It's not only Brexit, May's under pressure over knife crime as well
By Bertram Niles

Brexit has taken all the headlines but there is another big issue troubling Britain – what has been called an epidemic of knife crime – and which threatens to take more gloss off the country's reputation. 

The government has just announced 100 million pounds (132 million U.S. dollars) in additional funds to fight the problem over the next year.

Latest available figures show that there were 285 fatal stabbings in England and Wales (which along with Scotland and Northern Ireland make up Britain) in the year to March 2018, the highest level since records began more than 70 years ago. 

Critics have pointed fingers at police budget cuts under the austerity program of the governing Conservative Party. The cutbacks began when Prime Minister Theresa May was in charge of the interior ministry, and a former head of the country's biggest police force, John Stevens, went as far as accusing her of being personally responsible for the crisis because of her squeeze on police funding and a weakening of powers to stop and search suspects.

May denied last week that that funding reductions were to blame for rising crime, arguing that "we will only defeat the scourge of violence if we understand and address its complex root causes." She was responding to a taunt from British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn that "you cannot keep communities safe on the cheap."

British police have been campaigning for more resources. /VCG Photo

British police have been campaigning for more resources. /VCG Photo

It was very unusual to see the Conservatives, who have prided themselves as the country's law and order political advocates, haggling with the police over funding. 

After stalling for a time, the government clearly had to act as it could not risk violent crime becoming another political liability amid the shambles that Brexit has become. It was also in danger of triggering claims that it is being distracted from dealing with other serious problems as a result of its preoccupation with the chaotic process of departing from the European Union.

'School exclusions' linked to knife crime

Crime is shaping up to be a key issue in the next general election whether or not the Conservative Party survives the present Brexit debacle.

It is instructive that the murders of two teenagers – a girl scout and a public schoolboy in an affluent village – during the first weekend of March reignited the national debate on knife crime. Evidently, class and race often determine what profile a murder has in the UK.

Apart from funding, there is concern that an increase in children being expelled from school is helping to fuel the knife problem as it leaves the excluded susceptible to recruitment by drug gangs, in particular.

The record of Theresa May, seen here caricatured in a German carnival parade, as interior minister is under scrutiny. /VCG picture 

The record of Theresa May, seen here caricatured in a German carnival parade, as interior minister is under scrutiny. /VCG picture 

Ofsted, the national education agency, insists there is no evidence of a link between the two but the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is in no doubt that it is.

"More and more young people – vulnerable children – are excluded and not looked after," Khan told a radio interviewer last week. "When you look at prison inspectorate reports – nine out of 10 young people in custody have been excluded (from school)."

One of the crime fight interventions that police will carry out is more stop-and-search, a controversial method that has led to tensions over the years between the police and ethnic minority youth, who felt they were unfairly targeted in the past.

Officers are, however, likely to find more support among communities this time around, given that the figures reveal that the number of people aged 18 and under being treated for stab wounds has risen by two-thirds in the past five years. 

Campaign against illegal selling

And doctors in emergency hospital units say the injuries they are treating are "becoming more severe, and the victims were getting younger, with increasing numbers of girls involved," according to the BBC.

In the United States, violent crime is mostly gun-related, but in Britain, particularly London, knives are the weapons of choice. 

In an effort to keep them out of the hands of the very young, police plan to carry out a series of sting operations to expose shops which are breaking the law by selling knives to those under the age of 18. And last week, the Walmart-owned supermarket chain Asda said it will remove single kitchen knives from sale in all its stores by the end of April as its contribution to tackling the crisis.

To add a bit of irony to the situation, the Guardian newspaper has reported that British teenagers of Somali lineage are being sent by their parents to Somalia, not known for its safety, because of concern that the police in London cannot protect them from knife crime.

Still, even with increased knife crime and a rise in the number of homicides by 14 percent in England and Wales in the year ending September 2018, violent crime in Britain remains low in comparison to say, the United States.

But this will be of little comfort to UK residents if blood continues to be spilled on the nation's streets at the current rate.