When Rory* was 16, he was removed from his family in London by social services, and taken to a care home in Peterborough. A few months later, he was stabbed six times in a random attack.
Thankfully, the wounds weren’t fatal. The incident meant that he was deemed “at risk” enough to be recommended to Nacro, an independent not-for-profit education provider. An interview was set up within 12 hours of the attack. At Nacro, Rory receives pastoral and academic support. He says he wants to learn a trade – and staff at Nacro are helping him along that journey.
But when his classes have finished and he leaves the training centre, Rory still carries a knife. He says it’s for protection: “Bad stuff happens when I don’t have a knife,” he explains.
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According to the Office for National Statistics, incidents of knife crime are at an eight-year high across the UK, having increased by 44 per cent since March 2011.
The trend hasn’t gone unnoticed – far from it. It’s an issue much discussed by politicians, public figures and experts across the country. Everyone seems to have their view on the causes, and how it can be prevented.
Tackling knife crime
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has suggested that “Tory austerity” is to blame. Home secretary Sajid Javid proposed that teachers should be held accountable for failing to "spot warning signs" of violent crime among young people. The Home Office introduced an anti-knife crime campaign focused on fried chicken shops. Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott revealed this week Labour’s plans to expand the violence reduction units within police forces across the country to tackle the issue.
Just last week, a film which focuses on gang culture and knife crime, Blue Story, was released in cinemas. Within 24 hours, both Vue cinemas and Showcase cinemas had pulled all viewings of the film, following an outbreak of violence at Birmingham's Star City. The film has now been reinstated at both cinemas.
But there is one voice that has been largely missing from the debate – that of the young people who are increasingly becoming the victims, perpetrators and witnesses of knife crime. Young people aged between 10 and 17 represent around 20 per cent of those cautioned or convicted of knife offences. Too often, their voices go unheard.
Until now. At the beginning of next year, Nacro will publish a report that will lay bare the experiences that the young people in its centres have had with knives.
Charlotte* and Lucy* both attend the Nacro centre with Rory. All three of them have either carried a knife, been stabbed themselves or witnessed someone else being stabbed.
Lucy says that there are "loads" of gangs in Peterborough, often associated with particular postcodes. They all carry knives because they’re too scared to fight with their fists, she explains.
“In Peterborough there’s the P1 gang, the P2 gang and they all use knives because they’re all pussies – they can’t fight with their fists so they just stab. They say, 'Oh yeah, let’s just stab someone.' I saw someone being stabbed. I was there. I wasn’t scared, but I felt sick: they were attempting to take someone’s life.”
Regular stabbings, sentences and blaming the government
Knife crime in Cambridgeshire has increased by 114 per cent since 2013, according to the Office for National Statistics. It also found that Cambridgeshire police investigated 535 offences involving a knife or a sharp weapon between April 2017 and March 2018.
For these students, stabbings aren’t an unusual occurrence. The group discuss a recent incident in a park in the city. The offender was sentenced to six months in prison .“The stab wound was 6cm, so she got a month for each cm," Lucy says. "It only takes nine months to make a baby and they are giving someone six months for trying to kill someone."
Charlotte is eight months pregnant. A few weeks ago, she was picked up by the police, who found an 8-inch knife in her handbag, which she says had been put there by her boyfriend. Charges were dropped against her, and she’s now looking forward to giving birth in a matter of weeks.
But bringing her daughter up in this community worries her. “No matter what you do, you're gonna get dragged into something. Whether you’re just walking down the road and something just happens, or you end up seeing the dealer given out shots and shit. No matter where you go, no matter what you do, something's going to happen.
"I have to sit there and think, 'My daughter is going to be walking around these streets.' What the fuck is going to be happening? I could be walking from town to home and have someone attack me and my daughter, or try to chuck something into my pram. I've seen it happen. Nowhere is safe, but you've just got to try and find a way to walk around and that's one of the reasons people carry knives."
If she is so scared, why doesn’t she leave? It’s not as simple as that. "I won't leave because my family's here. Just because shit plays, it doesn't mean like that you necessarily need to get up and leave," she says.
Rory doesn't mince his words when it comes to the city he now calls home. “They should just drop a bomb on Peterborough. What is actually good here? I don’t know one person that isn’t a criminal here. I don’t know one good person here,” he says.
Who does he hold responsible for the knife crime epidemic?
“The government don’t do their jobs right. The system doesn’t work. They don’t want to do their jobs. People are dying. When these gangs come up and stab and kill all these people, it’s because of all those people in Parliament. They don’t do their jobs right.
“I saw some news headlines on 'should we ban tag in school?'. Why are they wasting time talking about that? Imagine all that money going into talking about tag. That’s why people are dying, the government doesn’t do their job. They just want to be rich.”
Rory, Lucy and Charlotte have strong views when it comes to knife crime; they get angry and emotional when sharing their stories. But when it comes to solutions to the problem, they find it hard to offer any. They can’t picture their lives without knives.
The Student Commission on Knife Crime
In London, another group of young people have proposed some possible solutions. The Student Commission on Knife Crime – set up by seven London colleges and the Leaders Unlocked programme – has bought together views from more than 400 students in London. Led by 30 student volunteers, the commission identified 16 causes of knife crime, and reviewed more than 20 different interventions which currently exist in colleges.
Its knife crime manifesto makes seven recommendations to address the underlying issues. These include boosting young people's confidence and offering access to positive role models, mental health support services and careers advice, as well as creating safe spaces for young people and helping police and local authorities to integrate better in the most at-risk communities.
But there is one recommendation, arguably the simplest of all, which stands out: give young people a voice to influence the decisions that affect them.
Alev Zahir, senior manager at Leaders Unlocked, says: "It’s so important that young people’s voices are heard on this issue as they are directly affected by knife crime and have a perspective and experience which is different to most adults. It’s not only important for them to have a voice but the ability to be part of the solution and make change."
*Names have been changed to protect the young people's identities.