The Serious Violence Strategy: upstream or downstream on knives?

The Government published its Serious Violence Strategy in April of this year. I contributed in a small way to this document, so was interested in what the strategy would have to say about knife crime…as it happens…quite a bit, but it is quite tangled up in other issues and not always easy to isolate.

Upstream or downstream?

This is not unusual. A big dilemma for governments worried about violence is whether or not they should focus on a specific problem (downstream), or the wider issues that might help create the problem (upstream). Knife crime provides a good example of this, being a specific and measurable behaviour that individuals do, but one that is linked in complicated ways to other issues like youth violence, gangs, male violence and poverty.

New Labour was the first government to really look at knife crime as a separate issue. The Criminal Justice Act 1988 was the first legislation to address knife carrying since 1959. It was relatively mild, but tougher laws followed,[1] which signaled a determination to tackle the problem head on.

Laws were followed by initiatives. Operation Blunt and Blunt 2 started as Metropolitan Police Service initiatives that included proactive stop and search and the use of metal detectors in schools, both of which have proved controversial. The Tackling Knives Action Programme (TKAP) came on the back of the perceived success of Blunt, but acknowledged the complexity of knife crime and its roots in wider problems. It sought to combine enforcement with prevention and diversion activities and rehabilitation for young people who had been convicted of knife crime.

The Conservative government initially followed Labour’s lead on knife crime, issuing laws and amendments that increased the minimum prison term for those who commit murder using a knife from 15 to 25 years,[2] created a new offence of ‘aggravated’ knife possession, and compulsory custody for over-sixteens who used a knife to threaten others.[3]

As with Labour though, the Conservatives also started to look at wider issues. In 2011 the Home Office announced plans to tackle youth violence, stating that ‘Knife, gun and gang crime is wholly unacceptable and reducing it is a key priority for the government’ (Home Office, 2011: 16). The ‘Kinsella Review’ recommended anti-knife crime presentations for school children; better data sharing between police and schools and more interventions with young people to stop them getting involved in knife crime. The government committed £18 million towards community based preventative initiatives in line with these recommendations.

In the same year however, what have been called ‘the worst civil disturbances for a generation’ occurred. [4] Young people rioted in London, Manchester and around the UK. This led to a shift in government priorities and the Ending Gang and Youth Violence Programme was published soon after. This set out ambitious targets for reducing youth violence but made limited reference to knife crime (HM Government, 2011 and 2015). The Ending Gang Violence and Exploitation programme in 2016 focused on a different upstream issue: ‘County Lines’, that is the use and movement of vulnerable young people around the country by criminal gangs to sell drugs.

The new strategy: different or same old?

This brings us back full circle to looking at wider issues instead of knife crime as a specific problem. The Serious Violence Strategy found, as I did, that there are important links between knife crime, street robbery and drug markets. What it seems to neglect though is the relationship between violent victimisation and the initial decision to carry a knife.

The new strategy makes clear that government efforts are ‘not solely focused on law enforcement…but depends on partnerships across a number of sectors… [and] needs the support of communities thinking about what they can themselves do to help prevent violent crime happening in the first place…’

It is claimed that this represents a ‘step change’ in the way the government thinks and responds to serious violence, and establishes ‘a new balance between prevention and law enforcement’. I would question whether this really represents such a dramatic change from what went before: a social media campaign for instance was tried in TKAP.

That said, the document is well written and in my view, surprisingly mature, informed and thoughtful for a Conservative government. It seems to bridge the gap between tackling specific issues and acknowledging the wider sources of a problem. It also promises significant investment in both efforts to tackle knife crime and efforts to tackle wider issues. Whether or not it can effectively tackle both upstream and downstream issues related to knife crime remains to be seen.



[1] Including the Offensive Weapons Act 1996 and the Knives Act 1997 both of which increased by some way the punishments for carrying a knife.

[2] The Criminal Justice Act 2003 Order 2010

[3] The Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012

[4] Lewis, P., Newburn, T., Taylor, M., Mcgillivray, C., Greenhill, A., Frayman, H. and Proctor, R. (2011) Reading the riots: investigating England’s summer of disorder, London: The London School of Economics and Political Science. p 36

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