A Prevent style plan will not reduce serious violence

Alice Arkwright on the wrong way to tackle knife crime

Saddening stories of youth violence, specifically knife crime in London, have dominated headlines in the first few months of 2019. Since 2014 the numbers of children and teenagers killed as a result of blades has been rising, with 36 deaths in 2017, 37 in 2018 and 11 teenagers had died by 10th March this year, many of them in London.

This loss of life has led to increasing public debate and analysis as to the causes behind this rise. Reasons including the correlation between school expulsion and knife crime; reduced police numbers and funding; cuts to local authority children’s services, education and social services; and the impact of country-wide drug dealing operations have all been discussed. Whilst the reasons for any youth violence are complex, the vulnerability of teenagers affected by poverty, mental illness, abuse, toxic masculinity, austerity and special educational needs is clear.

The multitude of causes is matched by numerous, and some worrying, suggestions of how to solve the problem, from using stop and search tactics in schools to deploying the army and armed police patrols to inner-city neighbourhoods.

The latest suggestion from the government is that professionals across health, education, local government, social services, the police and the voluntary sector would be legally required to spot and report warning signs that a young person might engage in serious violence. Under the proposal A&E staff would have to report young people who present suspicious injuries and teachers would be required to report children displaying concerning behaviour. These professionals would be held accountable for the prevention of violence and any failure to do so.

The Home Office has said that the government would issue guidance, but it would be up to services to figure out how to comply with the new duties on top of their existing safeguarding responsibilities. Whilst a joined-up approach across multiple sectors and services to tackling violence amongst young people is needed, this latest proposal sounds very similar to Prevent, which has been heavily criticised by political parties, human rights organisations, public sector workers and researchers.

Under the Prevent strategy, a range of public services have a legal duty to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. Teachers and educational institutions are required to report students they believe to be at risk of extremism – worryingly defined in Prevent strategy as “opposition to fundamental British values”.

Concerns surrounding Prevent have been that the strategy encourages professionals to view others with suspicion, particularly Muslims and ethnic minorities. The majority of referrals under Prevent have been of Muslims and there is a risk of racial profiling and stereotyping occurring under these new proposals as there is no clear way of judging pre-criminality. The new proposals offer little guidance on what behaviours professionals should be looking out for and what kind of behaviour they would report.

The ineffectiveness of this method is also shown in that only a small proportion of Prevent referrals need further action and most are rejected, highlighting that the policy serves to label people as dangerous without actually helping at-risk young people or further protecting society.

Liberty have also stressed concerns around data under Prevent as there is little transparency on how the police retain personal data passed on from services or which other agencies it has shared it with. Increased data-sharing is a primary principle of these new proposals for youth violence, suggesting that the same issues could arise.

Prevent has also been criticised for limiting discussion in educational contexts as both teachers and students feel what they say is being policed. Not only does it stifle the debates that can occur in educational environments, but it can risk damaging relationships of openness and trust that should exist to support vulnerable students. Good education should allow young people to ask questions, listen to and understand others, participate in respectful discussion and explore issues that are affecting their lives. This is much harder to do under environments of suspicion and fear and the proposal risks further alienating those students at risk.

Public sector workers and unions have also expressed anger that teachers, nurses and doctors would be responsible for rising knife crime at a time where services, including specialist support services, are underfunded and under-resourced.

No one would deny the importance of ending youth violence, but any new proposal must take the lessons of Prevent on board and importantly respect young people’s concerns, confidentiality and human rights.

Alice Arkwright

Alice Arkwright works at the TUC. She writes in a personal capacity.