The cuts that kill

Sarah Jones says ending austerity with a joined up plan can tackle the scourge of knife crime

Recently it’s felt like wherever you turn, more headlines appear about young lives lost to violence. The number of knife crime deaths in 2019 hit 100 in May. Appallingly, those involved continue to get younger and younger.

Each death is a tragedy, leaving families, communities and politicians asking where is this violence coming from? There are many questions still to be answered, but we know enough to have seen this coming. We know that poverty, inequality, social exclusion, and lack of opportunity create an ideal environment for crime to thrive. We know that government policy since 2010 has done its upmost to exacerbate these complex societal factors.

Violence is not inevitable. To tackle it, we must treat it like any contagious disease – with a public health approach. This means collecting data and researching to create a clear understanding of the scale and nature of the problem and its root causes. It means analysing which interventions and services work and investing in them, or designing new ones if current provision is lacking.

The public health approach means educating and supporting the whole population while recognising that certain people are at greater risk because of their environment, targeting early intervention to change these environments and social norms. The voices of young people and communities should be at the heart of the approach, tailoring solutions to local needs. But the overall strategy must be driven by the centre of a government committed to change, involving leaders across policing, justice, health, education, social care and more.

We know that children are far more likely to be involved in violence if they grow up experiencing abuse, neglect, or bereavement, around adults abusing alcohol and drugs, struggling with mental illness or incarceration. The more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) a child has, the more at risk they are. Yet funding for support services that would help identify and protect these children continues to fall.

To use one ACE as an example, the proportion of children involved in knife crime who have previously seen or experienced domestic abuse is very high – much higher than average. If you grow up around violence, it seems normal. But in recent years the services available to prevent or identify this abuse has been stripped away. As demand for women’s services has risen significantly, funding has fallen by half. Unsurprisingly, referrals for support are regularly declined.

Vulnerable parents need help to look after their children, support their development, and remain involved throughout their life. A recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report identified Sure Start children’s centres as vital parts of this puzzle. But Sure Start funding has been cut by two thirds and an estimated 1,000 centres have closed. The number of children being taken into care, where they are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and disproportionately involved in crime, has increased by almost a third.

Schools are another potential lifeline. But funding cuts have left class sizes increasing and staff numbers, pastoral support and special educational needs provision slashed. Schools need resources to provide education on healthy relationships, identity, life skills and social development. They need to be supported to keep troubled children in school, to help them learn and pursue higher education or vocational training, so they can access opportunities.

The school exclusion rate has increased dramatically – by 56% in three years. The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Knife Crime, which I launched in 2017, found a third of local authorities had no places left in Pupil Referral Units. Children are left alienated and isolated, vulnerable to being exploited and becoming involved in crime.

Our APPG recently heard from young people and youth workers about the importance of youth clubs, ensuring young people have positive activities to engage in and role models where they may have none at home. We conducted research and found the average council has cut spending on youth services by 40% in just three years. Areas with the highest cuts also experienced the highest increases in knife crime.

To tackle violence, our response must be grounded in this understanding of the child’s experiences. Policing and the criminal justice response is crucial, and cuts here have had an impact too. In March last year there were 21,300 fewer police officers than in 2010. Community policing, an important link for building relationships and gathering intelligence, has taken a huge hit. But we can’t just enforce our way out of this.

We need to move beyond asking young people “What’s wrong with you?” and start asking “What happened to you?”.

As damning evidence continues to build about the devastating impact of austerity, and their hold on power dwindles, Tories have begun making piecemeal attempts to back-pedal on cuts they made.

There is fantastic work being done with children and young people. But often it’s in isolation, under-resourced and over-stretched, with crisis intervention. We have seen from the success of the Violence Reduction Unit in Scotland that a joined-up approach works. If we tackle the social injustices at the root of the problem, we can immunise the next generation from violence.

Sarah Jones

Sarah Jones is MP for Croydon Central, Chair on the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime and a Shadow Housing minister.