Lesley Riddoch: What Glasgow teaches us about tackling knife crime

The way in which our authorities treat young people is key to tackling knife crime, writes Lesley Riddoch

Stabbings used to be a uniquely Glasgow problem – but London is now Britain’s capital of knife crime.

The non-Brexit related headlines this weekend were dominated by one grim statistic. Seventeen Londoners – mostly youngsters – have died as a result of stabbings in the first ten weeks of 2019. Last year was no better. In 2018, 76 people were stabbed to death in London with 209 such fatalities throughout the rest of England and Wales – the highest total since records began in 1946. Meanwhile Scotland registered 33 knife-related killings - part of the joint lowest homicide total since 1976.

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Of course, it’s wrong to reduce personal tragedies to mere statistics and no-one should be smug about levels of violence in Scotland. 16 year-old Bailey Gwynne was stabbed to death at Cults Academy in October 2015 and hundreds of pupils are excluded every year for carrying knives.

Stabbings used to be a uniquely Glasgow problem  but London is now Britains capital of knife crime. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

But in relative terms, Scotland is doing something right.

So what is it and can London learn from our experience?

The Violence Reduction Unit (VRU), was set up in Glasgow in 2005 with the belief that violence is a public health issue -- “a disease infecting communities” generated by poverty, inequality and despair. Its Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV) offered young people alternatives to gang membership like youth clubs, training and work. Former offenders were drafted in to share their experiences and within five years, police reported a 50 per cent reduction in violent offending amongst participants. Even amongst gang members who refused to join, there was a 25% fall in offences.

Around the same time there was a massive drop in the number of exclusions from Scottish schools – they’ve more than halved since 2006. Just five pupils were permanently removed in 2017, a trend VRU’s Will Linden regards as vital in keeping children out of trouble.

By contrast, the rising number of school exclusions south of the border, mirrors the rise in knife crime there. Almost a quarter of children in England carrying a knife were suspended from school in 2017 and though experts warn against causal connections, time spent caring for difficult children instead of disowning them, clearly pays off.

Confidence generated by the VRU’s approach also led to the establishment of the Scottish Prisons Commission whose 2008 report recommended the Finnish community payback system rather than jail for lesser offences –including the carrying of knives. This was controversial – as a member of the Commission I expected the worst when 18 months work was dismissed as a “thug’s charter” by the Scottish Conservatives and most tabloid newspapers. But in hindsight, a crucial change was taking place in Scotland. A move towards connecting with young offenders instead of trying to warehouse them.

In 2010 the Scottish Government introduced a presumption against jail terms of less than three months - which has since halved re-offending rates. Meanwhile there’s been a dramatic decline in prison violence -- 73% fewer violent incidents in Scottish jails in 2016 than in England and Wales. Perhaps that’s because Scotland’s had no new private jails since the SNP came to power (save one where cash was already committed) and an 18 per cent rise in community sentences has slightly reduced numbers.

Of course, it would be wrong to get complacent. Courts are continuing to send women to prison instead of using alternatives. Prison officers are warning of control problems as staffing cuts bite. Victims of crime still worry when perpetrators are not behind bars. But numbers facing jail should fall further this year when the Scottish Government extends the presumption against prison to sentences of 12 months or less. As long as there’s a substantial rise in community facilities this should ease prison pressure.

There’s a common theme here – over the last decade, the authorities in Scotland have opted to engage with violent and disruptive young people, stopped excluding troublesome pupils, encouraged team-building amongst youngsters, tried to offer alternatives to impoverished lives and a measure of respect instead of threats, ultimatums and individual blame.

It may also be relevant that the Scottish Government will spend £125 million this financial year protecting the poorest Scots from the savagery of the UK benefits system. That’s not enough to transform lives, but it demonstrates that the real enemies on our streets are poverty and inequality – and most Scots know it.

Compare and contrast the situation in England. Last September, London established a Violence Reduction Unit with advice from the Glasgow pioneers and English Justice Minister Rory Stewart travelled north to see how reductions in prison violence have been achieved within the Scottish system.

But just as progressive English politicians reached out for Scottish experience, the latest spate of stabbings has created an authoritarian backlash. The Chief Constable of Merseyside police, Andy Cooke, has called for all knife-carrying criminals to be jailed immediately and given long sentences – a call backed by many English newspapers. The growing chorus for tougher measures has apparently caused David Gauke, the English justice secretary to water down plans to end short prison sentences as Scotland did ten years ago, after it emerged that would let 4,000 knife-carrying criminals a year avoid jail.

Scotland’s recent experience shows that engagement, contact, care and provision can all change outcomes for young people and it’s clear some progressive politicians in England have been listening. But they operate within a punitive society where successive Tory governments have normalised inequality, food banks, benefit sanctions, homelessness, social immobility, insecurity and constant stress and now promise cash to combat the stabbings “epidemic” if MPs back Theresa May’s deal. Game-playing as London burns, Tory policies simply fuel societal collapse.

Meanwhile, a conference last week in Iceland explained how the tiny North Atlantic state transformed its substance-abusing youngsters over 20 years into (perhaps) the world’s healthiest by diversion into sport. The big secret isn’t any special sporting technique but a commitment by local and national politicians to keep providing excellent coaches and affordable, hyper-local facilities with buses to reach after-school training sessions – and a commitment by parents and teenagers to spend time and solve problems together. This simple pact has helped produce World Cup qualifying squads for men and women in basketball, handball and football, and helped create a more confident nation. Maybe that’s a new model for Scotland to consider.