We must treat knife violence in the same way we would a contagious disease. Understanding it is central to working out how to prevent it, believes Sarah Jones
In these uncertain times, when experts are derided by our politicians and narrow self-interest is on the rise, we owe it to our young people to do all we can to deliver a future that is better than today.
The Labour party has proud foundations in social justice and equality of opportunity. We recognise that society is a complex process and that we only truly succeed when we all succeed. The chief responsibility of politicians must be to create a system in which the only limit is a person’s ambition, where no one is left behind, and each generation of young people are safer and more prosperous than the last.
Today’s society feels far from that. Our government uses Brexit as cover for their horrific policies of austerity and poor economic management, whilst entrenching divisions across the country with the lazy language of taking back control. And while parliamentary farce and stalemate continues, with no majority to shift any policy, the reality for our country is regression. Social mobility in the United Kingdom is among the worst in the developed world and getting worse. Poverty is grinding and inequality pervades.
Perhaps the most visceral symptom of this is the epidemic of knife violence spreading across our country. In cities and towns from Portsmouth to Sunderland, children are arming themselves and young people are dying on our streets. What bigger symbol could there be of a generation abandoned, aspiration lost? What a shame on our society.
Last autumn, I launched a cross-party group in parliament which now numbers over 50 members of parliament and Lords. There is a growing movement in Westminster to drive this issue up the political agenda and shift the focus towards prevention and early intervention.
There are several clear and important characteristics of the knife crime epidemic. And in the last year our all-party parliamentary group on knife crime has delved into some of the most complex causes and campaigned for government action.
It is now accepted that we must treat violence in the same way we would a contagious disease. We have built a robust portfolio of national and international best practice. The narrative is changing and there is hope on the horizon. But young people are still dying in shocking numbers. We need 2019 to be the year things turn around.
Knife crime and youth violence are not inevitable. They are the result of factors as widespread as they are complex. To solve this, we need solutions which look beyond crimes and criminals.
We know that knife crime and youth violence continue to rise. Knife offences are up by more than 50 per cent in three years, to the highest level on record. London is on course for the highest number of homicides in more than a decade with over 120 people killed this year.
And this is far from simply a London problem. Serious violence is increasing in almost every police force area in England and Wales. Behind the headlines over customs deals and fishing quotas, this is what ordinary Brits are dealing with every day.
We know that the age of those involved is getting younger and younger. Metropolitan police data for knife offences in schools shows the biggest rise in offences is among those aged 11, 12 and 13 years old.
We know that traditionally violent crime comes in peaks and troughs. There is some evidence that this is linked to the scale and severity of enforcement. But it also shows you that, while important, enforcement alone is not a long-term fix. The police themselves admit this.
We also know that tougher sentences are not deterring people from carrying knives. In 2010, around 40 per cent of people caught with a knife were given a custodial sentence. Today it is almost 70 per cent. 2013 was the first year that more people got a custodial sentence than a non-custodial sentence (like community service). Yet since 2013 knife offences have increased from 25,000 per year to over 40,000.
We know that levels of anxiety and fear are rising amongst a generation of young people. That knife crime is a symptom of a complex underlying picture, often defined by childhood trauma and vulnerability.
The APPG which I chair has built on this understanding over the past year. We have looked at some specific underlying issues which are cited as behind the rise in knife crime and made recommendations to government.
We have explored the phenomenon of county lines; urban drug networks extending out into smaller towns and cities, with the inevitable violent consequences. We identified clear gaps in support for vulnerable children in care or in exclusion units, and difficulties in how the police can recognise that these young people are victims of trafficking, not simply criminals.
We looked at the role of social media and drill music, where there are clear issues with online provocation of violence. Certain content clearly crosses a line and social media companies need to do more to respond to that. But what was also clear was that we constrain young people’s freedom of expression at our peril. Much better to use it to open a dialogue with young people, and to motivate young people not to carry knives by restricting access to those who are caught offending in the real world.
And most recently we have delved into school exclusions and whether alternative provision is fit for purpose. Our research found that the huge increase in permanent exclusions has left a third of local councils with no places in pupil referral units for excluded children. That means already vulnerable children are being left with even less support than in mainstream school and at huge risk of being groomed into criminality.
Along with many others, we have come to realise the only sustainable fix for this crisis is a long-term, properly funded public health approach to serious violence.
Some see public health as a nebulous concept, or worse, simply a political buzzword. But it is quite simple. It means addressing the environments which put certain people at greater risk of criminality. It means putting in place programmes across a whole generation of young people, not simply waiting for the moment when someone offends to intervene.
Treating violence like an epidemic, recognising that violence breeds violence, is easier said than done. It requires intensive work ‘at source’ when violence breaks out (such as the ‘Violence Interrupters’ pioneered in Chicago), as well as immunising future generations across the board. Programmes like Sure Start are prime examples of this, helping rebalance the prospects of children at the earliest, crucial stage.
This kind of work involves long-term commitments from government and a recognition that the benefits may take years to materialise. But there is a huge body of evidence that it works.
Described by one commentator as ‘the success story of our time’, the Labour government’s teenage pregnancy strategy was a 10‑year plan with the goal of halving the then soaring rate of teenage pregnancy in England, which was among the highest in western Europe and which predominantly impacted deprived areas.
A new Teenage Pregnancy Unit, carrying out an evidence-based strategy informed by experts and young people themselves, was given enough time and funding to succeed. It was treated as a collective challenge for health, education, social and other services. Local areas agreed targets which were monitored by government ministers.
The strategy succeeded in halving teenage pregnancy rates, and by 2016, data showed that rates were at the lowest level since records began in the 1960s, with particularly large reductions in deprived areas. The programme is now being used as a blueprint by the World Health Organisation.
In Scotland, using a public health approach the Violence Reduction Unit has turned Glasgow from the ‘murder capital of Europe’ to seeing a 41-year low in violence across Scotland with homicides falling by almost a half.
The VRU recognised the limits of policing alone to solve the problem and established partnerships between police, education and social service entities. This allowed for a long-term response that sought to prevent crime before it ever occurred, not just react to it.
There is hope on the horizon and things are changing. In London and in the West Midlands, authorities are piloting public health approaches with the London VRU and the West Midlands Violence Prevention Alliance.
The government narrative is starting to shift. When I first held a debate on knife crime in parliament last year they were talking exclusively about ‘cracking down’, about tougher sentences or stop and search. Now they are talking about public health.
Pots of money are starting to appear for prevention, particularly from the mayor of London’s £45m Young Londoners Fund. These are lifelines for voluntary organisations doing crucial work on the ground. But the risk with this model is that once they start having impact and violence reduces, the funding disappears and the whole cycle repeats.
The success of the next Labour government will be defined by how it tackles the country’s big social injustices. We know knife crime is just the tip of an iceberg. But the positive is that in solving those underlying issues in a sustainable way you do not just stop kids carrying knives. You give them a mindset, a set of skills and a pathway to success which will change their entire lives for the better.
Our political discourse has become polarised and aggressive. Much like the direction society seems to be taking. If we are going to overcome this, politicians need to step up and be the leaders we were elected to be. Labour’s ambition must be no less than to make the next generation of young people the safest ever. That is what I want to be judged on.
Sarah Jones is the member of parliament for Croydon Central and the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime
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