‘Five people stabbed within two hours in London’ said the headline. Another reported that ‘shocking new figures reveal nine knife crimes a day are recorded across Greater Manchester’. A third read: ‘Knife crime hits record high in England and Wales’.
These are all news stories from recent weeks; a cursory Google search using the words ‘knife crime’ reveals many others. What’s even more alarming is that a significant number of these incidents involve teenagers. It’s not hard to see that local authorities have their work cut out tackling underage sales of knives.
It has been a criminal offence to sell a bladed item (except a folding pocket knife with a blade measuring three inches or less) to minors since the Offensive Weapons Act 1996 amended the Criminal Justice Act 1988. Now the Offensive Weapons Act 2019, which received Royal Assent on May 16 but has yet to become law, will make it illegal to possess dangerous weapons in private and will also make it a criminal offence to dispatch bladed products sold online without verifying that the buyer is over 18.
In addition, the new legislation will criminalise underage sales of certain harmful corrosive substances, such as strong acids. The mandatory age verification for online knife sales will also apply to corrosives, as well as banning the delivery of such products to click-and-collect lockers.
It all sounds positive and trading standards officers say there is much to welcome in the Act. But what about the practical difficulties of enforcing these new rules? At the time of writing, the Government had yet to assign any new funding to support trading standards in these areas, and it’s likely that the work involved will be expensive.
Stephen Knight is Operations Director at London Trading Standards. He explains the concerns that officers have about the new regime. “When the new Offensive Weapons Act finally comes into force – we don’t know when it will yet – that puts huge new burdens on local authority trading standards services in two key ways,” he says. “First of all, there’s the whole issue of corrosives, some of which are covered also by the Poisons Act, although that’s not a trading standards issue to enforce. That means trading standards officers in theory will need both training in some of these chemicals but also will start conducting test purchases in the type of retailers they’ve not had to visit before. But almost the bigger part of this is the elements about delivery of both knives and corrosives in the Offensive Weapons Act.”
Knight agrees that it is right to introduce these new offences but says that “the problem with that is logistically it’s going to be almost impossible to enforce without big resources”.
He adds: “The kind of resources needed to enforce it look to be completely outside the remit of any one local authority, particularly small London local authorities. What we’ve said in our response to the Home Office is that if you want this to be properly enforced, or really any meaningful enforcement, it’s got to come with new resources.”
Home Office funding for extra in-store test purchases of knives runs out in March 2020 and nothing has been said about further monies to continue this work. In fact, various councils have stepped up their test purchasing despite no extra funding – with impressive results.
Cenred Elworthy, Principal Trading Standards Officer at Barking and Dagenham Council, says that last year trading standards carried out more than 80 knife test purchases without external funding. “We work quite closely with the police so we had a particular police team that were going out with us; that worked quite well,” he says. “We managed to drive our failure rate down from around 20% to 2% or 3%. We didn’t prosecute anyone last year but the previous year we had significant prosecutions.”
One of these prosecutions (conducted with Redbridge Trading Standards) led to a court victory against B&M Retail and an order to pay more than £490,000 in relation to three offences of underage sales of knives. Staff had sold knives to teenagers as young as 14.
The fine was reduced on appeal to £300,000. Similarly, in July 2019, Tool Supplies UK Ltd of Heswell, Wirral, and Inifer Potter and Son Ltd of Hockley in Essex were fined £8,000 and each was ordered to pay costs of more than £2,000 following prosecutions brought by Croydon Trading Standards (see below). Large penalties are being levied across the country – much more than historic fines of just a few hundred pounds.
Nevertheless, national data shows that children have been able to buy knives from small independent stores and major high street shops. Of 2,231 tests carried out by trading standards in England and Wales between April 1, 2018 and March 31, 2019, retailers failed to prevent the sale of a knife to a child on 344 separate occasions (15%). Poundland, Home Bargains, Asda and Tesco sold knives to children at least 15 times each during the tests.
While some retailers have since taken action to help prevent the sale of knives to children, trading standards is still hard at work tackling underage sales. In London, trading standards has joined forces with the Deputy Mayor and the Metropolitan Police to encourage stores to engage in the fight against knife crime.
The Responsible Retailer Agreement (RRA), launched in September, invites all London retailers selling knives to sign up. It is hoped that the initiative, which includes the ASSESS-CHALLENGE-CHECK process for selling age-restricted goods, will improve best practice.
Sophie Linden, Deputy Mayor for policing and crime, says: “Knives have no place on the streets of London. As part of the Mayor’s public health approach to reducing violence and tackling the causes of knife crime, we have been doing everything we can, together with the Metropolitan Police and London Trading Standards, to crack down on illegal knife sales to teenagers. This includes providing training for retailers and police officers visiting all local businesses selling knives. This way we can ensure retailers are able to challenge an illegal sale, ease potential conflict, and know when to contact the police. Working together we can stop knives from getting into the hands of young people.”
In November 2018 Croydon Trading Standards received a grant through National Trading Standards from the Home Office to carry out enforcement of knife-related test purchases. The funding originated from the Serious Violence Strategy released by the Government in 2018. Officers were asked to identify and test purchase from 100 online knife retailers based in the UK.
Accordingly, between November 2018 and the end of March 2019, Croydon carried out 100 test purchase operations using a 13-year-old volunteer. Some 41 sales were made and, of those sales, 17 cases have progressed to court. Of those 17 cases, 10 retailers have pleaded guilty, another one was found guilty, two are going to trial and a further four await first hearing.
Trish Burls, Trading Standards Manager for Croydon Council, says: “Without the grant funding, this operation would not have been possible. This has been a hugely resource-intensive operation for the Croydon team, who have still, to their absolute credit, had to deal with business as usual, as well as these cases. The profession is being squeezed from all sides – unless more resources are identified we’re not going to be able to continue what we have started. The new Act will bring with it more enforcement challenges and in order to meet those challenges, more funding is essential.”
Knight says that regarding online test purchasing and enforcing the delivery of knives, “the technical challenges are so great that without a regional or national team put together to deal with this, I just can’t see it realistically happening in any meaningful way.”
Point of origin
There’s also the issue of where knives being carried by young people actually come from, whether it’s the kitchen, a garden shed or a shop. Brandon Cook, CTSI’s Lead Officer for age-restricted sales, says that one of the problems is the lack of useful information. “There is often pressure to carry out test purchasing in the area but without any real information to say where this person, whilst underage, got the knife from,” he points out. “We don’t even know whether they bought the knife or whether they stole it, or whether it was out of the kitchen drawer or the shed or wherever. Whereas with alcohol and tobacco sales we often get information fed to us, maybe by businesses, maybe by consumers who witness young people buying.”
He adds: “It would be helpful if, as part of the investigation, police focused on where the weapon came from.”
Over in Barking and Dagenham, Elworthy says: “The big issue for us at the moment is that although there are sentencing guidelines for possessing a knife in a public place, there are no guidelines for selling knives to minors. Trading standards plans to ask for an amendment to the current Sentencing Guidelines to include sales alongside the possession”.
In the meantime, the council sends ‘well done’ letters to traders that have passed test purchases. “We do a spreadsheet from a database where we enter the details and then we do a mail merge and just send them out. It takes an hour. But I think if you don’t do that then the shops don’t know that we’re out there doing it and then you haven’t got any feedback and you’re not actually going to improve the market.”