The surge in violent crime over the last year has left policy makers scrabbling to respond in a meaningful way. The plethora of initiatives announced over the last year – The Home Office Violent Crime Strategy, the cross party Youth Violence Commission, the London Knife Crime Strategy – all stand testament to how difficult it has been to change this trajectory. New ONS figures showing a rise in high harm violent offences in England and Wales will only add to the pressure to look for quick fix solutions.
The reality is that where there has been success, for example – the often quoted Glasgow public health model – which halved their murder rate in a decade, it has required a long term and ambitious commitment.
Using a public health lens is not a new idea, but has gained popularity in recent times. It is a useful perspective because it recognises that violence is “contagious” and exposure to it – particularly in childhood – can set up a cycle of further violence unless it is interrupted. In our work with “at risk” children, we see many who have faced enormous trauma – loss, violence or parental ill health or addiction, which can have a lasting impact. Negative outcomes for these children are not inevitable and with the right support they can recover and flourish.
There is an emphasis on early intervention in a number of the strategies published which is welcome but the challenge is to make this early enough. A review of international evidence looking at gang and youth violence concluded that strong signals of risk can be seen in children as young as seven – yet most of the funding and service provision announced recently have focused on an older age range. As gangs target children as young as 12 in the transportation and sale of drugs – we have to look even earlier to see the signs of difficulty and act on them.
A public health approach also underlines the need for “whole system” action – something the Youth Violence Commission report recognises much to its credit. The Scottish strategy included pressure at every point of influence, from early years, through reducing school exclusion, to gang exit programmes alongside effective enforcement to make a difference.
This systematic and coordinated approach will need the leadership of Local Government if it is to succeed. Despite the challenges in these times of austerity – there are still many successes to be championed. A recent visit to Waltham Forest, showed an on-the-ground team who knew their patch inside out, working with partners across the Council, Health, schools and the voluntary sector to ensure that all agencies understood signs of vulnerability and the importance of looking behind the reasons why young people might appear on their radar. In Islington – a well-implemented youth strategy has seen a significant drop in gun crime and knife crime victims aged under 25 and their Integrated Gangs Team commended by Scotland Yard.
Local Government is under far greater pressure than ever before coping with shrinking budgets and rising demand but the importance of their full involvement is essential. We know this because the last time a 10 year strategy made a significant impact on a complex multi-faceted issue of social exclusion was the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy and Local Authorities played a critical role in making this happen.
Geethika Jayatilaka is the CEO of Chance UK, an early intervention charity, providing mentoring and family support for children aged 5 – 12 with behavioural and emotional difficulties who are at risk of educational exclusion or being involved in gangs or anti-social behaviour. She was also a local councillor in London for 8 years and held the Social Services and Children’s Services portfolio in the Cabinet for a part of this time.