Police figures from England show a 73% rise over five years in women and girls being charged with “possession offences” as a result of carrying knives.
These figures fit in with an overall rise in knife crime throughout the UK that sees knife and offensive weapon offences in England and Wales up 8% on last year. The overall numbers – 22,041 offences recorded between March 2018/19 – are the highest that they have been in almost a decade. Possession offences include illegal possession and threatening with a blade, but not murders or assaults that involve knives.
While knife crime in the UK is typically male-dominated, the escalation in female knife offences is still a country-wide concern. Recorded offences are up 52% in London, 54% in Merseyside, 82% in South Yorkshire and twice as many incidents recorded in Greater Manchester between 2014 and 2018. There are also concerns about the young age of female offenders in the police figures. Almost a quarter of female offenders were found to be under 18, with the youngest female offender only seven years old.
Speaking on Radio 4’s Today Programme, MP and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Knife Crime, Sarah Jones, said:
“What we suspect is that it is much the same as sexual exploitation, that girls are groomed into gangs through praise, through friendship, through offers of protection, through asking people to run errands.
“The same kind of patterns you see girls being pulled into sexual exploitation apply to criminal networks. They end up carrying knives and getting involved in crime.”
Additionally, she said, gangs often believe young girls to be useful for criminal operations as they are less likely to be seen as suspicious and stopped by police. A 2019 report from The Children’s Society found that children under ten – the age of criminal responsibility in Britain – may be of particular interest to gangs ferrying drugs from cities to rural customers. These operations, known as “county lines”, are thought to generate £1.8 billion annual profit in the UK and rely on dealers in city centres using young and vulnerable people to transport drugs to the countryside. The National Crime Agency reported a 40% rise in county line operations in the past year, reflecting the national rise in knife crime offences.
Austerity cuts in policing, mental health care and youth services have been widely credited with the overall rise in knife crime figures among men and women. Other reasons for the increase in female offenders are complex. “There are a number of interrelated factors at play,” a spokesperson from St Giles Trust, a charity supporting ex-offenders, told The Guardian. “These include cuts to vital support services, domestic abuse, the role of the drugs trade and the exploitation of vulnerable people that goes with it, school exclusions and the need for many young people – young women in particular – to feel a sense of belonging.”
The UK government, now under Boris Johnson’s leadership, has pledged to tackle knife crime by increasing police powers. Stop and search powers have been expanded, granting police officers the right to search anyone, even without “reasonable suspicion” that they intend to cause violence. But critics have argued that this will do little to address the root causes of knife crime, and may even worsen relations between police officers and the communities they serve.
“This will not only consume police time and erode trust in the police, but have little impact in actually preventing people carrying knives. What we really need is more community police officers to build trust, turn young people away from crime, and target stop and searches on those who do carry knives,” said Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson, Ed Davey.
Meanwhile, St Giles Trust says solutions for female knife crime lie outside the criminal justice system. “Support needs to be put in place to help identify vulnerable young women who are at risk and give them the help they need to access positive opportunities, build their self-esteem, recognise healthy relationships and build their resilience.”