British government vows to tackle 'scourge' of deadly knife crime

Critics blame austerity measures for increase in violence as Prime Minister Theresa May calls summit on fatal stabbings.

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    The number of people killed by a knife or sharp instrument in England and Wales totalled a record high of 285 in the year leading up to March 2018 [File: Leon Neal/Getty Images]
    The number of people killed by a knife or sharp instrument in England and Wales totalled a record high of 285 in the year leading up to March 2018 [File: Leon Neal/Getty Images]

    British Prime Minister Theresa May has announced a summit with government ministers, police and community leaders to tackle a surge in knife crimes after two teenagers were stabbed to death over the weekend. 

    Speaking in the United Kingdom's parliament on Wednesday, May said she would hold the meeting "in the coming days" to explore "what more we can do as a whole society to tackle this problem".

    "A growing number of young people have lost their lives in a cycle of mindless violence that has shocked us all," said May, adding "We will only defeat the scourge of violence if we understand and address the complex root causes."

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    The issue of deadly knife crime has dominated the UK's news agenda this week, after 17-year-old Jodie Chesney was killed in a London park on Friday, and Yousef Ghaleb Makki, also 17, died in a knife attack in the northwestern city of Manchester the following day.

    Their deaths bring the number of teenagers killed in knife attacks within England this year to at least 10.

    Knife crime hits record high

    Meanwhile, government figures published last month show a record high of 285 people in England and Wales were killed by a knife or sharp instrument in the year leading up to March 2018, the latest period for which annual figures have been published. 

    The figure marks the highest number of such killings within a 12-month period since record-keeping began in 1946.

    The main opposition Labour Party said the surge in knife crime amounted to a "national emergency" and called on May to "tackle this crisis now".

    The Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said cuts to police staffing levels were exacerbating the problem. 

    "If there are sufficient police numbers, can the prime minister please explain why yesterday the defence secretary was offering to send in the military to assist?" Corbyn asked, adding that police forces did not "have the resources" to combat the issue.

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    Official statistics show the number of active police officers throughout the UK has fallen every year since 2010, from 171,600 nine years ago to fewer than 150,000 last year.

    The cutbacks have been driven by government-enforced austerity measures rolled out in a bid to reduce Britain's national debt levels following the global economic crisis of 2008.

    May, however, has rejected any "direct correlation" between falling police numbers and violent crime, despite the head of London's Metropolitan Police Service suggesting there was "some link" between the two developments.

    'A highly complex problem'

    Sajid Javid, Britain's home secretary, has proposed boosting police funding as well as widening controversial stop-and-search powers to tackle knife crime and likened the continued violence to a "disease".

    "What's clear is that one fatal stabbing is one too many. It cannot and must not go on," Javid said.

    The interior minister has also proposed new measures specifically targeting young offenders.

    Under the plans, which are yet to be approved by Britain's parliament, children aged 12 and over could be convicted of a criminal offence for carrying an offensive weapon and detained for up to two years.

    However, Stephen Case, a professor of criminology at the UK-based Loughborough University, said the proposal threatened to "further criminalise and disadvantage the most vulnerable and traumatised members of society by individualising the blame for a highly complex problem".

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    The rise in knife crime is "almost certainly" linked to government-enforced austerity measures, Case told Al Jazeera, with cuts to "support services and opportunities for children ... leaving communities increasingly disadvantaged and fearful".

    "Children have responded to these desperate circumstances ... by forming gangs and carrying out knife attacks [because of] disaffection, anger, fear and the lack of positive alternatives," he said. 

    Peter Neyroud, a retired police officer turned criminology lecturer at the UK-based University of Cambridge, agreed with Case's assessment. 

    Calling for "real leadership" from May, Neyroud said cuts to police numbers reduce the capacity of the forces to deploy to "high crime locations, which we know will reduce such crimes". 

    Having fewer police also means "the detection and prosecution rate for all crimes, including violent crimes, has crashed and, therefore, significantly fewer offenders are being brought to justice," he said. 

    "Finally, the cuts have dug deep into youth services, [and] put pressure on schools. And there has been a disastrous privatisation of the probation service, which has resulted in rising levels of reoffending."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News