The UK House of Commons’ Home Affairs Committee published a report on Serious Youth Violence a few weeks ago. It says that the recent rises in serious youth violence are a social emergency which must be addressed through much more concerted government action at national and local levels.
Although violent crime figures have followed a downward trajectory over the long term in England and Wales, the most serious forms of violent crime have risen sharply in the past few years. In particular, there has been a sharp rise in the murder rate and enormous increases in police recorded knife crime. While the growth has been concentrated in London and the large metropolitan areas, it is being felt increasingly in other smaller communities across the country. Most alarming is the rapid increases in youth victims of knife crime and homicide. Black, Asian and ethnic minority people are over-represented as both victims and suspects of serious violence.
The Committee identifies the primary drivers of these increases as ‘county lines’ drug trafficking and related activities, gang activity, a proliferation in knife-carrying among the youth and poverty. The predatory behaviour of ‘county lines’ drugs groups is a potent factor. They exploit and abuse vulnerable children (as young as 12 years of age) many of whom would otherwise be perfectly safe in their own home. Once sucked into the ‘county lines’ groups, they are effectively imprisoned in an environment of knives and gang violence. These children are let down by a combination of safeguarding systems which are focused too narrowly on risks within the family home, and the ongoing failure of agencies to work effectively together to build a package of support around them. Fragmented governance and funding structures, and poor coordination of resources, have hampered government and law enforcement efforts to tackle ‘county lines’ criminality, and allowed the groups to stay ahead of efforts to curb their criminal exploitative activities.
In particular, the Committee highlights: failures in the Government’s Serious Violence Strategy, a national leadership deficit in the implementation of a ‘public health’ approach to the problem, funding cutbacks in policing and a lack of sustained preventative interventions.
Serious Violence Strategy
The Government’s “Serious Violence Strategy”, published in April 2018, is criticised by the Committee as “completely inadequate” for the challenge. While the Committee acknowledges that the Strategy offers a coherent analysis of the scale and causes of the problem, it finds that the analysis of the ‘risk-factors’ for youth involvement in violence is based largely on readily available evidence. It is not underpinned by any attempt to collect new data or gain a clear understanding of the numbers and location of the populations most at risk of serious violence. While the Strategy (commendably) prioritises a ‘public health approach’, it contains “no targets or milestones, few new actions and no clear mechanisms for driving forward activity at a national and regional level.” Overall, the Committee feels that the Strategy does not reflect a clear government focus on keeping young people safe from rising levels of violence. There is a serious mismatch between the government’s diagnosis of the problem and its proposed solutions. The Committee considers that this is “symptomatic of wider dysfunctions within the Government’s response to this issue, and its approach to crime and disorder more broadly.”
National Leadership Deficit
The Government’s proclaimed ‘public heath approach’ to tackling serious violence requires coordinated action across a range of services such as education, health and business, as well as police and justice. This is reflected in the re-branding of the Inter-Ministerial Group on Gangs, chaired by the Home Secretary, to an Inter-Ministerial Group on Serious Violence Strategy. It brings together “key representatives from a range of national, local and delivery partner agencies” to oversee delivery and “challenge the impact of delivery of the Serious Violence Strategy.” It is complemented by a new, cross-sector ‘Serious Violence Taskforce’, chaired by the Home Secretary, to oversee the Strategy’s programme of work and to “provide a route for challenge and support on local progress in tackling serious violence.” Earlier this year, in response to intense media coverage of a number of youth murders in quick succession, the Prime Minister established and chaired a new Ministerial Taskforce to “coordinate government activity and ensure all departments are playing their part in reducing serious violence”. It is supported by a new Serious Violence Team in the Cabinet Office.
While central government ownership of the response to the challenges presented by serious violence is necessary and welcome, there must be a concern that these ‘initiatives’ will confuse and obscure clear lines of responsibility and accountability. There must also be a suspicion that they are motivated primarily by the need to convey a public image of the Government being on top of the problem, at the expense of delivering concrete remedial action on the ground. Certainly, the Committee is not persuaded that the Government’s rhetoric is matched by leadership and coordinated action. It considers that the Home Office’s contribution has been limited to “the production of a limited strategy and convening of a few roundtable discussions.” Moreover, the Government’s approach is considered to be “not fit for the task at hand”, and its lack of national leadership is “evidence beyond doubt of the need for a change in direction.” Similarly, the Committee is not persuaded that the Prime Minister and Home Secretary are treating serious violence with the urgency and focus it requires. In particular, they are not ensuring that the Prime Minister’s Taskforce has the resources it needs in order to function effectively and target resources in the right places.
Critically, the national leadership deficit is also reflected in the Government’s failure to identify the number of children at risk of involvement in serious youth violence. As the Committee observes, it is extremely difficult to target public health interventions in the absence of such data which should be driving and informing local action to tackle serious youth violence. The Ministerial Task Force and the Serious Violence Taskforce should be monitoring progress across a common dataset collected consistently across the country.
The Committee pick up on the accountability deficit. This is compounded by the complex network of local stakeholders in policing, local government, education and civil society. Despite the government’s high-profile coordinating initiatives, the Committee finds that it has failed to establish clear lines of communication and accountability for progress in delivery on the ground. Closely associated with this is the Committee’s view that the explosive growth in drug gangs exploiting young people and ‘county lines’ criminality offers damning evidence of systemic failures within current structures and processes for law enforcement and child protection. This includes the failure of safeguarding and law enforcement agencies to operate effectively across borders and to share data on at-risk children.
The leadership deficit is also evident in the failure of the Home Office’s Drugs Strategy, with drug deaths in England and Wales running at three times the European average and ten times the average in Scotland. Not surprisingly, the Committee concludes that there is a need to take urgent action to reduce demand by improving the provision of treatment for drug users.
The value of police ‘stop and search’ as an effective response to knife crime and serious youth violence is keenly contested. While the Committee acknowledges that intelligence-led stop and search can make a contribution to keeping communities safe, it also emphasises that the manner in which stop and search has been used generally has alienated the most heavily policed communities and undermined trust in the police. There remains significant disproportionality in the use of the powers on race and ethnicity lines that is not explained or justified by the increased likelihood of becoming a victim of knife crime.
The Committee indicates that it will explore stop and search in further detail later in the year when it reports on its inquiry to mark the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. It is clear, however, that the Committee sees more value in preventative measures such as enhanced investment in neighbourhood policing and safer schools’ officers. It recommends that by April 2020 all schools in areas with an above-average risk of serious youth violence should have a dedicated school police officer.
Sustained funding cutbacks in policing continue to be a key issue. In its 2018 report, Policing for the Future (See ‘The future of policing’), the Committee highlighted the damage that cutbacks were causing for the delivery of an adequate and effective police service. It now feels compelled to make the same observation with respect to tackling serious youth violence. Accordingly, it repeats its call for the Home Office to move to a long-term funding settlement for policing, to allow for much-needed investment in frontline policing. In particular, it advocates enhanced investment in preventative measures such as neighbourhood policing and safer schools’ officers. By April 2020, it would like to see a dedicated school police officer in all schools in areas with an above-average risk of serious youth violence. It also emphasises the need for ringfenced resources for partners working on safeguarding vulnerable children (police, local authorities and the NHS). Significantly these partners should be required to produce local plans, complete with clear targets and milestones, to reduce the number of children at risk locally from ‘county lines’ exploitation
Citing strong evidence linking knife crime and serious youth violence with deprivation and vulnerability, the Committee considers that the cure lies in prevention. Diagnosing and treating the root causes of the problem need to be prioritised over dealing with the acute outcomes through the criminal justice system and the accident and emergency departments. While the Government superficially accepts that logic, the Committee criticises it severely for its rhetoric not matching the reality of its decisions and actions in the community:
“The current epidemic of youth violence has been exacerbated by a perfect storm emerging from cuts to youth services, heavily reduced police budgets, a growing number of children being excluded from school and taken into care, and a failure of statutory agencies to keep young people safe from exploitation and violence. Young people have been failed in the most devastating way, and they are losing their lives as a result.”
Current Government investment in tackling serious violence is considered to be completely inadequate and does not even begin to match the scale of the problem.
Accordingly, the Committee argues that the Government needs to give greater thought to what sustained and preventative interventions should look like, and how to ensure that public funding is diverted towards the most effective approaches using data on the populations most at risk. This should encompass a fully-funded statutory minimum of provision for youth outreach workers and community youth projects on all areas, co-designed with local people. Enhanced provision should apply in areas with higher-than-average risk factors linked to serious youth violence. Proper mental health services also need to be provided for young people, informed by an understanding of the impact of trauma and other adverse childhood experiences. Children at risk of school exclusion (a potent factor in rendering children vulnerable to exploitation) should be provided with more social, educational and emotional supports, and further action is needed specifically to close the racial disproportionality in school exclusions.
Ultimately, there needs to be much more sustained investment and joined-up thinking in addressing the factors that propel children into exploitation and risky behaviour, and in the provision of youth services and supports to divert them into safe outlets and activities.
The Committee’s hard-hitting report is a stark and timely reminder of the complex issues lying behind the lurid headlines associated with the spike in knife crime and serious youth violence. For all its grandstanding on the subject, it would appear that the Government is not even managing to take the most basic steps needed to understand and address the driving forces behind the problem, let alone provide coherent leadership and resources to get on top of it. The analysis and recommendations in the report should be welcomed as vital resource to spur the Government into action and to hold it to account for its performance.