Tougher sentences won’t bring end to knife crime, we need to make young people feel safe - Steve Oversby

I’m sure you will have seen the headlines about the far too many young lives that are being ended as a result of an epidemic of serious violence, especially knife crime.

But you’re less likely to have heard from the young people who’ve directly been affected.

For the last few years Barnardo’s has been supporting the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime, which brings together MPs and young people – as well as charities, education, police, health and social care professionals – to talk about knife crime.

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Young lives are being lost as a result of knife crime. Photo:

Many of us will ask the question why do some young people feel the need to carry a knife? For the young people we spoke to, this was because they did not feel safe or protected by anything (or anyone) else.

In the words of one young person: “When you step out your house, it feels like you might have to defend yourself.”

And in some cases, the decision to carry a knife can be made without any intention or expectation to use it, as another told us; “It boosts you up and I feel like, all right, I’m safe because if someone comes to me I have this.”

The mainstream conversation around knife crime often demonises young people.

But this leaves out the hard truth – children can be afraid of the society they live in. And this fear is compounded if they are seeing and hearing others around them becoming victims of knife crime.

When you add to this the lack of faith many young people have in society’s ability to protect them, you begin to see how alone and vulnerable some of these young people might feel.

Too frequently, young people on the fringes of trouble find themselves excluded from school, meaning they have more time to get into trouble: “People my age haven’t got anything to do... if you don’t go to school or you are not in any education, you are on the streets doing what you want to do and nothing is stopping you from doing that.”

Young people spoke of the sense that in the communities they live there are few opportunities.

They spoke of a gap in understanding between those in power and those who were living with the realities of poverty and deprivation.

“People in the Government, high-up people... their kids don’t go to the local schools or colleges.”

But things can get better if we invest in services and opportunities to help young people find alternative opportunities.

One young person we spoke to explained how one such initiative in their local area has really helped them.

“I did a motorbike course – learning how to ride and fix one up and everything and that kept me off the streets because it’s something for me to do. I think that more money needs to be put into that.”

This echoes a point raised by many young people – in order to prevent further knife crime, they need to have access to alternative opportunities to gain skills and take part in activities.

Barnardo’s knows from its work across the country that resources for children are dangerously underfunded.

A recent Freedom of Information request found that (of councils that responded) there had been a 40 per cent cut in funding of youth work over the last three years. In addition to that, 87 per cent of councils have shut at least one youth centre since 2011.

Often the conversation around knife crime centres on the number of police on the streets, but it’s not as clear-cut as this.

A recent YouGov poll for Barnardo’s surveyed adults in ten cities, one of which was Leeds. More than 100 adults in Leeds were asked for their thoughts about knife crime.

People know that knife crime is a complex issue, with 62 per cent agreed that more safe places and activities for children, such as youth clubs, sports clubs and community centres would make their area safer.

Only 26 per cent thought tougher sentences for those who commit crime would work.

We’re calling on the Government to properly fund services to help children and young people. We’re working with other children’s charities to get the Government to agree to address a £3bn shortfall in funding – this is how much it will cost to plug the gap until 2025.

One thing is clear – there is no solution to this that will be found in perpetuating the one-sided view of young killers on the streets.

In many cases, these are children who are frightened and feel alone.

And importantly, we have to remember this – that nothing would mean a young person would deserve any harm, regardless of the circumstances or their experience of knife crime.

Our young people are scared. It’s on us all to work together to make them feel safe.

Steve Oversby is director of Barnardo’s East region. He is based in Leeds.