Knife crime is a public health emergency. As shown with the fatal stabbing in Shepherd’s Bush on Wednesday, it claims a new life almost every day. Like any epidemic, it demands an urgent public health response.
Politicians of all parties now call for a ‘public health approach to violent crime’ so often that it’s almost become a cliché. But very rarely does the conversation go much deeper than that. What exactly is a ‘public health approach?’ What concrete policies does it involve? And how will it actually halt the spread of violence?
Going beyond the headlines and grappling with these questions is exactly the purpose of the Liberal Democrat-led debate in the House of Lords on Thursday.
I will be joined by colleagues who bring expertise in education, youth services and local government – because tackling knife crime requires far more than a police and criminal justice response. And they will bring their perspectives from Sheffield, Manchester and elsewhere, mindful of the fact that 72 per cent of fatal stabbings take place outside of London.
In my view, a proper public health approach must include five key elements.
First, we must recognise how important it is for parents to be there for their children. Too many parents and carers on low wages are forced to work long hours and multiple jobs just to make ends meet. This leaves many children on their own after school, with a need to belong that gangs can exploit. To prevent that, the Government must tackle in-work poverty and provide parents with the support they and their children need.
One politician who doesn’t understand this point is, unfortunately, the one most likely to be the next prime minister. Boris Johnson wants a big increase in stop and search and boasts about the supposed success of that policy when he was Mayor of London.
Second, we must ensure there is a positive safety net for those young people whose parents can’t provide the support they need. That means restoring youth services, which have been decimated by cuts to local authority budgets. A recent study by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime, of which I am a member, found that spending on youth services has been cut by 40 per cent since 2015, with areas suffering the biggest cuts also seeing the largest increases in knife crime.
Third, we need to address Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), such as physical or sexual abuse, neglect, parental separation and domestic violence, drug or alcohol abuse or mental illness in the home. These have a range of harmful impacts throughout life, including an increased risk of becoming involved in violence. Trauma-informed healthcare, youth work and education are therefore essential.
Fourth, we have to stop excluding so many children from school. When they are separated from their peers, and when their futures seem devoid of opportunity, young people are far more likely to be lured into criminal gangs. Schools must be given the resources to keep disruptive children in school and address their individual needs, which are often related to ACEs.
Fifth, we need to restore genuine community policing. That means more officers, but it also means police working in partnership with the communities they serve to identify the gang members and knife carriers and target them, rather than indiscriminately stopping and searching young people.
One politician who doesn’t understand this point is, unfortunately, the one most likely to be the next prime minister. Boris Johnson wants a big increase in stop and search and boasts about the supposed success of that policy when he was Mayor of London. He’s wrong.
The Conservative Government’s own analysis shows that Johnson’s expansion of stop and search yielded ‘no discernible crime-reducing effects’. Instead, the disproportionate use of stop and search – with black people more than nine times as likely to be stopped as white people – undermines the very trust on which community policing relies.
So instead of Johnson’s lack of a plan, I offer a clear five-point plan. Enable parents to be there for their children. Offer positive alternatives to gangs. Heal the damage caused by ACEs. Provide inclusive education in schools. And unite police and communities against knife crime.
That’s the public health approach we need to keep young people safe.
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