offensive weapon. While these data provide some useful information about levels of knife- carrying, it is difficult to assess whether any increase or decrease reflects the trend in carrying or in detection rates linked to police activity. Moreover, the sentencing data cover all offensive weapons, rather than knives alone.

14. Statistical data about the use of knives in violent offending are contained in the Homicide Index, the British Crime Survey and police recorded crime. Hospital Episode Statistics provide information about knife injuries resulting in a victim's admittance to hospital. The Home Office Offending, Crime and Justice Survey and MORI Youth Survey have provided information about levels of knife-carrying amongst young people. We welcome the decision to extend the British Crime Survey to under-16s and to publish specific data on knives in police recorded crime as means of improving our understanding of the scale of knife violence. However, limitations remain that inhibit a fully accurate analysis, including poor reporting rates.

Is knife crime going up or down?


15. We attempted to ascertain the scale of knife possession and use from the data sources listed above, as well as anecdotal evidence from witnesses living and working in communities affected by knife crime. We set out our findings below. While attempting to assess any trend, it is worth bearing in mind overall crime trends. Crime levels rose dramatically in the second half of the twentieth century, peaking in 1995. Since that year, violent crime measured by the British Crime Survey has fallen by 48%.[10] However, some academics, such as Dr Marian FitzGerald, have argued that official statistics have failed to pick up a growth in serious violent crime.[11]

Figure 1: All violent crime, 1981-2007/08 BCS[12]

Fatal stabbings

16. The number of overall homicides increased gradually but steadily during the 1980s and 1990s from 418 in 1977 to a peak of 953 in 2002/03, before falling again to 723 in 2005/06. Of these, homicides by sharp instrument rose from 135 in 1977 to 243 in 1995, fell to 197 the following year and then remained relatively stable until rising to 261 in 2001/02 and then declining again to 212 in 2005/06. In percentage terms, 33% of homicides were caused by stabbing in 1977; this fell to 28% in 2000/01 and then remained relatively stable. We were particularly interested in what happened from 2006, the point at which 'knife crime' began to grow in the public consciousness. Fatal stabbings did indeed rise sharply between 2005/06 and 2006/07 - by 57 to 269 (35% of all homicides). Between April 2007 and March 2008, the most recent period for which data is available, the police recorded 270 homicides involving a sharp instrument: the highest total since the Homicide Index was introduced in 1977. This again constituted 35% of all homicides.[13]

Figure 2: Homicide by apparent method of killing, England and Wales, 1997/08-2007/08[14]

17. Between 1996 and 2005/06 fatal stabbings mirrored overall homicide rates: the number of fatal stabbings rose sharply before declining again from 2003, but the percentage of homicides that involved a sharp instrument remained relatively stable. However, since 2006 the overall homicide rate has remained relatively stable but the number of knife homicides has increased—by a dramatic 26.9% in 2006/07—to reach 270 in 2007/08, the highest total recorded since the Homicide Index was established in 1977.

Use of knives in non-fatal violent crime

18. Findings from the British Crime Survey (BCS) indicate that knives were used in 6%, or approximately 138,000, of an estimated 2,164,000 non-fatal violent crimes in 2007/08. This percentage has remained below 8% since 1995. The most common weapons employed in violent crimes were 'hitting implements', used in 7% of violent incidents but 76% of violent crimes did not involve any weapons. Overall violent crime declined by 12% from the previous year; therefore while the proportion of incidents involving knives remained approximately the same, the total number of incidents was lower than in previous years.[15]

19. Breaking the data down by crime type, we are presented with a mixed picture. Firstly, we see a decline of almost two-thirds in incidents of knife-enabled woundings between 1995 and 2003/04 (from 84,000 to 29,000), followed by a rise of almost a third to 38,000 in 2007/08. As with homicide figures, the biggest increase occurs between 2005/06 and 2006/07. Figures show that incidents of robberies in which a knife was used also declined by over two-thirds between 1995 and 2004/05 before rising sharply between 2005/06 and 2006/07, but declining slightly again in 2007/08. The use of knives in common assault declined by almost two-thirds between 2006/07 and 2007/08. [16]

Figure 3: Violent incidents in which a knife was used, British Crime Survey data[17]

However, as we discussed above, the accuracy of BCS data is questionable. In particular, the number of robbery victims interviewed for the survey is generally too low to provide robust estimates of robberies for individual years. [18]

20. Police forces have only published data on knife use in serious offences since July 2008; therefore, it is not possible to establish long-term trends from these statistics. The first published data, for April 2007-March 2008, showed 22,151 instances of use of a knife or a sharp instrument in attempted murders, grievous bodily harm or robbery.[19]

21. It is difficult to draw firm conclusions from Home Office data about levels of knife use in non-fatal violent crime, partly because of the limitations of the source data and partly because they do not indicate many clear trends. It appears that overall knife violence recorded by the British Crime Survey fell sharply between 1995 and 2003/04, in line with overall violent crime, but rose again in 2006/07.

22. A study of Hospital Episode Statistics (HES) data on patients admitted to NHS hospitals in England between 1 April 1997 and 31 March 2005 found that the number of admissions for "assault by sharp object" increased by 30% over the study period.[20] Since then, the NHS has published data showing the figure continued to rise from 5,072 in 2004/05 to 5,720 in 2006/07, before falling slightly to 5,239 in 2007/08.[21]

23. The Trauma Audit and Research Network (TARN) collects data on patients who are admitted to hospital as a result of serious injury from its member hospitals (about half of all trauma-receiving hospitals in England and Wales) for more detailed analysis. The Network's research director, Dr Fiona Lecky, presented data to our Leeds seminar which demonstrated a sharp rise in the proportion of serious injuries caused by knives:

Figure 4: Knife injuries as proportion of all serious injuries 1994-2008[22]

These findings were supported by evidence from Professor Karim Brohi regarding cases treated at the Royal London Hospital, which treats one in four or five of all injuries sustained in the capital:

    As to knife crime, currently we see 23 severe injuries a month. So far this year we have had 255 injuries and project 278 up to the end of the year. That compares with 68 injuries in 2003 when our database started ... One in three inpatients is a knife victim, so ... of my dedicated trauma time one third is spent on knife injuries.[23]

24. Hospital Episode Statistics show a big increase in knife injuries since the mid-1990s, with the sharpest increase occurring since 2006. This trend was supported by the professional opinion of two senior medical practitioners to whom we spoke. However, we note that the number of stab victims admitted to hospital is far lower than the number of stab victims suggested by the British Crime Survey. This may indicate that the majority of stab wounds are minor. The increase in hospital admissions, however, appears to indicate that serious stab wounds are becoming more common.

Knife possession

25. The majority of detailed data about knife possession relates to young people, in the form of self-report surveys. The Youth Justice Board's 2008 MORI Youth Survey found that 31% of 11-16 year olds in mainstream education surveyed reported having carried a weapon in the previous 12 months: the two most common weapons reported were a penknife (17%) and a BB gun, a type of airgun that fires small pellets (15%). 61% of excluded young people admitted to carrying a weapon, including 54% who admitted to carrying a knife.[24] The 2008 survey showed lower levels of knife-carrying for both groups than the 2004 survey; however this was off-set by the increased numbers of respondents who did not answer the question about knife-carrying. The Chair of the Youth Justice Board, Frances Done, told us that on the basis of these results:

    The level of knife-carrying by young people, either young people generally or those who have said that they have offended—and this is knife-carrying at any time in the last 12 months—is of a level that is obviously of serious concern.[25]

26. The Home Office Offending, Crime and Justice Survey has found significantly lower numbers of young people reporting to have carried knives. The difference can be partially explained by the survey methodology, the wider age range covered by the OCJS and the fact that the MORI survey included knife-carrying for legitimate purposes (32% of the young people who admitted to carrying a knife said they did so "for hobbies, activities or sports"). The 2006 survey found that 3% of 10-25 year olds claimed to have carried a knife in the last 12 months. Of those who reported to have carried a knife, 54% said they had carried it "once or twice" with only 17% claiming to have carried a knife "10 times or more."[26] The Children's Commissioner's charity, 11 MILLION, took a representative sample of 8-17 year olds in England and a sample of young people who live in seven 'high risk' areas and found that only 4% of 12-17 year olds admitted to carrying a knife either now or in the past, and for the majority carrying was an infrequent occurrence.[27]

27. While these findings indicate that knife-carrying does not take place on a large scale across the country, there is evidence from people living and working in some communities that levels are much higher. 11 MILLION found that to 26% of young people living in 'high risk' areas perceived knife crime to be either a big or fairly big problem in their area, compared to one in six young people nationally.[28] One anonymous witness giving evidence with The Prince's Trust told us "I would say I think it is definitely a problem that is getting worse."[29] On the basis of research with police officers and youth offending teams, Policy Exchange's Gavin Lockhart argued "I think it is becoming normal for some groups in poor communities to carry a knife."[30]

28. Dr Golding quoted Ministry of Justice statistics that showed a dramatic increase in knife possession detections over the past decade:

    The number of convictions for carrying a knife between 1997 and 2006 has risen from 3,360 to 6,314. Arrests for having an article with a blade or point on school premises has increased by 500% over six years from 1999 to 2005.[31]

However, as we suggested earlier, this may indicate greater police and school activity to detect knife-carrying rather than purely an increase in levels of carrying.

29. Detective Chief Superintendent John Carnochan, of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit, noted the irrelevance of official statistics for people living in affected communities. He said:

    I actually want to increase the amount of violence that is reported to us … because right now only 50% of those who turn up at an A&E department (and it is the same in England) will report it to the police, so you are judging us on 50% knowledge, so whether it goes up or down is an absolute irrelevance, it is a measure of activity, because what will happen then, if you live in an area where there is loads of violence and you see it outside your front window, you will know someone who is in prison, you will know someone who has been a victim, and the chief officer stands up, or a politician, and says, "Relax; violence is going down", and you when look out your front window you know that it is not; it is not your experience.[32]

A community worker from Peckham who attended our London seminar expressed a similar view, arguing that apparent complacency about knives on the part of the Government and the police would only serve to normalise knife-carrying.

30. The picture with regard to knife possession is complicated. The 2008 MORI Youth Survey indicated that 31% of 11-16 year olds in mainstream education and 61% of excluded young people had carried a knife at some point over the course of the previous year; however the 2006 Home Office Offending, Crime and Justice Survey found that only 3% of 10-25 year olds did. This discrepancy cannot be explained by the time lag between the surveys, as the numbers reporting carrying a knife actually decreased between the 2005 and 2008 MORI Surveys. It can partly be explained by the fact that the MORI survey includes legitimate carrying and the OCJS covers a wider age range. Anecdotal evidence indicated that in certain areas levels of knife-carrying have risen to the extent that carrying a knife has almost become "normal". We therefore concluded that, although there is no definitive evidence of the extent of knife-carrying nationally, in parts of England and Wales it was at a level to be of significant concern.

Impact of the Tackling Knives Action Programme

31. The Government has responded to concerns about knife crime with the Tackling Knives Action Programme (TKAP). In June 2008 it pledged £5m additional funding for the ten police force areas in England and Wales judged to be most affected by knife crime—Essex, Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Merseyside, Metropolitan, Nottinghamshire, South Wales, Thames Valley, West Midlands and West Yorkshire—to support:

  • Increased use of searches, in targeted and intelligence-led operations, to complement new portable knife arches and search wands;
  • Fast-tracking the 'knife referral project' in which all young people convicted of a knife offence are taught the consequences of knife crime; and
  • Home visits and letters to parents of young people known to carry weapons.

32. In December 2008 the Government announced a further £3.4 million for investment in after-school patrols and Safer Schools Partnerships, whereby police officers are based in schools; and an extra 7000 places for young people in 'positive activities' on Friday and Saturday nights in TKAP areas. TKAP was originally funded until March 2009 but has been extended for a further year and to a further two areas: Hampshire and Kent.[33]

33. We attempted to assess whether this had had any impact on crime levels. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Hitchcock , who was appointed to lead TKAP until his move to the National Policing Improvement Agency in April 2009, told us in January 2009 that the success of the programme should become evident in statistics for the period October-December 2008:

    That will be the quarter when you will start to see the programme has had a significant impact and there has been a significant improvement.[34]

The figures for this period have since been published. Comparisons of quarterly statistics for April-June 2008, July-September 2008 and October-December 2008 show no clear trends for knife-enabled attempted murder, robbery, threats to kills, actual bodily harm and grievous bodily harm, rape and sexual assault, although the overall number of knife-enabled violent offences declined slightly from 9,608 in April-June to 9,400 in October-December.[35]

34. Provisional HES data for 2008 (which should be treated with caution because of its provisional nature) appear to show a decrease of 8.43% for the year during which TKAP was established: 4,899 admissions recorded between December 2007 and November 2008 compared with 5,350 admissions between December 2006 and November 2007.[36] Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, Alan Campbell MP, told us:

    Recent provisional figures produced by the Department of Health that showed in the first period of the programme from June to November of last year that the fall in admissions to accident and emergency of the target group of individuals, 13 to 19 year olds, with reported stab wounds had fallen by 31%. I think if you compare that to the figures for the non-TKAP areas, which is 18%, we can begin to draw conclusions about the success of some of the work that has been done.[37]

We explore TKAP tactics in more detail in the relevant chapter.

35. The Government's Tackling Knives Action Programme has been in operation for less than a year, therefore it is difficult to evaluate its success. It does not appear to have had a significant effect on reducing police recorded crime, although there have been signs of a notable reduction in hospital admissions in Tacking Knives Action Programme areas.

3   Q 1 Back

4   Q 202 [DCS Carnochan] Back

5   Q 272 Back

6   Roy Maxwell, Caroline Trotter, Julia Verne, Paul Brown and David Gunnell, "Trends in admissions to hospital involving an assault using a knife or other sharp instrument, England, 1997-2005", Journal of Public Health, Vol 29, No. 2 (2007), pp 186-7 Back

7   Q 82  Back

8   Roy Maxwell, Caroline Trotter, Julia Verne, Paul Brown and David Gunnell, "Trends in admissions to hospital involving an assault using a knife or other sharp instrument, England, 1997-2005", Journal of Public Health, Vol 29, No 2 (2007), p 188 Back

9   Q 163 Back

10   Home Office, Crime in England and Wales 2007/08: Findings from the British Crime Survey and police recorded crime, July 2008, p 59 Back

11   Ev 163 Back

12   Home Office, Crime in England and Wales 2007/08: Findings from the British Crime Survey and police recorded crime, July 2008, p 62. "Ints" refers to interviews conducted during that year. Back

13   Home Office, Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2007/08: Supplementary Volume 2 to Crime in England and Wales 2007/08, January 2009  Back

14   Ibid, extracted from Table 1.03 Back

15   Home Office, Crime in England and Wales 2007/08: Findings from the British Crime Survey and police recorded crime, July 2008, pp 73, 21 Back

16   Knife crime statistics, Standard Note SN/SG/4304, House of Commons Library, March 2009, pp 9-10 Back

17   Ibid, adapted from Table 3 Back

18   Ibid, p 10 Back

19   Home Office, Crime in England and Wales 2007/08: Findings from the British Crime Survey and police recorded crime, July 2008, p 75 Back

20   Roy Maxwell, Caroline Trotter, Julia Verne, Paul Brown and David Gunnell, "Trends in admissions to hospital involving an assault using a knife or other sharp instrument, England, 1997-2005", Journal of Public Health, Vol 29, No 2 (2007), p 187 Back

21   Knife crime statistics, Standard Note SN/SG/4304, House of Commons Library, March 2009, p 13  Back

22   Ev 193 [Trauma and Audit Research Network] Back

23   Qq 51, 62-3 Back

24   Youth Justice Board, MORI Youth Survey 2008: Young people in mainstream education, February 2009, p 46; Youth Justice Board, MORI Youth Survey 2008: Young people in Pupil Referral Units, February 2009, p 50 Back

25   Q 163 Back

26   Home Office, Young people and crime: findings from the 2006 Offending, Crime and Justice Survey, July 2008, p 22 Back

27   11 MILLION/YouGov, Solutions to gun and knife crime, March 2009, Summary, p 2 Back

28   Ibid Back

29   Q 268 Back

30   Q 40 Back

31   Q 1 Back

32   Q 202 Back

33   "Tough new sanctions to tackle knife crime", Home Office press release, 5 June 2008; "Tackling knives action plan, six months on", Home Office press release, 11 December 2008; "Clamping down on serious youth violence", Home Office press release, 11 March 2009 Back

34   Q 96 Back

35   Home Office, Crime in England and Wales: Quarterly Update to December 2008, April 2009, p 11 Back

36   NHS figures, cited in "Knife hospital admissions down 8%", BBC News Online, 12 March 2009,  Back

37   Q 535 Back

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