Serious Youth Violence and knife crime

The death of 17-year-old Jodie Chesney in the Harold Hill area of Romford on Friday 1 March took the death toll from fatal stabbings in London to 18 so far this year.

So frequent have such incidents become that we have almost stopped being shocked. But behind each headline there are parents consumed by grief, devastated family members and traumatised communities.

After decades of falling crime levels, incidences of violence and murder are firmly on the rise. And it is not just in London. Knife crime is on the rise across the UK.

As well as scores of senseless deaths, there are countless non-fatal attacks that don’t make the news. Speak to any group of young people locally and almost everyone in the room will know someone who has been attacked. Many carry knives or have considered doing so purely because they believe it might stop them becoming a victim themselves.  

We cannot go on like this.

There is no clear and simple solution to serious youth violence and knife crime. Even determining the causes is a complex business.

Police cuts are without doubt a contributory factor. After nine years of government cuts to frontline policing, we have lost some 21,000 officers, 6,800 PCSOs and 18,000 police staff. As a result, neighbourhood policing has been undermined.

Under pressure, the Government has now offered the police £100 million in emergency funding to tackle soaring knife crime. Some £80 million of this funding is new money from the Treasury and the remaining £20 million will be found by the Home Office from existing budgets. This funding is welcome but it isn’t nearly enough to cover for the £2.7 billion they have taken out of policing since 2010.

However, as important as policing is, the truth is, we can’t simply arrest our way out of this problem. The closure of youth centres and the lack of adequate education, sport and cultural activities has also played a part, as has social media. But so have poverty, inequality, school exclusions, mental illness, and chaotic family circumstances. Just 2% of the general population have been excluded from school, compared with 50% of the prison population.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers about how to address the epidemic of knife and gun crime and youth violence in our area or our city more widely. And when it comes to this issue in particular, I’m sceptical of the value of turning only to academics and experts for explanations. The starting point has to be young people themselves, why they think this is happening, and what they think can and should be done about it.

Listening to young people locally has convinced me of at least one thing: we need to start tackling the root causes of violence by means of a public health approach that encompasses youth services, school exclusions, housing, social services, mental health and health as a whole.

To do so does not mean denying the responsibility of individual criminals. No one forces anyone to carry a blade or to maim with one, whether rashly or with a deliberate intent to kill. Seeing the issue through a public health lens is simply to recognise that we need to look at the causes in the round, not just the crime.

The Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) launched by London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, last year is based on this principle and is proving what can be done by bringing together specialists from health, police, local government, probation, and community organisations. Coupled with initiatives that provide for investment targeted at preventing and diverting young people from crime, such as the Mayor’s Young Londoners Fund, I believe it can make a real difference over the long-term.

But we also need Government to get behind a cross-departmental programme of action which is both ambitious and properly resourced.