The knife attacks on our streets are as tragic as they are predictable. Every weekend it seems we hear even more heart-breaking reports of young people cut down in their prime. In the face of the relentless violence, it’s easy to feel powerless. Time and time again we’re told that everything that can be done is being done.
But serious violence has been on the rise since 2014. The recent Home Affairs select committee report correctly said that the Government’s response to the violence as a whole has been completely inadequate.
We have no faith that Boris Johnson is serious about ending austerity and championing young people’s needs.
Politicians and lawmakers owe it to the families and loved ones of those who’ve lost children, siblings and friends to be honest about the causes of one of the greatest tragedies of our time, one that is devastating communities all across the country. The Tories have finally accepted that there is a connection between police cuts and soaring levels of violent crime. It’s tempting to hope that, just by restoring the number of police officers on the streets back to what it was before they were slashed in 2010, we can solve this problem. But that isn’t going to end the violence on its own.
The causes of youth violence are undoubtedly complex and cover a wide range of issues, including childhood trauma, mental health issues, poverty, cuts to police services and inadequate state provision. However, we cannot ignore the fact that rising knife crime has coincided with deep cuts to the UK’s youth facilities.
After almost nine years of austerity, many parts of our country now have no recognisable youth services at all. Analysis by Labour shows spending on youth services has fallen by£880 million since 2010 – a 70% reduction in real terms. In my home county of Lancashire, this rises to 78%. At least 760 youth centres have closed their doors as a result. The youth services workforce has also collapsed under this Government. Between 2008 and 2016, 14,500 youth and community workers have lost their jobs, according to LGA Workers Surveys.
Today, many young people no longer have access to youth centres – a safe place where they can relax with their peers outside of school and home, learn new skills and hobbies, and forge inspiring relationships with adults and mentors. And many no longer have access to youth workers. Youth workers fill a vital role as someone talk to and provide much-needed support – but also as someone who will spot the emergence of antisocial behaviour, potential harm and divisive ideologies before they became social problems. Youth work has an important role to play in deterring young people from violence and addressing social dilemmas.
It is impossible to overstate the consequences of these cuts for our young people. By slashing youth services, the Tories have betrayed a generation. They have created the conditions in which crime can thrive and actively make young people more vulnerable to getting caught up in violence. Research shows that local authority areas which have suffered the largest cuts to spending on young people have also seen the biggest increases in knife crime.
We have to remember youth work is not just about “fixing a problem” and diverting young people away from bad or risky behaviour – it is so much more. It is about harnessing skills not fulfilled by formal education and giving young people the support they need to proactively bring about positive changes in their lives, and the time and space to discover how they can contribute to society.
We must avoid looking at young people in negative terms. Instead we must be aspirational in the future we want for them and recognise that they, with the right support and services available, can realise their full potential help their communities to thrive.
Labour is committed to rebuilding our communities and addressing the root causes of youth violence. We welcome the select committee’s report, particularly its call for major investment in local youth services and prevention work – including a new ‘Youth Service Guarantee’ to ensure a minimum level of provision for all our young people.
The next Labour government will deliver this guarantee as well as a properly-funded youth service backed with new legislation, guaranteeing high-quality youth work in every community. This will be part of a public health approach encompassing youth services, the police, school exclusions, housing, social services, mental health and health as a whole. Ultimately we will ensure young people are safe and secure in the modern world, treated fairly, supported in the present, and ambitious for their future.
We have no faith that Boris Johnson is serious about ending austerity and championing young people’s needs. Knee-jerk quick fixes won’t end knife crime. The only solution is to invest in our communities. And if the Prime Minister won’t act to solve the problem now, he should call an election and get out of the way, because Labour will.
Cat Smith is the Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood
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