By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.

What we should have learnt and what we must now do to tackle knife crime

January 30, 2024

This is a shortened and updated version of a speech delivered at Lambeth Town Hall at the start of Operation Sceptre week - 14th November 2023

I am delighted, to be able to speak at one of these National Operation Spectre events, and to see our organisation partnering with the Met, and being referenced on the 6000 leaflets  they are distributing to schools and elsewhere over the course of the next week or so.  The QR code there links directly to our now extensive public resources. These resources already tell you much about the social issues I want to speak about,  how young people can be helped, and much too about the reforms that might be made.  

I recognise that most of you will have gained a great deal of knowledge and experience about how best to engage with the communities you work with, whether as social workers, local authority professionals, professionals in particular field relating to young people or with experience just gained through your natural empathy and ability to work with young people.  I want to say some things that draw these strands together and how we might all do a little better. Much will not be new to you, but some new thinking might also emerge from what I have to say.

The scale of the challenge is immense. Two days ago1, the Youth Endowment Fund published their second annual report into young people’s experience of violence. It makes for pretty disturbing reading2. I will try not to send too many stats towards you, but a few are useful.

• 16% of teenage children had been a victim of violence in the last 12 months 

• 47% of teens had been a victim or witness of violence in the last 12 months

• 68% of children that were victims said they’d experienced violence that led to physical injuries

• 60% of children saw real-world acts of violence on social media, increasing to over 85% of children most at risk of involvement with violence. 29% had seen content relating to weapons

And then we learnt of these statistics…

• 47% of children reported that violence and the fear of violence impacted their day-to-day lives

•20% of children (1 in 5) said they’d skipped school due to feeling unsafe, and those were the ones most likely to be exposed to greater dangers

• 62% of children thought that drugs were a major factor and half thought gangs were – the two highest drivers.

Good policing must be a mix of enforcement and the winning of community consent. This week will be the chance to reinforce that message, I hope.

Most of you have the advantage of me in that you know your communities intimately on this side of London, the people within them that make change actually work, and will have learnt a great deal about how best to bridge the divide between some young people in the community who have for good reason or bad come to distrust
the police.  

What is it that we all are trying to build here, in this relationship between the police and community?  Why do we need to do this? Well is to be assumed that we want to live in security and peace with our neighbour, create law-abiding communities, learn to understand and trust each other more, and help each other though that huge personal difficulties that more of us face than most of us perhaps realise. 

Let’s deal first with police and community. Two entities or one?  Well to my mind we are one. As members of our discrete communities, with the police, we wish to protect our homes and our streets; and the police, overstretched as they are, stand alongside us in every community to serve and help us. The tension between that role and the front-line role of law enforcement will always cause issues, when there are minority sections of the community that do not want their lives and how they spend their time examined too closely. That’s the job.  It needs to be dealt with sensitively, and firmly at the same time.  The skill involved in that equation cannot be underestimated, and we cannot relax in our joint determination to get this balance right. These are issues for a different discussion.

As the Commissioner has recognised, policing and the community cannot be separate interests. I know from some of the excellent community safety officers I have met, that they, as most of the rest of us, are trying hard to help and understand the level of anxiety that afflicts too many people in terms of keeping their head above water emotionally, and in so many other ways.  There has never been a greater need for powerful social care support – for the elderly, for the poor and for the socially and economically dispossessed.  And there has never been a more important time to address the deficit in our attention towards young people.

The young people who carry knives or those who might be thinking about it are my main concern. There are some pretty general views about why these young people might think of such a thing.   Leaving aside some pretty terrible personal stories and home lives, the reality are that young people are assailed in a way that my post-war generation never were, by competing and often negative value sets, being lectured to about their gender, racial identity, overwhelmed by the pressures imposed by social media, and the dilution of informed debate  into what often seems to be a completely unaccommodating and intentionally hurtful online messages, about who is in and who is out and who to fear and who to trust. 

Dangerous, and angry messages are promoted by social media. Hate is disseminated sometimes at the school gate or by simple Chinese whispers. It leaches into the lives of children through bullying and worse. Sometimes even by something that should be as life enhancing a music can become a messenger of death. For those unlucky enough never to have had the home life or any of the advantages which most of us have at least to some small extent, the feeling must be that the good things of this life have let them behind and will never be achieved; that life offers little or nothing for them, and that life itself is cheap, and voices of authority are no longer on their side, nor do they understand them. 

So, this is what faces someone with no usual support system, for someone who feels that his school, his home, present opportunities and his foreseeable future are things from which he had either been excluded, quite literally, or that they are places or prospects projecting deep unhappiness, and no lasting meaning.  Not everyone of course that carries a knife is in a gang. But, is it really surprising, that some will join a gang, that they join with those they briefly see as friends, their peers if you like, that they believe the promise of money, of new things and status – something which no one and nowhere else has ever offered them to slightest chance of getting? To me it is natural that they should be so tempted, even if it’s a fool’s world they are entering where the promise of all those things is just a delusion.

How does the rudder finally fall off?  It might the result of staying away or being excluded from school, and then a seductive encounter with a gang member in the street, and soon after sliding almost imperceptibly into what turns out to be a gang, and the cult of criminality that often attaches itself to such a grouping. In part, it’s a failure of education, of family disintegration, domestic violence, lack of social support and most of all, poverty and opportunity. And also some of these kids can fairly say – it is our denial of respect for the importance of their young lives. 

I came to the work I do now with FKCL in 2020.  There had just been a report which showed that since 2010, 75% of the budgets for youth services had been cut since 2010, and over 8000 youth workers had lost their jobs3.  Knowing that, it was easy to lay alongside those years, the sharp rise in the use of knives and deaths of young people in the UK to the point that more people died at the point of a knife in the year to March 2022 than ever since records began in 1946.  

I heard it claimed too that that these hard facts have increased the skill sets of the surgeons working in our hospital trauma units at a speed commensurate with battlefield trauma centres, and without this the number of deaths would have been even higher than this. I can well believe it. As I write this, I hear that another young man has been killed, this time much closer to where I live in West London. Every day we can read of such things, and that many of those who are stabbed survive is often a matter of sheer luck.

But to mention these things is not enough to explain what is happening here. We still have to ask why it is that many of our young people end up carrying a knife or other weapon, or join a gang, and perhaps get involved in County Lines. Why it is that young people still carry knives, and not just for protection? That most do it for this last reason is mad enough.  They know the risks, but do not seem to care.  Some take a kind of perverted pride in the knife they carry, perhaps wishing to promote their own self-image through the designed-in fearsomeness of the weapon itself. And yet we still can see how easy it is to obtain such fearsome things online at staggering low prices.

And anyone selling these can no longer pretend that they are unaware of the use they might well be put, however much the purchasers might claim otherwise. These retailers are complicit in homicide. They have absolutely no excuse for the damage they are doing to the safety of our streets, and their responsibility for the death of our young people, and for the endless grief they cause for their families.

What kind of mind has been created that these young people, emerging from childhood to adulthood, with their brains exploding with all the sensations, powerful and conflicting emotions, and disruption that these years can bring?

What kind of mind has been created that young people with their lives ahead of them are ready to devalue their own lives, and those around them, by threatening, injuring and even another thoughtlessly killing another human being? 

These killings are not so often on the spur of the moment, they are pre-meditated and vengeful, and often almost completely mindless. I have represented these young men in court, I have prosecuted them, and presided over trials where young men have thoughtlessly deployed knives against defenceless human beings. Even with plenty of time to think, they appear to possess no fear of consequences. No normally accepted appeal to reason or introspection seems capable of inhabiting the minds of those that do this. We have to address the reason not just the cause.  The reason is perhaps to be found in our own shortcomings. Police officers, teachers, doctors, surgeons, social workers, youth workers, Courts and Coroners’ Officers and even undertakers have something to contribute here. All of them, even when working together, have tried, and to a great extent have failed. There have been successes, but noone pretends such temporal successes herald any lasting shift.

There is some excellent work being done by Professor James Densley at the moment in America which by engaging directly with young men who carry guns to kill who have opened up to him and explained why they do this, and how if things had been different, they might not have been so tempted.  He has done similar work with County Lines4. Something similar needs to be done here, to get inside the young and damaged minds and lives and understand how things might change in a way that would make them change.  They are many unsung heroes in our midst who do this work, directly with young people, working on the street, speaking to gang members who have succeeded.  These are the people who have the stories to tell us, and who can inform those who work as mentors for young people, and who are their educators, and carers.  We do need to listen, to show respect for those who are amidst or on the edge of this kind of disastrous journey in their lives, learn from them what it is they say, what they need and by this means learn how we can help them find a better way.

Of all the things that might work once education has failed, is one-to-one mentoring. This is often the most successful method, but how many of us in this work are really equipped to mentor every child amid this vortex of emotive disintegration? Every child is different, and every life experience is different too. It’s a highly skilled job requiring more than just cursory training, and requires tremendous intra-personal skills as well, to reach into a world that remains beyond the reach of most of our imaginings.   But a good mentor can change a life, can save a life and is worth its weight in gold. Our website lists many such organisation across London who do this kind of work. 

I have had a lot to say in recent years about how our legal system could approach the task of dealing with young people rather better than it does.  My baseline is my own training as a judge. I had to undertake a refresher course in every year of the 34 years that I did that kind of work alongside all the prosecuting and defending I did as part of my regular practice. In my career I have seen too many evil things and met too many evil people to think that sometimes heavy sentences are other than necessary. Some people must be removed from our streets to offer a measure of safety for the rest of us.  That,  for the most part, is the only sense that ‘prison works’.  

My concern is that the level of debate about law and order, and the safety of our streets ,continues to be one-dimensional.  That is why I am so pleased to be amongst you today and to listen to you – people who work in their communities and  understand these things and are trying to do something to change the way things are, and the way each and every one of us think about how we can makes lives better, rather than just part of the journey on the way to the human rubbish dumps that some our prisons have been allowed to become.  

I remember when I was young lawyer, we were always taught to dig deep to understand if we could what the personal difficulties were that young people had that might have led to them to offend.  We were then helped by probation reports. Trained officers used to have a series of interviews with the accused, with family members and others to help the sentencing court with as much information as possible. Now a pre-sentence report is based more often on a single short interview with the accused which is dependent wholly on the information that he or she wishes to pass on in that brief hour when he or she might not be inclined to open up. Such reports make some references to the sentencing codes, which is the job of the judge to interpret, and produce a form of risk matrix designed to help the judge assess the risk that that you person presents to the public at large and to some groups in particular, and whether the individual is rightly described as dangerous, thus requiring an enhanced prison sentence for public protection. These reports then end with a recommendation on sentence which may or may not be actually the right one. Formulas cannot deal with the personal, they can only guide.  Mandated sentencing solutions can in practice prove unjust.

One result is that we now have more people in prison than ever before and as you now as you will know, the government are trying to deal with this by decreeing that sentences under 12 months should wherever possible be suspended. 

As a country we are more inclined to consider poor prisons as a means of punishment than many other of the more enlightened countries in Europe that we might consider good comparators. Our magazine contains some informed articles on this, looking not just at our own prisons but also for example the Norwegian custody model. I do think our penal policy has gone somewhat astray, and the ease with which we seem to be abandoning sentences of less than 12 months is an indication that it might not even be necessary to use imprisonment as tool of punishment for many offences, if it is better to rehabilitate someone and make sure they don’t offend again. Prison does not achieve that last bit, and the resources applied to diversion and rehabilitation remain underfunded.

Quite simply, the cost benefit of changing lives far outweighs the benefit of jail time in so many cases.

What has happened with penal policy is another example where under-resourcing of public services have led to a threadbare support system held up largely by voluntary effort within communities, a shortage of police officers, a dearth of places for people to go for healthy recreation and to meet friends, and a slow disintegration of practically all the public services we have become used to accessing – from the NHS, to transport, to safe  and maintained public spaces and to things like mental health support, and financial advice and support for the most needy.  

There are many of you listening here who, and you are the real heroes, and have been working directly in this field for many years, and trying to make your own particular set of solutions work in some small way in your own locality. The London VRU has been able to support some of these efforts with tax-payers money, and it is thanks to these sometimes long-standing community projects, that there have been real successes. But we should be careful not to exaggerate this. The solution still largely eludes us.

Despite the power of Advanced Analytics and the opportunities that offers for more focussed policing, what should concern us most, is the apparent lack of coordination and will, that is put behind the recommendations that emerge from a whole raft of studies.  I know quite about this as my greatest concentration has been on what I see happening by scanning the thousands of websites, government, charity and third sector reports, and social media outlets that are concerned with young people in one way or another.  This is necessary both to build and improve the information resources that we provide, and to increase my own understanding.

But what else might we do to make us better at solving these problems? Action to effect real change in the life chances of our most disadvantaged must be one of them. Here a just a few ideas.  They may need some work I acknowledge, but my purpose is to start debate.

• The manifesto of any government intent on reducing knife crime should tell us how they will actually go about this and how central to their programme it will be, and that manifesto should not be vague in way that a glib tongue might render meaningless.

• I was pleased to read in the newspaper a few weeks ago that Labour is considering creating independent watchdogs to “mark its homework” in government and ensure it fulfils pledges to improve Britain’s health and reduce educational inequality. Bodies modelled on the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) would publicly hold ministers to account for progress against key Labour goals under plans being looked at by some close to Sir Keir Starmer.  This kind of things is something I have been advocating for some time. Now we don’t know how far this might go yet, but it seems to me that this kind of thinking is key to reducing the issues around youth disengagement and youth criminality and violence.

• There must be a better way of making cross-departmental responsibility for these kinds of complex questions actually work.  Whether that if brought about by greater power being placed into the hands of a single Cabinet Minister to direct other departments to act, or whether through a redesign of the civil service is not for me to say. But there needs to be a way. To be fair both parties are said to be looking at the mechanism of government to see how it can work more effectively. I have also in my time been a senior civil servant, so I know that things don’t work as well as we deserve. 

• This lack of effectiveness has real consequences for charities. The National Council for Voluntary services said recently that too many charities are at risk of closure. They don’t think planned increases in departmental budgets offered by the last budget will be enough to keep pace with inflation. Worryingly, two thirds of charities reported they were already subsidising underfunded contracts long before inflation hit double digits.

• There is no publicly visible responsibility that passes from one Minister to another, if any of us can be quick enough even to keep up with these changes; nor that passes from one party to the same party under different leadership, nor from one government to another. We have seen Ministers come in and scrap proposals being worked on by their predecessors frequently. The result will always appear (at least) to be that we have just dysfunctional and ultimately disingenuous government. No wonder people get angry about the slow pace of real change to problems such as violence on the streets.

• If only what these Ministers say in Parliament could be strengthened by the force of law, then things might change. On certain social issues there could even perhaps be cross -party agreement to ensure powerful solutions were carried more effectively from one government to the next.   This could be done by legislation, so any government wanting to renege on the agreement would have to seek parliament’s approval to do so. If a Minister promises through parliament to act in particular way, there needs to be way to see that he is held to account for failure.  The prize might be that we get more honesty in politics, and less disingenuous soundbites and promises of action. Are we not all fed up with hearing that ministers say that we ‘proceed at pace’, or ‘just to be clear’ something is an ‘absolute government priority’?  If only this were the truth. 

What happens if governments don’t live up to their promises? Well here are some simple figures that might provide an answer. 15% of the population have no qualifications and 47% of prisoners are in the same category. Of the 1% of kids excluded from school, 42% of then end up in prison at a cost of goodness knows what a year. Yet we still see exclusion as a ‘way to go’.

There are good people who say it well be time to give into the demand by the public for more stringent laws regarding knife possession (remembering that knives are carried for a broad range of reasons) coupled with longer penalties to send a powerful message against knife crime.  Personally, I don’t think that is the way to go, as there is too little evidence that so-called deterrent gets through to those who the message is intended to affect.  Indeed, this kind of political grandstanding can just be a distraction from the real work that has to be done at community level to change the way young people think about carrying a knife.  We know now where these things are happening most, and this is where the support if needed.

Until far more work is done to address early-education and intervention, and the social causes and public health issues that underlie these crimes, to understand the minds of the carriers, and work with the grain of their needs, then I don’t think we have yet reached the point when the crude solution of ever-increasing punishment is the answer. The communities that produce these crimes are the same communities that (overall) were socially deprived 50 or 60 years ago. I cannot see that changing in the foreseeable future given the current strain on public finances – at least until priorities change. Governments know well enough where the work must be done.  It’s not just a North-South argument. The money needs to go where the statistics tell us it is most needed, and that it is as much in London as in Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester, or Liverpool. After all, the West Midlands and Cleveland have a higher per capita incidence of knife crime than London at the moment.

Sad to say I really don’t think governments or other parties have come up with the right balance yet to stop this problem of youth violence. I touched on this. Professor Peter Squires who is somewhat of an expert in these matters, wrote an article last year for us which said this “…research by the YMCA and Action for children showed that some £260 million had been withdrawn from local authority children’s services budgets between 2011 and 2017, with the loss of over a thousand children’s centres and 760 youth centres, some major cities losing close to 90% of their youth services budgets. Although the Serious Youth Violence Reduction Strategy is meant to be informed by the Home Office compilation of research on the ‘drivers’ of serious violence (HM Government, 2018) a degree of scepticism has accompanied the suggestion that such under-resourced services can deliver the VRU targets sought.

Political strategies so far have failed to address the root causes of knife crime and develop a practical understanding of what an optimal long-term strategy might look like. This is complicated by the fact that they are so overwhelmed with other priorities. There is a worrying danger too that the demands of law enforcement will reduce the ability for police forces to involve themselves more in their communities. So - more power then to our community safety officers! We need them more than ever to work alongside community activists and youth leaders in our communities. We should be as one on this.

In London, central government has seemed to me too content to see the London VRU take responsibility when in fact we are all in it together.  There was nothing substantial either in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement on November 22nd to give us cause to believe in a changed approach to community investment to help young people and communities. 

Perhaps the best evidence of this failure to address the problem is to be found in the careful analysis in the report by Charity Excellence5.  In its 2023 budget, they found that Government increased departmental spending by 4% (RPI inflation was running at 11.4% in April 2023) and included additional funding in areas such as health & social care.  This report indicated that this has not flowed down to charity front line services, effectively creating a £1 billion funding cut in real terms.  They warn that the risk of widespread charity closures is high and that we will now not see full sector recovery until 2025, and even that is more than optimistic.  They find that the charity sector’s resilience has been falling since late 2021, and say that their predictive model, has forecast the path of the crisis very accurately so far.

Nearly every organisation uses very similar language in describing what they do in their particular community. It might be the word ‘empowering’, or just that overused word ‘collaboration’. The solutions  we need to find, as this article suggests, need to be like the problem itself, multi-faceted, complex, and sometimes interlocking. 

So, I want to talk a bit about ‘collaboration’ today, because I really think we could do better here. I want to stop the word itself becoming a cliché. More people are now talking about this.

Proper collaboration, between individuals such as those attending this webinar, between police, government and community funded projects, could be much more empowering than it presently is for those that need it most. There are not just some silos that have to be reformed, but a bit of pride and entitlement from our political masters sometimes.

What about public bodies?

The London VRU, at the request of the Mayor took on the task, funded by the tax-payer of leading a partnership approach to tackling violence that is rooted in prevention and early intervention. But this can only be effective with taxpayer’s intervention and central government or Treasury intent behind it.

Let look at some of the tensions here.

I have already argued that crude deployment of criminal justice solutions is not the answer to all these problems.  What else might there be making this more difficult than it need be.

• What about the local struggles.  In London these exist between the Mayor and the Met and the Home Office, and sometimes No 10. They each have their own constituencies to please.

• The Met of course is servant of three masters - the public who cannot be expected to speak with a single voice, and the Mayor for London, and the Home Secretary who could, but do not always do so. 

• When mature discussion fails, everyone will blame lack of resources, and a lack of investment to provide the tools needed to finish the job. At the end they get to the right answer, and it’s not a good one. It’s a failure of cooperation, a failure of imagination, sometimes (but not always) an inability to look at new solutions, and adjust our priorities.

• Perhaps too, and this is something for planners which might be worth thinking about, a tension exists between the community where the poorest live, and the resentment they feel that gentrification (as it was once called) can bring. This can cause rising costs all round, which these communities simply cannot sustain.  Investing in communities can also leave the poorest with no place anymore that they can feel is the home they knew.

• Gentrification affects a community's history and culture and reduces social capital6. It often shifts a neighbourhood’s characteristics, e.g., racial-ethnic composition and household income, by adding new stores and resources in previously run-down neighbourhoods.7 

• Gentrification itself causes economic displacement: whole communities can be uprooted when rents rise. Some have nowhere else to go, even if they wanted to.  Once again, there is danger that we turn our backs and concentrate on the good and ignore the bad effects of social reform.  We can only square this circle by coming together to find solutions to see that those who need it most are not left behind in all of this, and our young do not suffer at a critical time of their lives.  It is in this space between that we need to collaborate most. 

Sometimes there is a risk in this field for the familiar to become a cliché and words to become substitutes for action.  Virtue signalling if you like. An ex-Tory minister, Rory Stewart, recently said in broadcast recently on the real meaning of privilege that it dates back to the Romans and the early Middle Ages. This class he was describing “generally does not deliver on what it promises, it is generally  hypocritical, greedy and self serving” he said.  Is it a coincidence that when we see an unarguable and visible erosion of the standards of public life at the top, then the standards of living of those at the bottom become most affected? Students of the Fall of the Roman Empire might see some parallels with what is happening in this first quarter of the 21st century. One of the many reasons for this was given that “Rome’s sheer size made it difficult to govern, (and) ineffective and inconsistent leadership only served to magnify the problem.”8  

But aren’t we all to blame a bit? Nearly everyone speaks about collaboration., If we are going to use that term, we need to do an audit of what we are actually doing, and what we might be resisting doing, making usually some convenient excuse for that inaction. Certainly, we must celebrate and boast about our own achievements on social media, which I see a lot of, but let’s talk more about what we are doing to find better ways to work together. First, we need to understand better what collaboration could mean.

Collaboration is not quite the same as partnership.  It is a more informal process of working together to achieve a common goal. In our field what we want from our partners is usually better described as collaboration. This in many ways is the more difficult thing.  It involves a great deal of humility in accepting that you don’t have the answers, but you might have something that could be better done under some other umbrella which has the back up and perhaps a wider expertise in helping a young person with whatever problem it is that they need help with.

• We can’t all for example be expert mentors in every situation. 

• We can’t all help with social mobility or finding employment which maybe is what some of the young people we come across need most of all. 

• A child with a particular mental health issue requires particular expertise, which one group will often not possess.  

• Does your group have protocols or agreements with other organisations which might allow you to refer such a young person onwards, so long as that young person is happy to receive that help? 

• Often a solution cannot be half baked, it needs to full range of options to succeed.  

• We all have our different skill sets and can empathise better than others in a given situation. 

So, let’s share our skills and help those who need us better. Sometimes trust groups can be shared.  Some of you may be doing this very well for all I know, but many of us could do better I am equally sure. 

There have been many strategies produced by both charities as well as governments which present and action plan for change, which always come with recommendations.  They are often of course the same ones we have seen in many guises, and end in too little being done. Events always conspire don’t they to help them avoid responsibility for inaction.

A good example of collaboration comes from the brochure produced recently the VRUs Young `Peoples Action Group (YPAG)9. We should listen more to our young people shouldn’t we? 

This guide has been created to support organisations of any shape and size to meaningfully work alongside young Londoners. 

The views of these young people are front and centre of the VRU approach.10  This means young people are given an opportunity to lead change in areas of society they are most passionate about, and do so through their own social action work. 

Another good example I think is a June 2023 report which is a nice piece of cross-party working. It is an independent review co-chaired by former Children’s Minister Tim Loughton MP and former Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green, and commissioned and facilitated by the National Youth Agency (NYA).  This is the same excellent body that produced the report “Hidden in Plain Sight” in May 2020 that took a deeper look at the scale of and response to gang-associated activity, the exploitation of young people through lockdown and the impact of COVID-19. There is more I might say about that report and the practicality of some of their recommendations, but there isn’t the time to do it now.

I want to pick out just 3 or 4 of their recommendations from their report last June. There are many more.

1. Clear leadership: Youth Minister

An over-arching cross-department youth policy with oversight by a dedicated Youth Minister at the Department for Education, but this time with a remit and authority across departments.  There is currently a Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing (DfE) and a Minister for Civil Society and Youth at the Dept of Culture, Media and Sport), each with a much broader range of responsibilities which they argue removes the focus a bit from the problems that need addressing to help young people. A Youth Minister within education, or a dual role held at DfE and DCMS to chair a cross-departmental committee, will support education and wellbeing objectives. Unless there is going to be cross-departmental support, these things will not work, and I suspect have little chance of gaining the required funding from the Treasury.

Next, they make proposals for stable and joined-up funding and strengthened guidance so that proposals can be acted upon with statutory guidance at both national and local level to put youth work on a surer footing with schools and facilitate more cross-sector working.  It seems to me that it needs to be a bit better than ‘guidance’ as that leaves discretion. It needs to be binding and enforceable. As it is, Statutory Guidance remains still guidance because, exceptionally and with good reason, local government might deviate slightly from it; but almost all the time, they must follow it. That’s all statutory guidance seems to be. Sometimes it can be challenged in court, and other times you may be wasting your time. Well at least, it’s a stick to beat someone with if needed.

Another recommendation is “integrating youth work values and approaches into initial teacher training and CPD training to support the cross-collaboration and understanding between school staff and youth workers.”

Finally they explain how this needs to feed into youth work careers. “There needs to be a transition route from teaching to youth work through a youth work qualification to reduce wasted talent”. This as most of us know is something that through the period certainly from 2010 onwards has been very seriously eroded. 

Their work is complemented by a further report from the charity sector which has looked at “The Economic Value of Youth Work11”. Here UK Youth has partnered with Frontier Economics to estimate the economic value of youth work in England. In fact, Somia Nasim, Head of Research and Knowledge, UK Youth was one of the panel which produced the NYA report I have just referred to. This is part of a growing body of tech-led evidence that can demonstrate the benefit of implanting measures to secure social change by showing how much money can be saved in other areas. As this evidence becomes more granular and detailed, and the science becomes stronger, I just hope it will become more difficult for governments to ignore the possibility of sound value for money for the UK taxpayer, through the positive effects that targeted investment has on young people in terms of mental health, wellbeing, education, employment and in other areas.

This is the kind of work I have long been arguing for.  When governments speak about long term planning, why do they not pick this up more effectively.  It could offer our young people, and wider society, so much that they have not been offered for many years.  That is not to decry the work already being done by volunteers and others. But it makes me weep to find that almost that the recommendations made in these reports are never backed with the legislative power.  Where is the budgetary responsibility in that, after all we pay for some of these reports to be produced?  Again, I am referencing the lost opportunity in the 2023 budget. We seem to be going in the opposite direction, and soon it may be too late to stop this decline.

In November 2022 there was another excellent and well researched report (there of course dozens of reports emerging every year). It was the “Final report by the Commission on Young Lives”12.  It is not as if we are short of road maps to bring about change.  We just need to take more notice of what these reports say and try to come together to see they are acted upon. 

I could mention many other less ambitious but practical messaging such as BKT’s “A guide to knife harm for parents and carers”13.


This article covers much ground, and I hope it will provoke further discussion on the topics it raises.  We are having a general election sometime in 2024.  If we don’t hear about the issue this article raises, then we will have failed our young people, through neglect, we will have done much to harm the chances of the next generation as well.  Some immediate priorities then are:

• Developing and implementing comprehensive youth violence prevention strategies. This must involve working together to identify the root causes of youth violence in their particular area, and develop new evidence-based programs and interventions, and coordinate service delivery through the existing local mechanisms.

• Sharing data and resources. This can help to identify and track youth at risk of violence, and ensure that they are connected to the services they need.

• Ensuring governments keep their word when Ministers make give parliamentary undertaking, sign off recommendations presented to parliament, or give statutory guidance. 

• Ensuring closer work with policymakers to develop and implement programs, or to change laws and regulations that contribute to youth violence.

• Local governments and police could partner in a much more organised way with  non-profit organisations in their districts to develop and implement a cooperative youth violence prevention programs in their high-risk neighbourhoods, using any available funding to support  this action.  Some of this is happening with the VRU already in London through their My Ends14 projects.

• Local schools might work more closely with a community mental health-centres to provide mental health services to young people who are at risk of violence, or who without help might face the risk of exclusion. Exclusion is a sure-fire way to secure the future seed-corn of gang membership. A health first approach to fighting knife crime might be more effective.

• Police forces should partner (as many do) with a faith-based organisations to provide mentoring and support services to young people who have been involved in violence.

• And most of all I believe there is room for a stronger coalition of organisations from different sectors that decide to work together to advocate for policies that support youth violence prevention, such as increased funding for after-school programs and job training programs. An organisation like the Hope Collective is a good example of that.  You will find some others on our website.

• Finally on Tuesday 14th May at the Congress Centre in London there is a chance for us all to get together and address the theme of this article, and discover the wonderful value in “Being Greater than Ourselves”.  You can find more detail here. Put it in your diary and get a ticket now please. If you got this far you must be interested in the topic!

Bruce Houlder CB KC
Founder of Fighting Knife Crime London (FKCL)


[1] i. e. on 12th November 2023 just before this speech was delivered
[7] As Above
[8] Multiple sources!
[10] See Fighting Knife Crime Magazine 9th Edition September 2023

Copyright 2024 Fighting Knife Crime London. All Rights Reserved.
Website powered by: