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FEATURES - AT THE CUTTING EDGE

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A sharp increase in the number of knife attacks has brought the threat to the fore. Louise Hunt looks at how counci...
A sharp increase in the number of knife attacks has brought the threat to the fore. Louise Hunt looks at how councils are tackling the problem with a range of community initiatives

May 2006 will stand out in the national conscience as a month of shocking and seemingly unprovoked knife attacks. Hardly a day went by without a headline of an innocent person being stabbed to death: a student on a train, a special constable at her home, yet another schoolchild barely outside the gates that are supposed to protect them. Britain appeared to be in the grip of a knife crime epidemic.

It is difficult to gauge whether knife crime is increasing nationally or is being reported more. The Home Office does not hold statistics on stabbings. Instead, knife crime comes under a variety of charges such as murder, wounding or grievous bodily harm.

Overall, violent crime was up 7% last year, according to police-recorded crime statistics. Home Office data reveals 236 people were killed by a sharp instrument in England and Wales in 2004-2005, while

in 2003-2004 the figure was 234. This is hardly the out-of-control spiral of popular opinion.

It is generally agreed that the crime is being perpetuated by young people, mainly aged 16-24, who claim they carry knives for protection or as status symbols. A MORI survey for the Youth Justice Board in 2004 found 29% of young people in London schools admitted they carried a knife. That figure rose to 62% among excluded students.

Whether or not knife crime is out of control is almost academic for councils that are at the front line of having to deal with people's fears, as well as trying to prevent the crime itself.

Across the country councils have different approaches to the problem but all will have a role as regulators of underage knife sales. Earlier this year the Trading Standards Institute, along with trading standards teams around the country carried out 14 test purchasing activities using underage volunteers. They found more than a quarter of shops are still selling knives illegally to children under 16. This has prompted a number of campaigns to raise awareness among shopkeepers and young people of the legal and potentially fatal consequences of buying and carrying knives. The government is considering adjusting the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, which is going through Parliament, to increase the maximum prison sentence for carrying a knife from two to five years, and raise the minimum age for buying a knife from 16 to 18. The Scottish Executive has already made this adjustment to its equivalent bill.

Councils have also collaborated with police on the national knife amnesty, which ran from 24 May-30 June. Almost 18,000 weapons were surrendered during its first week. While it raises the issue's profile, the community safety leaders LGC spoke to agreed that an amnesty alone does not address the underlying social and cultural reasons why more young people are carrying knives.

Rose Walker, a senior consultant with CrimeConcern, a charity that is working with local authorities and other partners to reduce crime, believes councils should be communicating more with young people to identify if there is a growing problem in their communities.

She says: 'Local authorities are increasingly realising that they don't know the extent of the problem in terms of gangs and knives. But there is still a lot of denial.'

Councils tend to focus on volume crimes, but in many areas knife crime may be an underground and unreported problem because it tends to be an issue among youths within gang culture and is not highlighted by the community to become a local political issue, says Ms Walker. 'The councils that have started to address the issue have most likely had a trigger event, such as a high-profile fatal stabbing, otherwise knife crime can often be brushed under the carpet.'

It is probably no coincidence that the areas that appear to be the most progressive in combating knife crime and improving community confidence are those that have started out with Gotham City-like reputations.

Hackney LBC was ranked in 2005 among the capital's top three worst spots for gun and knife violence by the Metropolitan Police. Martin Davies, the borough's head of community safety, says these crimes have been identified as priority areas and are being tackled through the crime and disorder reduction partnership, Team Hackney.

The borough has focused particularly on early intervention approaches that aim to prevent people already engaging in anti-social behaviour from doing more serious damage, and providing employment and drug outreach resources to youths already in gangs. 'We want to get young people into a position of confidence so they are less likely to attack out of anger and frustration,' says Mr Davies.

The initiatives appear to be working. Violent crime has been reduced by 18%, a step away from its target of 20% by 2008. 'Everybody is pulling together. But in an area like mine you would be mad not to work with all the resources that are available,' he says. Even the annual residents' survey reported that the majority of people thought Hackney was becoming a safer area to live.

Similar work is happening throughout the country, mostly concentrated in cities with pockets of high crime, anti-social behaviour and deprivation.

But not all regions will have such effective partnerships or the luxury of targeted funding. Mr Davies points to rural areas as those that might be struggling to cope. A number of rural authorities contacted by LGC said they currently had no specific approaches for tackling knife crime as, they said, it had not been identified as a particular problem.

This was also the response from larger conurbations that were quick to pass the issue off as a police matter. It is understandable councils would not want to be associated with something that could bring negative publicity and induce fear in residents, but Kathryn Roper, managing consultant for Crime Concern, says 'an ostrich approach' is unwise. She says: 'Councils might not have a problem, or might think they don't, but they may be missing a trick and won't know until there really is one.'

Case studies

Nottingham City Council

Nottingham City Council is piloting a school programme aimed at 14-15 year-olds that uses drama, music and discussion to encourage youngsters to think about the consequences of carrying knives. It has also produced a documentary on the grim realities of all aspects of knife crime that will be launched on DVD this September. A corresponding website will also go live with more anti-knife crime resources for youths.

Stephen Youdell, communications manager for the crime and drug partnership at Nottingham, says: 'I'm not naïve enough to think the products will stop everyone in the country from carrying knives. It's a sad fact in society today there are people who carry knives and guns and have no fear of using them. That is the climate.

'Nottingham does have problems, like every large city, and this is what we're trying to do. But you can't bring anything down overnight.'

Southwark LBC

As one of London's most deprived areas, Southwark LBC is making the most of multi-agency working to introduce a range of approaches, which focus on early intervention in schools and youth outreach programmes.

One of these is a 'gang assessment' tool jointly developed with Crime Concern. Youth offending teams use it to assess whether a person is at risk of becoming heavily involved in gang violence, based on social indicators.

Jonathan Toy, Southwark's head of community safety, says the tool has been in use for four months 'and we are beginning to see the impact'.

Southwark is also running the Wasted programme in secondary schools. It covers the implications of having a criminal record and gets young people to consider the consequences of knife crime by visiting an A&E department.

Mr Toy says latest figures show knife crime in the borough is down 25% on the year before.

Derbyshire CC

The Are You Old Enough campaign is run by Derbyshire trading standards officers and was launched after a test purchase exercise in 2004 revealed that 75% of stores in Derbyshire were illegally selling knives to minors.

Rob Taylour, head of trading standards in Derbyshire, explains the strategy provides traders with guidance and resources on underage sales prevention for all age-restricted products (alcohol, cigarettes, fireworks and knives). It informs them on basic steps they can take to avoid breaking the law, such as asking for ID from anyone that looks under 21.

A DVD was also made for schools to highlight what can happen when age-restricted goods are bought in combination. 'A lot of young people don't make the connections between alcohol and crime and the threats to themselves and other people,' he warns.

Latest figures from June 2006 show that only 10%

of stores are still breaching the law.

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