The proportion of young people who actually use knives is very small, but a recent increase in knife violence appears to relate to escalating street violence between groups of young people in the poorer areas of large cities. While the overall number of murders has remained relatively stable since 2006, the number of those being committed with a knife has risen dramatically, by 26 per cent from 2005/6 to 2006/7. This is reflected in a sharp increase in knife injuries in hospital statistics since 2006 also, with an increase in admissions seeming to show that serious stab wounds are becoming more common. The Committee recommends that the Government should adopt a "public health" approach to prevent violence in the long-term, including early intervention with those most at risk because of deprivation, lack of family support and exposure to violence in the home.
The Committee says the age at which young people are carrying knives is "worrying": the incidence of carrying is highest amongst older teenagers, but the Committee heard instances of carrying by children as young as seven. Eleven seemed to be a key risk age for first carrying a knife, presumably linked to the transition from primary to secondary school. The Committee says a lack of faith in the ability of parents and police to keep them safe seems to motivate much of the knife carrying among young people, with a perception that everyone else is carrying a knife leading to what one witness described as an "arms race".
The Committee supports the use of prison sentences for knife possession – it is a serious crime and many more people are killed by knives than guns. However, it notes the failure of custodial sentences to prevent re-offending and therefore recommends more work with prisoners and young offenders to address their behaviour. It also says that young people in particular may not be deterred by the possibility of a custodial sentence which may not seem real to them. The prospect of being caught with a knife may in itself be a greater deterrent: the Committee supports strong police action against knives such as – appropriate - use of stop and search powers. However, they do not recommend wholesale use of metal detectors at schools for example, which may actually make young people feel less safe there.
The Committee says evidence to its inquiry also supports its view that violent DVDs and video games have a negative influence on those who watch and play them, contributing around 10 per cent of any person’s predisposition to be violent.
Chairman of the Committee Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP said:
"We are seeing a spiralling of the arms race as far as knife crime is concerned. Young people carry knives because they fear that others are carrying knives. This spiralling of knife possession puts all young people at risk. Too many tragic deaths have occurred because of this. We have to stop this arms race.
"Parental responsibility is also crucial; parents must ask their children about these issues.
"The vast majority of young people are law abiding but some of the stabbings and some negative portrayal of young people as "feral" add to the sense of young people being under attack.
"Some young people feel the need to protect themselves with knives. We are clearly failing them. Children, of all people, should not feel unsafe in our society.
"Sentencing must reflect the seriousness of the crime and the great harm that knives do, but the fact is that custody is not stopping people going on to commit more crime and also may not work to deter young people in particular from carrying a knife in the first place. We need a new tack here, at least partly based on making young people feel safer and reducing the exposure to violence in their lives. We were impressed by the work of the "gang exit" groups we spoke to, and by the success of Youth Inclusion Programmes.
"It may be becoming a truism now, but we cannot escape the fact that at its roots this is about education and inclusion of young people before it is about criminal justice, and we strongly recommend that government adopts a "public health" approach, that invests resources in prevention, to reducing knife crime.
"A rough estimate is that knife-enabled crime costs us £1.25 billion a year. We heard convincing evidence of the long-term cost benefits of applying an early intervention approach, as well as the benefits to individuals and communities."
Mr Vaz has asked the Prime Minister to host a Knife Crime Seminar at Downing Street with representatives of all the main political parties to discuss the conclusions of the report.