Our Research Officer takes a long hard look at the Government’s recently announce Serious Violence Strategy.
Last week it was reported that there had been over 50 homicides in London during April alone, and that the vast majority were knife-crimes between males, and a large proportion involved young people. This issue has continued to be prominent in both public and political discourse over the past month.
As an area of political importance, calls have been made across the political spectrum to tackle varied factors which have been expounded as necessary root causes, ranging from reversing cuts to childrens services, youth services and police services, to monitoring and regulating social media, and tackling drug use.
Whilst it may well be impossible to isolate a single factor as being the prime cause, it is worth noting that a common theme cutting across all of the issues rests on the increased involvement of young people, whether as victim or perpetrator.
In response the Government has this week launched a 111-page Serious Violence Strategy, a summary of which is below, followed by a brief analysis.
Serious Violence Strategy:
The overarching message to be delivered is that tackling serious violence is not a law enforcement issue alone and it requires a multiple strand approach involving a range of partners across different sectors.
There is also a recognition that knife crime is not the sole form of violent crime, and that acid attacks and gun-related crime is also on the up.
In order to tackle the problem as a whole, the government has proposed 4 key themes that it will seek to address:
- ‘County Lines’ & Misuse of Drugs
(county lines are extended drug networks which extend from urban to rural areas).
- Supporting Communities and Local Partnerships
- Effective Law enforcement and Criminal Justice
- Early Intervention & Prevention
With a focus on steering young people away from crime and putting in place measures to tackle root causes by building resilience and supporting positive alternatives
To place the issues into context the Strategy recognises a long-term view is necessary. Indeed, a long-term view suggests an overall decrease in crime-rates since the late 1990s, but in certain types of violent crime there has been a marked percentage increase since 2013/14 as the table below shows:
|Knife Crime Offences||28393||24566||23665||24178||26547||32014|
When we take 2013/14 as an index point, valid as it is the year in which all 3 categories are lowest, we can visualise the percentage change in violent crimes far more easily, noting the especially sharp increase between 2015/16 and 2016/17.
The Strategy recognises that there are multiple likely drivers of serious violence, including a demonstrable link between young people, crime rates and drug use.
Whilst a long-term view suggests that drug-use as a whole is down since the mid-1990s, correlating with the decrease in overall crime levels, there are some shifts within drug and crime figures that are related to young people and should be noted:
- Despite an overall decline in young people accessing specialist substance misuse interventions, there was a slight increase in the proportion of young children using recreational drugs since 2015/16.
- There was a 57% increase in class-A drug related convictions for 10 – 17 year olds in the period between 2012 – 2016, from 224 to 392.
- Since 2013 there has been both a total and proportional increase (4%) in the number of 10 – 17 year olds being convicted of carrying a blade.
- There has been a similar increase (6%) in the number of 10-17 year olds arrested for robberies across 2015/16 to 2016/17.
- Similarly since 2014/15 the sharpest increase in assaults involving sharp objects is among 10-17 year olds.
These overall trends are not repeated for overall crime, or homicide victim ages, and suggests that rather than a wholesale shift towards younger offending, there is a specific shift within the areas of serious violence and bladed weapons, and that this is especially prevalent amongst 10-17 year olds at present.
Risk and Protective Factors and Interventions
Some clear conclusions:
- Gender: Males are far more likely to be the perpetrators of serious crime.
- Age: Self-reported violence and weapon carrying peaks at 15, but the small proportion who carry on past this age commit the vast majority of serious crimes.
- Ethnicity: There seems to be a higher proportion of BAME victims and perpetrators in violent crime
- Broader factors: taken from various longitudinal studies.
There is some evidence that risk factors overlap with not just perpetrators of serious violence, but also with those of domestic abuse, sexual abuse and street violence. Therefore, early intervention should have an effect across multiple offence types.
Conversely, protective factors which are linked to reduced propensity for violence are; household socio‑economic improvements, strengthening ties to family, school and non‑violent norms.
It is, though, hard to know exactly whether these factors are causal, or are simply markers. The evidence does suggest that the more risk factors an individual possesses the more likely they are to offend, and therefore the more likely they are to benefit from intervention. However, there are also large numbers of perpetrators who have no risk factors and / or do not fall within the other possible correlations.
The Strategy will seek to run different evaluations to assess whether addressing a single isolated risk factors, multiple risk factors, or the existence of preventative factors is most effective in reducing crime rates.
Tackling County Lines and Misuse of Drugs
‘County lines’ describes gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas within the UK, using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of “deal line”. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store drugs and money, and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual) and weapons.
Crucially, the exploitation can occur remotely, through the use of technology.
Social media is being promoted as a factor in increasing crime rates for this, and also more generally, especially amongst the young, as it can:
- Promote and glorify the gang lifestyle, and material gains that are possible.
- Be a tool for recruitment that protects the recruiter’s identity and removes the need for personal proximity.
- Provide a platform that allows a more widespread and sustained exhibition of rivalry.
Those best placed to spot its potential victims are those who work with children and young people, and potentially vulnerable adults. (For official guidance see here)
Early Intervention and Prevention
The Strategy recognises that early intervention and prevention are key, with two possible approaches given:
Focus on building resilience through supporting positive choices, critical thinking skills and providing healthy and supportive frameworks in home / school environments.
- Sept 2017 – Gov granted £40m to ‘open access’ youth provision in; East London, Liverpool City Region, West Midlands, Tees Valley and Sunderland, Bristol and Somerset and Eastern Counties.
- Jan 2018 – £90m from dormant bank accounts
- Home Office to work with schools, parents and Job Centres to further support and access for those involved or at risk of gang involvement or serious violence.
Building resilience, role models, and providing adequate support for those most at risk. Key = to find moment when young person = most willing to engage and listen
- Redthread have continued funding given for their interventions with young people in hospital as a result of suspected involvement in violent crimes. The idea is that this is when they may be most open to listening.
- St Giles’ Trust and Missing people are funded for a pilot service to support ‘county line’ victims and prevent their potential further involvement.
- Continued funding for Young People’s Advocates focussed on supporting girls in gangs.
Mental Health Factors:
There is a clear tendency that those involved in gangs or violence are more likely to have mental health issues.
At point of arrest, 40% of 10 – 18 year olds involved in this activity were found to have had signs of severe behavioural problems before the age of 12, compared with just 13% of general youth justice entrants.
There were clear positive correlations with mental health, eating and sleeping disorders too and the risk of suicide / self-harm was prevalent, especially amongst females (1 in 3, cf. 1 in 10 for males).
There will also be consideration on ways in which support can be given to ‘looked after children’, ‘care leavers’, and those excluded from school.
Supporting Communities and Local Partnerships
There will be further rounds of community funding of upto £1m per year in 2108/19 and 2019/20 to support local initiatives that focus on diversionary or educational programmes to help young people move away from knife ownership / crime as a norm.
Any bids for funding will have to be closely coordinated with Police and Crime Commissioners, with a view that a multi-agency approach constitutes a ‘Community Safety Partnership’, and thus is not a stand-alone project.
The Ending Gang Violence and Exploitation programme is currently focussed on intervening at an earlier stage than the above ‘targeted interventions’ and is currently being predominantly delivered through statutory bodies. However, there is a small fund available for local community based initiatives. (c. £20k per initiative)
Recognition that people carry knives for various reasons, from ‘looking hard’ to denoting status to fear of others.
Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Response
Increased focus on social media, which provides a secluded and instantly accessible space in which escalation and glorification of violence can occur rapidly.
Government to continue enforcing regulations on social media content and sales of knives and acid.
Co-ordinated Police action to continue to promote ‘national weeks’ that focus on knives especially, incorporating stop & search, test-purchases to determine if retailers comply with laws, educational events, weapon sweeps etc…
An area of potential interest to us surrounds the sales on knives to under 18s online, where online retailers are far more likely to sell a knife to someone under age than a shop. The Government is planning to introduce legislation to help tackle this, but it could be an area in which action on the ‘demand side’ can have effects rather than just the ‘supply side’.
Conclusion: delivering Impact and Next Steps
An inter-ministerial group will be established to focus on the Serious Violence Strategy, and a Serious Violence Taskforce will feed into this.
On a delivery / programme involvement side, the need for standardised programme evaluations to feed into a larger scale evaluation will be necessary, and therefore any funding may be direct what is to be measured.
Does the strategy go far enough?
The Strategy follows a familiar theme being voiced by the official government line; that the number or methods of Police is not a significant factor in reducing or tackling serious violent crime. Indeed, it does not mention it. The Strategy instead focusses on improving policing ‘efficiency’ through co-ordinated working between police authorities, collaborative working with other agencies, data collection and analysis.
Ironically such improvements include ‘hot-spot’ targeting; i.e. ensuring beat officers are in specific crime hot spots, at specific times. This is an implicit recognition that beat officers do work in reducing crime, and that the effect is to reduce crime overall, rather than to shift it to other areas.
Last week’s round up showed that whilst Police and Police Community Support Officer numbers in London are not down drastically across the board; there are crucially significantly less on ‘neighbourhood’ beats. This rather pre-empted a hot news item this week, a leaked Home Office Report outlining that lack of such officers may be a significant contributory factor in the increase in violent crime.
Youth Service Cuts:
Another dominant rhetoric to emerge over the last week is that increased serious crime is a direct consequence of vast cuts to youth services, with the latest high-profile spotlight being shone on the astonishing decline in numbers of Sure Start centres, and the compromised quality of those that continue to exist. If such reduction in services are affecting children in their earliest years, then the imperative for youth work to be empowered to help in slightly later years is only increased as the effect of non-action snowballs into later years, an argument put forwards by the current Children’s Commissioner for England. Again, this is not mentioned in the strategy.
The very real problem that prevents necessary funds in these areas, however, is that early interventions are notoriously hard to measure and value as their effects are not likely to be evident, and therefore measurable, until after a considerable period of time has elapsed and the contexts within which the interventions were made have changed. The current climate demands instant results, and thus the earliest interventions, which may provide the longest-lasting social investments but cannot be verified in anything other than the long-term, are cut first.
Funding for intervention:
This assertion mirrors the fact that the (small) £40m increase in funding that the Strategy promises for tackling the emergence of serious violent crime is driven by instant results-orientated criteria. This is despite a recognition in the Strategy that there has been little serious longitudinal studies of the effects of early interventions to reduce serious violent crime.
Whilst funding is welcomed, as is the recognition that the best possible opportunities for intervention lies in ‘early’ intervention (with early being a key-theme) there is a disconcerting, if implicit, suggestion that interventions are most likely to show impact when an individual is most likely to engage and listen, and therefore extra funding has been made available to those. This may be undisputable logic, but the fact remains that most interventions of this nature are necessarily after violent activities or exploitation have already taken place. This moment is generally already once young people have trodden the path of violence to such an extent that they are hospitalised or in custody, and does not tackle the issue at its various roots.
- There may well therefore be a gap in targeted interventions prior to this moment.
In short, £40m is somewhere in the region of 10% of the total of all cuts that have been made to youth services since 2010. It is a number that has not impressed David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, one of the worst affected areas. The more effective alternative must be shown to be heavier investment in more comprehensive and accessible youth services.
Are lack of alternatives driving change?
The Strategy highlights that many vulnerable young people (and adults) are being targeted by complex drug networks, and that technology helps to foster an environment and mechanism whereby child exploitation can occur. The basic argument is that social media provides for promoting and glorifying a culture of violence and a drug related lifestyle with the promise of status, friendship and material gains. The Strategy suggests that the reality is intense exploitation and little rewards for those who get exploited.
Whilst this may be broadly accurate it deflects from the very real concern for many young people, and especially those in the most deprived areas, that any substantial material gains, social recognition, or status, may not be forthcoming if they do not join such ‘county lines’ or drug networks.
For example; The Childrens Commissioner for England recalls a meeting with a girl who had been heavily involved in gangs:
‘this teenager was bright, articulate and self-assured. She was also crystal clear about her life choices, and the economic and social advantages of running drugs: “Find me a very well-paid job with status I can do now, which is legal, and I’ll do it.”
The “runners” who worked for her could earn £500 a week at the age of 12.’
The situation is compounded by the fact that youth unemployment in England is still at a very high rate. Further, many who are in training, and therefore are not part of that percentage, are unlikely to find work after their courses finish as they will come out with no practical experience, and no qualifications.
If a lack of alternatives to a life in the job seeking and benefit system is probable, then there is also a lack of alternative spaces to the ‘street’ as more youth centres close and as other universal spaces disappear, a point put to Amber Rudd recently.
There is also recognition that many young children are carrying knives as a self-defence measure due to fear of being targeted. This may be a direct result of lack of alternative protection as the number of officers patrolling the streets has dropped over recent years.
Can Youth Work Fill This Gap?:
Certain elements of this analysis are strengthened via thoughts voiced this week by Chuka Umunna, who has this week joined the Government Task Force on tackling serious violence. Certainly one element that stands out from his views are that youth workers are best placed to help tackle the whole issue by virtue of having a reduced ‘social distance’ to young people than their teachers, and therefore are more likely to be listened to, and seen as role models; he calls for increased funding and social standing for youth workers.
- Could the key to ensure effective engagement is via a peer-led approach, in which peers could be considered more appealing role models than criminals?
Of course, the issue of social distance is not confined to teachers, it has been suggested by Penelope Gibbs, a former magistrate current charity director, that young people are far less likely to engage with or approach police forces as they do not think they are able to help.
What both Chuka and Penelope voice is that interaction with young people needs to be more focussed upon their terms and life-experiences; something youth work is ideally placed to do being outside of traditional statutory bodies.
This is something that the Strategy does tend to broadly address well. Firstly, there is a clear understanding that knife crime alone is not the sole crux of the issue. Indeed, corrosive substances and firearms are other serious weapons, and contributory factors to involvement in serious violence are found in the Strategy’s focus on mental health issues, multiple risk factors and an acute understanding of the specifics that technology can play in attracting young children towards violent and / or drug related activities.
However, given the breadth of issues a stretched youth work sector is unlikely to be able to address the totality of the situation, especially if it is limited to ‘targeted’ actions. To have the best effect it must be properly funded and workers adequately skilled.