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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Fearsome blades for sale as UK knife crime soars

Violent crime rises in Britain led by knife attacks and gang violence

Revellers at London's Notting Hill Carnival rest in front of an anti-knife crime message. EPA
Revellers at London's Notting Hill Carnival rest in front of an anti-knife crime message. EPA

For sale: Axes, swords, weapons inspired by violent movies and “hundreds of pocket and lock knives to fit any budget”. The British online catalogue features a 16-inch machete that is the “baby brother” of a “massive 2ft version”. For those who can’t decide, there’s a lucky dip option: “Try a mystery box from £10”.

The blades have one thing in common: they are all legally on sale in the UK, where knife attacks have contributed to the highest levels of homicide for a decade. Police last week opened their 100th homicide case in the capital where violent attacks have been driven by gang-related disputes.

The easy availability of knives has been identified by government as a reason for soaring violent crime and prompted one judge to publicise pictures of deadly weapons seized during one murder investigation to highlight the problem.

The bladed weapons were discovered at the home of one of the four teenage killers of Mahamed Hassan, 17, following the gang-related murder in April last year. Citing the website, knifewarehouse.co.uk, the Judge Nicholas Cooke said that regulations barring sales to under-18s were insufficient.

“Such fearsome weapons need to be kept out of the hands of persons who might use them,” he said. “What earthly use of a lawful nature could there be for such items?”

The little-noticed court case – in which the four killers were jailed for a total of 85 years - came amid increasing political and media focus on crime following a sharp rise in the most serious and violent cases over the last four years.

Police recorded more than 40,000 crimes in 2017-18 where a knife or blade was used, a 16 per cent increase on the previous year. Knife crimes and a spate of terrorist attacks contributed to the 736 homicides in 2017/2018, the highest figure for a decade.

Critics of the government point to eight years of cuts to police budgets and major reforms set in train by former home secretary, and now premier, Theresa May. The government counters by pointing to higher levels of murderous gun crime in the 1990s when there were larger police budgets.

But in a country that prides itself on its routinely unarmed police force and strict gun laws, the government faces criticisms that it has done too little to tackle the scourge of violent knife-based urban crime.

A month after the four men were jailed by Judge Cooke, Mrs May’s successor, Amber Rudd, unveiled the government’s new violent crime strategy and insisted that more would be done to tackle knife sales.

Carrying a knife without good reason is already illegal. The government in 2016 also banned so-called zombie knives in 2016, weapons with curved and serrated edges inspired by horror films and prized for their fear factor.

“I’ve seen what’s going around our streets – the zombie knives, axes and bayonets,” she said. “And let me tell you, it might have had a place in medieval warfare but it certainly doesn’t have a place on our city streets.”

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The knife sale website, identified by the judge, includes legal advice to inform buyers of the restrictions on purchases of knives. The website did not respond to emailed request for comment.

The Centre for Social Justice, a right-of-centre think-tank, claimed that half of knife crime and violence in London was attributable to street gangs. Criminal sources have told The National that oversupply of illicit drugs have driven down profit margins for dealers, sparking increased rivalry between gangs running operations on different areas in the capital.

“The most notable trend in London has been a rise in knife homicides that started in 2017, particularly involving young black male victims,” said Gavin Hales, an independent researcher on criminal justice and policing.

“At this stage, the causes of the uptick in violence are not clear, although it seems likely that cuts to police budgets imposed by central government, reflected in large falls to the number of police officers, are significant.”

The government blamed the rise in violent crime on the changing nature of drugs markets, the easy accessibility of weaponry, the malign influence of gangster-inspired music, and online goading between feuding gangs.

But the father of a teenager murdered a decade ago told The National that the problems went deeper and called for a fundamental reassessment of how Britain engages with is communities who did not feel they have a stake in society.

The comments of Barry Mizen, whose son Jimmy was killed in an unprovoked attack at a bakery, said there was a “lack of commitment to really try to make a difference to some of these damaged parts of our society”.

His view was echoed by Chuka Umunna, a lawmaker for the opposition Labour party, in a speech last week, who cited the growing divide between London's poorest and richest communities. “We provide young people with an environment in which they can thrive…. this mutual obligation between society and young people has been broken. There can be no excuse for the violence but we won’t end it unless we renew this social contract.”

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The UK government and London’s mayor have traded accusations over who shoulders the blame for the rising cycle of violence in the capital.

Sadiq Khan, the mayor from the opposition Labour party, has repeatedly demanded more money for policing budgets, while senior government figures have criticised him for failing to take a strong political grip over the crisis.

Mr Khan – in post since 2016 – says that government funds for policing have been cut by £700 million since 2010. London’s police force said that it expects to lose some 3,000 officers under continuing budget cuts to 2020.

While 70 per cent of police budgets in the capital are provided by central government, the mayor has responsibility for 20 per cent. A cross-party London government scrutiny committee said that Mr Khan had diverted some money towards the police but “it is small change and he could do a lot more”.

Theresa May, the British premier, oversaw cuts to police budgets and oversaw some radical reforms of the service while she was charge of policing from 2010.

Her tenure at the Home Office – during a period of falling crime – cemented her status as a safe pair of hands within the government and contributed to her successful campaign to become leader of the ruling Conservative party after her predecessor David Cameron quit in 2016.

Critics say her policy of cuts is now coming home to roost amid an upward trend in violence, even as other crimes hold steady.

But senior ruling party politician Boris Johnson, Mr Khan’s predecessor as mayor, last month rounded on the incumbent’s record for tackling violent crime.

In a newspaper column penned after quitting as Foreign Secretary over disputes with the leadership about Brexit, Mr Johnson accused Mr Khan of “abject failure… either to grip the problem, or even to take responsibility”. The mayor’s office described his comments as “desperate nonsense”.

Mr Johnson’s comments were equally a thinly-veiled swipe at his political rival, Mrs May. He criticised her 2014 decision to cut the number of street searches in the capital, long seen by Britain’s black and minority ethnic communities as discriminatory and the cause of tensions.

Data showed that stops and searches conducted by police in England and Wales fell by a fifth in the year to March 2017. The rise in knife crime has led to renewed calls for the tactic to be stepped up again.