Serious youth violence: UK Home Office consults on statutory duty to tackle ‘national emergency’

Meg Lewis, Senior Content EditorMonday 15 July 2019

UK government ministers have come under increasing pressure to tackle serious youth violence as the number of fatal stabbings in 2018 were, at 285, the highest ever recorded.

Knife crime resulted in 100 fatalities in the first half of 2019, leading police chiefs to describe the issue as a ‘national emergency’.

At the end of May, the UK Home Office concluded an eight-week consultation on supporting a multi-agency ‘public health approach’ to tackling serious youth violence. The Home Office is expected to announce its decision in late August to table the necessary legislation. This could introduce a new legal duty requiring public service providers to work together to tackle the issue.

The Home Office defines ‘serious youth violence’ as ‘any offence of most serious violence or weapon enabled crime, where the victim is aged 1-19’. Javed Khan, Chief Executive of children’s charity Barnardo’s, says such violence is ‘reaching a new peak’, with growing numbers of vulnerable children being groomed by gangs and coerced into criminal activities, including trafficking drugs and carrying knives. ‘The government is right to embrace a “public health” approach,’ he says, ‘which involves a holistic, multi-agency response to address young people’s needs, provide opportunities like jobs and housing and give them a reason to turn their backs on violence.’

The Consultation highlights changes in the drugs market as one of the biggest drivers of serious youth violence. It notes the trend of ‘county lines’, in which drug gangs from large urban areas expand into smaller towns, which often involves the exploitation of vulnerable young people to sell drugs.

In a February 2019 study investigating the realities of being a child gang member in England, the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, OBE, argued the need for child criminal exploitation to be made a national priority. Longfield’s research found that while there are estimated to be 27,000 children in England who identify as a gang member, Local Safeguarding Children Boards are failing to properly investigate gang violence and there is a high level of fragmentation across government initiatives.

Commissioner Longfield tells Global Insight that, while she welcomes government measures to tackle knife crime as a step in the right direction, she does not think they’re enough. Longfield says there needs to be a ‘serious re-think of focus, where, with political will, areas of high youth knife crime go into “emergency measures”’ – which she explains as agencies coming together to tackle the issue in a coordinated manner, with overall oversight from Local Safeguarding Children Boards.

Enver Solomon, CEO of UK charity Just For Kids Law, recently brought a challenge against the Home Office over the government’s policy of allowing children to be used as spies in investigations into drug gangs and other covert operations. He emphasises the need for a more joined-up approach. ‘Many young people involved in violent crime end up falling through the gaps of services,’ he says. ‘If these reforms lead to closer collaboration genuinely to prevent children and young people being unnecessarily dragged through the criminal justice system, they will be most welcome.’ However, he warns of a real risk that the reforms could lead to ‘unfairly labelling and targeting’ young people, ‘seeing them as offenders first and victims second.’

There needs to be a serious re-think of focus, where, with political will, areas of high youth knife crime go into ‘emergency measures’

Anne Longfield, OBE
Children’s Commissioner for England

The government has introduced various actions to crackdown on serious youth violence in the first half of 2019. In March, it launched a £200m, ten-year Youth Endowment Fund, which, according to the Home Secretary Sajid Javid, ‘will help us tackle the root cause of this scourge’ by investing in preventative initiatives. Also in March, the government granted an extra £100m to police forces in England and Wales, alongside enhanced stop and search powers. The latter move is controversial given that a 2014 inquiry found these powers disproportionately target people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

A new Offensive Weapons Act was passed in May, which made it illegal to possess dangerous weapons in private. The Home Office is also trialling Knife Crime Prevention Orders, which place restrictions on children as young as 12 if it is thought necessary to protect the public.

There is a concern that these provisions are at risk of being deployed in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner, without tackling the underlying social problems contributing to the rise in knife crime.

‘There is little evidence to suggest that stop and search reduces incidents of violent crime,’ says Solomon. He believes that Knife Crime Prevention Orders will do very little to address the underlying causes of knife crime and will instead ‘push more young people into the criminal justice system without tackling the factors that led to them being involved in criminal activities in the first place.’

‘Resources, services, investment and a long-term strategy are the crucial issues,’ says James Robottom, Secretary of the IBA Access to Justice Committee and a barrister at 7 Bedford Row. ‘The law and primary legislation is too often used as a tool to demonstrate commitment to the media, when its real effect on the ground is limited compared with reform and investment.’

Khan agrees that changes to policing and sentencing can only ever be part of the solution. ‘To achieve long-term system change,’ he explains, ‘we need to address the root causes – the “poverty of hope” that leads too many young people to believe that joining a gang is the only way to help mum pay the rent.’

Longfield outlines that children involved in gangs are 95 per cent more likely to have social, emotional and mental health issues. She also says over 40 per cent are more likely to have a parent or carer misusing illegal substances, emphasising the urgent need for resources that support vulnerable young people.

Longfield’s recommendations to keep children involved in gangs safe include ensuring councils have enough resources to provide services for at-risk children.

Khan echoes the need for greater resources to support public services in a multi-agency approach. ‘Schools, health, charities and other agencies all have a vital role to play – but they must have the skills and resource to do so effectively.’