This week we tragically lost more young people in violent attacks. On Monday Amber Rudd will launch a violent crime strategy which she has admitted needs to spearhead a new approach to tackling this epidemic. The UK saw a 21% increase in knife crime last year, with 39 teenagers stabbed to death. This year alone, 50 people have been killed in London.
No one denies this is an epidemic. But if we want a long term fix, MPs and ministers must be the leaders we were elected to be and deliver a 10-year strategy to tackle the underlying causes. Our ambition should be to make the next generation of young people the safest ever – anything less is failing them. Every single police officer I have met has told me we can’t arrest our way out of this problem. The police definitely need more resources and the right tools to do their job, and of course those who commit crimes should be punished. But as the Home Secretary is coming to realise, if we focus solely on policing and justice we miss the point. Knife crime continues to rise despite sentences getting tougher and tougher. We have to look beyond the crime, and tackle the causes.
Knife crime is an epidemic spreading through our communities – we know that violence breeds violence. A truly new approach will recognise this as a public health crisis, tackling the problem at source while immunising future generations against violence. Amber Rudd’s talk of a “different approach”, focusing on early intervention is a step in the right direction, but they are just words – now we need actions. To prove this is a genuine priority the Home Secretary should set an ambitious target – to halve the number of deaths from youth violence over the next ten years – with an evidence-based strategy to deliver it.
A national programme, with clear outcomes and targets monitored and measured locally. A programme that puts resources into communities to work intensively with young people at risk of getting involved, but which also educates and equips our children to be resilient. Mental health, social media, youth work, poverty, domestic violence, inequality, education and health are all part of this picture.
In 1999, the Labour government launched a Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, in response to high rates of pregnancy particularly among teenagers from deprived backgrounds. It was a proper, evidence-based programme with sufficient time, funding and leadership to work. A new Teenage Pregnancy Unit was established with cross government support to implement a 10-year strategy informed by experts, NGOs and young people themselves. It was treated as a collective responsibility for health, education, social and youth services. Local areas agreed targets and were in direct contact with children and health ministers.
There was an ambitious target: to halve the pregnancy rate for girls under 18. Analysts of the strategy highlighted four clear themes local and national government working together; improved sex and relationships education combined with better access to contraception; a national campaign aimed at both young people and their parents; and comprehensive support for young parents. Thanks to the strategy, our teenage pregnancy rate fell by 51%, with big reductions in more deprived areas. Ambition, co-ordination, the buy-in of local and national organisations, evidence-based action, and clear focus delivered results. It was so successful it’s now being used as a blueprint by the World Health Organisation. Job done.
Yes, knife crime and serious youth violence is different to teenage pregnancy. Obviously. But by using a similar approach, Scotland has shown us how to halve serious violence. Over seventy murders with knives between 2004 and 2005 prompted Strathclyde Police to set up a ‘Violence Reduction Unit’ (VRU) because they knew they had to try something different. Expanded across Scotland, the VRU’s work has helped to almost halve the number of homicides in the country, with serious violence at a 40-year low.
The VRU works to prevent violence before it occurs by recognising that some young people are more at risk than others of early criminality because of their environments. It then seeks to address those environments through education: about the negative consequences of violent crime and showing positive paths to young people who have so much potential. Early childhood initiatives and parenting programmes provide much needed support for families and provide children with crucial life development skills. Yes, this was matched by strong enforcement and sentencing. But the VRU has gone far beyond that, changing social attitudes towards violence, rehabilitating young offenders and showing young people that there is another path. Without the carrot, the stick is worthless.
Through treating violence as a public health problem, the expertise of people in the fields of policing, health, education and social work are employed. We need the same approach in London and across the UK. There are organisations like the Youth Violence Commission and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime who are learning more all the time about what interventions we need and what we should do. There are charities like Redthread who are already working intensively with vulnerable young people in hospitals, getting great results that could be scaled up. There are hundreds of community groups working tirelessly on the front lines often with little or no funding. And there are thousands of people across the country who want to help.
So we know what works; we have countless people - from police commissioners to ex-gang members - across the country who want to make this work; we have MPs from all political parties calling for change. It’s time the Government set a clear target to turn this around – we owe that to our young people.
Sarah Jones is the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime and Labour MP for Croydon Central