New figures from the Office for National Statistics showing a record number of knife offences committed in England and Wales in the 12 months ending in March this year are a distressing indicator of the levels of extreme violence and threat to which some people, and particularly young people in poorer urban areas, are exposed. There were 46,265 offences, 34% of them in London, with a 28% increase on the previous year in the number of fatal stabbings. While many forms of crime fell during lockdown, following an overall fall of 9% in offending over the past year, police and others have voiced fears that violence could rise sharply as the rules ease, drug-dealing gangs attempt to reassert themselves and the financial outlook for millions of people dramatically worsens.
Last week’s killing of a teenager, Ahmed Yasin-Ali, in a west London street was a bleak reminder of the disproportionate toll that knife crime takes on young people. Data from the NHS on hospital admissions showed an 8% increase in knife injuries last year, with doctors saying the victims were getting younger and the injuries more severe. While the latest jump in stabbings is disturbing, the trend is not new: knife offences have been rising since the middle of the decade, having fallen for several years before that (an earlier high point was reached in 2006/07, although comparable crime survey data was not then collected by the ONS).
There is no single or simple answer to the question of why this disturbing increase in violence, which traumatises families and communities as well as cutting victims’ lives short, has taken place. The market for illegal drugs is part of the story, with violence used by criminal gangs to enforce discipline and settle scores. Waltham Forest council commissioned research which argued such organisations had become more professional, with a focus on profit replacing postcode rivalries. The phenomenon of children being exploited by “county lines” suppliers with customers in rural or seaside areas is now widely recognised. But more research into connections between the drugs trade and violent crime, particularly that involving children and young adults, is needed and should be prioritised.
The complexity of the issues is no excuse for inaction, however. A body of evidence, originating from a pioneering project in Chicago and later tested in Glasgow, proves that a public-health approach can drastically reduce violence of this nature. This involves recognising social determinants and risk factors including adverse early experiences and domestic violence, and making strategic interventions at various stages. Intelligent and robust policing is crucial, but so are the prevention techniques of mental health practitioners, educators, social workers and youth workers, who are skilled at working with young men.
What has never been, and will never be, effective is the indiscriminate use of stop and search. The former prime minister Theresa May understood this. In recent years senior police officers as well as politicians have spoken thoughtfully about the need to acknowledge links between crime and disadvantage. An action plan from the mayor of London’s violence reduction unit is expected shortly. So it was utterly depressing to watch the current home secretary, Priti Patel, and Boris Johnson appear to revel in turning back the clock, and encourage an increase in the use of stop and search in the midst of anti-racism protests.
Young people deserve better than this. So do we all. As we head into a period of acute economic difficulty, with all the suffering that entails, it should be remembered that high levels of violence in a society correspond closely to extreme inequality.