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Cllr Robert Ward represents Selsdon and Addington Village Ward on Croydon Council.

There’s a dreary monotony to the response after each tragic loss of another young life to knife crime. Politicians and talking heads express sympathy, brush quickly past solutions (a nod to “public health approach” and “Glasgow”), assert it is NOT about the police (“you can’t arrest your way to a solution”), then run out of time, to-ing and fro-ing on the number of things it is supposedly not about.

Dig beneath the public health approach and there’s little more than “treat violence like a disease”. Solutions offered are pleas for more of the services that impact young people, cue blaming ‘austerity’ if it’s an opposition politician. The truth is there’s no simple solution. Root causes are complex and of long standing.

The good news is the public health approach is well suited to such a situation. First applied in the United States, brought to Glasgow, and extended to the whole of Scotland in 2006, it is a four-step process: define and measure the problem; identify risk and protective factors; formulate and test interventions; scale up what works and stop doing what doesn’t.

According to the WHO World report on violence and health:

“Reliable data on violence are important, not only for planning and monitoring purposes, but also for advocacy. Without information, there is little pressure on anyone to acknowledge or respond to the problem”.

Relevant data is typically maintained by different agencies, so hard to access coherently. The Youth Violence Commission warned the term ‘public health model’ is being used without a proper understanding of what is required to effect lasting change. Without good data you are fooling yourself.

This is a longstanding problem. Although success is claimed in Glasgow, the confidence that this was a result of the work of the Violence Reduction Unit (“VRU”) is, according to a recent UK government document, questionable. The initial flagship programme of the VRU, implemented in 2008, was Glasgow’s Community Initiative to Reduce Violence. Violent crime fell but it also fell in London. The programme was discontinued in 2011. According to Doctor William Graham, a police commander in Glasgow at the time, having a more structured evaluation and data collection plan from the start could not only have helped with implementation, but also strengthened the case for further funding.

After 2012-13, violent crime rose in London, but continued to fall in Strathclyde. However, from the same report:

“Although the decreasing trends in violent crime and hospital admissions due to assault throughout Scotland are compelling, it is not possible to link these reductions directly with any of the work of Scotland’s VRU”.

There is a pattern of failure to gather and analyse data to judge effectiveness.

This isn’t the only weakness. In Glasgow the VRU was set up by the police. In the early years, there was a focus on custodial sentences, DNA processes, and finger-printing all knife carriers. This moved on to a review of remand guidelines and changing sentencing recommendations on knife crime. Enforcement created the space to give preventative approaches a chance.

In contrast, in London, the Mayor has set up a VRU and in Croydon we now have a Violence Reduction Network. Both are led by former Labour councillors; indeed, the Croydon network is currently little more than that. Their adherence to the public health approach is weak. The Mayor’s VRU made a perfunctory effort at step one of the approach, but projects aiming to address the issues, whilst well meaning, show little attempt at quantitative evidence gathering to enable a judgement of their effectiveness.

Worse still, flexibility and objectivity are important because the threat changes constantly. What worked yesterday, may not work today. Drug distribution has evolved from crack houses to street delivery. Control of the streets, irrelevant beforehand, became important, leading to opposing gangs fighting over turf. Street distribution needs deliverers, sucking in younger and younger children. Recently, stabbing victims have become less likely to report an incident, or even attend hospital, because they know this will identify them.

If we are not informed by systematic use of current evidence – and choose projects without success measures, we will spend money ineffectively. We are left with traditional multi-agency working, delivering a scattergun of projects, selected on old information, the best sales pitch, and political favouritism.

That’s the public health approach in name only. It’s a more expensive way of doing what we already were doing. It is a betrayal of our young people and a waste of taxpayers’ money. It is another reason, if one were needed, to remove Mayor Khan in May. Some others might wish to sharpen up their act too.

50 comments for: Robert Ward: Robust data is needed to defeat knife crime

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