19th October 2020

Fighting another deadly pandemic

As new test purchasing data shows a fall in the number of knives sold to under 18s, Lord Toby Harris, Chair of National Trading Standards, outlines how the work of trading standards is making a difference – but warns there is still work to do to stem the flow of knives to children.


By Lord Toby Harris
Chair of National Trading Standards
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There are still too many opportunities for young people to buy a knife; 13% of test purchases saw a knife end up in a child’s hand

Tackling the knife crime pandemic that has devastated communities in recent times is complex. There are multiple underlying issues that drive knife crime – from social environments to education and policing. However, one area where local trading standards departments are helping to save lives is by preventing the sale of knives to children. Reducing the prevalence of knives being sold directly to young people helps prevent further tragedies.

Supporting retailers to prevent illegal sales

National Trading Standards (NTS) was funded by the Home Office in 2018 to augment existing test purchasing programmes in England and Wales to help tackle underage knife sales. This information was then added to locally funded work and collated over the two consecutive years by the Regional Coordinators. In each year, the Coordinators succeeded in obtaining a return from every local authority in England and Wales, ensuring that the results then publicised were a true reflection of the level of trading standards activity in this area. This has seen volunteers under the age of 18 carry out more than 3,800 test purchases, both online and in store. This has helped build intelligence, triggered prosecutions and generated tangible improvements among retailers.

From this data, we have compiled the latest test purchasing figures which show that between 1 April 2019 and 31 March 2020 there was a 15% reduction in the proportion of illegal sales, marking a 2.3% year-on-year reduction in the number of knives sold to children. Significantly, there has been a 61% drop in the number of knives sold to children by national retailers compared to test purchasing data gathered last year.

This huge drop is thanks to trading standards officers and authorities across the country. Trading standards teams continue to work hard to secure compliance by supporting businesses with guidance and advice, promoting best practice and offering practical solutions to make buying knives more difficult for young people. I am delighted to say that this work is having an impact.

Blending support with proportionate enforcement

This is a step in the right direction but it is clear that there is still more work to be done. There are still too many opportunities for young people to buy a knife; 13% of test purchases saw a knife end up in a child’s hand. The data suggest that whilst national retailers have made significant progress, preventing illegal knife sales is still an issue for independent retailers.

We must continue to share good practice with retailers and be ready to take reasonable enforcement action, where necessary. The day-to-day enforcement of knife sales laws lies with local trading standards departments and it is encouraging to see appropriate action taken against those retailers who fail to take their responsibilities seriously. I recognise that this is not always easy. If retailers are able to state that they have followed advice, such as training their staff and this is backed up by staff, it can be very difficult to bring a prosecution.

Over the past 12 months 39 premises-based retailers have been prosecuted for selling knives to children with a further 16 prosecutions in relation to online sales. Considerable fines have been issued to retailers that have failed to follow the law.

The trading standards community should be proud of its part in helping to reduce underage sales of knives across the country. The fantastic return rate from local authorities across England and Wales helps us present the national picture to maintain pressure on retailers to find workable solutions to reduce sales of knives to children.

Importantly, the data tell us that our work is making a difference but, as ever, it’s clear that there is more for all of us to do.


Crime and Policing Minister Kit Malthouse commented: “The programme of work with retailers forms an important part of the drive to tackle the scourge of knife crime. While it is encouraging to see progress being made, more must be done to stop knives being sold to children.

“The Government is taking action across all fronts to clamp down on serious violence, including boosting law enforcement and introducing measures to stop dangerous weapons making their way onto our streets.”