Six out of 10 retailers in some areas are breaking the law on underage knife sales with councils warning that a lack of funding for enforcement activity will make tackling the knife crime epidemic a huge challenge.
The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils in England and Wales, says 41 per cent of UK-based online knife retailers made illegal sales to under-18s in a test purchase operation, while shop staff are selling knives to children as young as 14.
The worrying findings come as latest official figures show a 59 per cent rise in knife crime in England and Wales in the past five years.
The dedicated Home Office Prosecutions Fund – set up as part of the Serious Violence Strategy – does not provide enough help to council trading standards teams to enforce breaches of knife law sales, by in-store and online retailers in the longer term.
The £1 million funding, split equally over two years, was given to 11 councils for in-store test purchase operations in 2018/19, as well as funding one council to run a national online test purchase operation.
The success of the test purchasing operations last year means most of the funding allocated for 2019/20 will have to be used to prosecute those businesses already caught making illegal knife sales. As a result, there will be only enough funding left to support further in-store test purchases by six councils, with no further online enforcement planned.
With trading standards budgets and staffing having been cut by around half since 2010, as a result of cuts to council funding, the LGA is calling for more funding to be allocated to the Prosecutions Fund to support enforcement activity in 2019/20 and for the Fund to be extended beyond 2020 as part of the Spending Review.
Councils’ trading standards teams are also concerned that they don’t have the necessary resources to enforce the requirements of the new Offensive Weapons Bill, which is likely to become law later this year.
The Bill will make it a criminal offence for knives and dangerous corrosives sold online to be delivered to anyone aged under 18 at a residential address, and for dangerous corrosive products, such as acids, to be sold to anyone under the age of 18.
Councils will have new responsibilities for undertaking underage test purchase operations at the point of delivery for online knife sales and for enforcing restrictions on sales of acids and other corrosives. Councils also face the cost of providing advice and training for businesses about the new legal requirements.
The LGA said the Government needs to fund the extra enforcement activity needed in light of the Offensive Weapons Bill coming into force and for knife test purchase funding to be made available to many more councils to ensure the worst rogue knife retailers are brought before the courts.
Local Liberal Democrat Cllr James Newport said:
“Rising knife crime is causing horrendous destruction and grief in many communities and councils are uncovering some shocking cases of illegal knife sales which risk fuelling this tragic epidemic.
“The retail supply of knives and acids needs to be managed robustly across all sales points, and retailers must ask for proof of age if they suspect the buyer is under 25.
“The Prosecutions Fund announced in the Serious Violence Strategy has helped some councils prosecute retailers for blatant breaches of knife sale laws.
“However, given the knife crime epidemic, the significant cuts to trading standards budgets and the extra enforcement activity that will be needed when the Offensive Weapons Bill becomes law, this Fund needs urgent further investment and extending to many more councils to tackle illegal knife sales and protect people from harm.”
Anyone who suspects that knives are being sold illegally should contact their local council’s trading standards.
- Six out of 10 retailers – three businesses and five online retailers – sold knives to a 16-year-old in a test purchase operation by North Yorkshire County Council.
- A company director has been ordered to pay more than £5,500 after a store employee illegally sold a pack of 13 knives to a 14-year-old girl, following a test purchase prosecution by Croydon Council. The employee who sold the knives was given a four-month prison sentence suspended for 12 months, ordered to pay £315 in costs and given a community order. Police had previously given a verbal warning to the shop for selling a two-piece cutter set to two 13-year-olds in school uniform.
- Three out of 10 retailers in Southend have been identified for further training after they sold a knife to an underage test purchaser in an operation involving Southend-on-Sea Borough Council’s trading standards and police.
- Three shops were investigated after selling knives to a 15-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl following a test purchase operation carried out across nine retailers by Stoke-on-Trent City Council trading standards. The children were able to buy a Stanley knife and two utility knives without being asked for identification. Two of the retailers received written warnings and one remains under investigation.
NOTES TO EDITORS
- The Prosecutions Fund – part of the Government’s Serious Violence Strategy – was made available to 11 councils (including five London Boroughs) for extra in-store test purchases and for a national online test purchase operation. Of 100 online test purchases from UK knife sellers, 41 per cent were sold illegally to under-18s.
- Retailers who sell a knife to someone aged under 18 face up to six months in jail or a fine of up to £5,000.
- Office for National Statistic figures show that there were 40,829 offences involving a knife or sharp instrument for the year ending December 2018. This compares to 39,598 offences in 2017, 32,648 in 2016, 28,008 in 2015 and 25,583 in 2014.
- The Government’s Serious Violence Strategy can be read here.
- Details of the Offensive Weapons Bill can be read here.