Minister calls on parents to count their kitchen knives in a bid to halt rising gang violence in Britain

Kate McCann
A police cordon after a knife crime incident in London - SWNS.com

Victoria Atkins is no stranger to the sharp end of crime. She spent years prosecuting hardened criminals and is one of the only 30 barristers in the country trusted to take on specialist serious fraud cases.

She also saw off a purse snatcher with a look so cold it forced the potential thief to gingerly replace her cash and dash off in another direction after she fell over in the street.

"I just sort of looked at him and was like 'seriously mate?' and in fairness to him he walked off", she laughs, recounting her experience outside Waterloo station before she became an MP, which she admits could have been far worse.

Ms Atkins was appointed Home Office minister in November last year after joining the Commons in 2015 and has one of the most challenging briefs in Government, including knife crime, terrorism, gangs and internet safety.

After months of stabbing attacks across the UK, resulting in nearly 50 deaths in the capital alone this year, stopping people carrying weapons is one of her biggest tasks.

To tackle it, Ms Atkins, who has a son of her own, says parents must check their kitchen drawers to make sure their children aren't taking knives to school.

Victoria Atkins Credit: Jeff Gilbert

"I am very conscious I don't want to scare people or set hares running on this, it's such an important topic so there's enough fear anyway because of that", she says, adding that her message to mums and dads is "just to look in your kitchen drawer and count your knives and make sure you know where the knives are". 

Her message, she says, applies to parents in cities and in small regional towns and villages due to the rise in county lines gangs which often recruit vulnerable youngsters to sell drugs around the country.

The tough approach is part of a plan to look at the reasons young people join gangs in the first place, including how domestic violence desensitizes children to aggressive behaviour, making them more likely to get involved in gangs.  

Tougher sentences for anyone caught with a weapon more than once have been introduced and age verification checks stepped up online to prevent the sale of acid and knives.  

But Ms Atkins, who is warm but no-nonsense and speaks without wasting a word, admits there is still some way to go. 

The Met Police commissioner Cressida Dick Credit: PA

Figures show almost 40 per cent of second-time knife offenders do not get the mandatory custodial sentence Judges are supposed to hand down. 

"I wouldn't say it's not working", she says, "the question I have posed of the Ministry of Justice, and of course judges are independent and I am not attacking that independence, but I've asked the minister about what they think, if they can ask judges why they're not using it in every case."

The answer may be that knife crime and the reasons behind it are complex and often start when children are in school, if not earlier. 

It is part of the reason Ms Atkins, who was the first in her family to go to university, left the legal profession to become an MP. 

"I got to a stage by the time a case had already come to me in court it was too late", she explains.

The Home Office is working with  education  professionals and charities to try and understand why so many excluded children end up turning to violence but it is a difficult line to tread. 

Knife possession has soared in the last four years

The Conservatives have always been tough on crime but there are signs of a new approach looking instead at prevention and counselling instead of jail time. 

The shift, which follows Theresa May's departure from the Home Office, can be seen in its approach to immigration and more recently in a decision to review the laws on medicinal cannabis use. 

Ms Atkins makes clear: "We still maintain the focus on law enforcement because we have to ensure if someone commits a violent crime against another person they should be brought to justice," she explains. 

"But we are also mindful that more and more young people are being dragged into this so we want to try and intervene at an earlier stage and prevent them from getting into these criminal gangs an criminality in the first place."

Knife crime criminals in England spend half as much time behind bars than those in Scotland

Much of the violence, according to campaigners, is being fueled by a desire among young people to belong to a powerful group, in many cases as a result of absent parents and particularly fathers. 

Many gang leaders recruit so-called "soldiers" to do their dirty work, carrying weapons for them so they can avoid being caught in  possession  themselves. 

There are tally schemes to score points and gain respect from older members, and initiation tasks to check new members can be trusted. Some of which involve stabbing innocent members of the public while being filmed.

Ms Atkins explains: "The gang leaders are incredibly manipulative, sophisticated criminals, these are people who think nothing of  recruiting their soldiers, as they call them, and they are utterly insensible to them - they do not care about these young people.

"We have to match their ruthlessness with our own determination to take them on". 

She says one of the ways to do this is to make sure police have all the powers they need to act on the spot, and the political backing to do so. 

Knife crime homicides are on the rise

"If they go in and do a search of a home or someone's address and they have suspicions this person is at the head of a gang or they're recruiting young people to a county lines gang, I want the police when they get into the house and they find a zombie knife, I want them to have the power to arrest that person on the basis of that ...so they've got all the tools they need to lock people away."

She backs a scheme to evict the families of gang members in the most serious cases, in order to drive them away from crime, and she takes aim at technology companies who do not do enough to prevent knives being sold online or violent videos being shared. 

"I've seen some of these videos, these videos have the name of the people or the gangs that people want to murder", she says in disbelief.

"The technology companies are beginning to realise, slowly frankly, but they're beginning to realise the public is losing patience with them ... I think the technology companies have to up their game on this, the public expect them to."

She explains after years of enjoying the internet, people are waking up to the dangers. 

"We're at a very interesting point in history...we're beginning to understand the downsides and I'm very clear the public are fed up with it", she says.