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Where is our public health campaign on youth violence?

Viv Ahmun

Fifteen-year old Zac Olumegbon brings the tally of deaths this year of young people shot or stabbed to death by other young people to thirteen.

As we wring our hands over the death of yet another child, those of us with the knowledge and expertise in this area of social policy must ask ourselves why we have let things get so bad.

Rather than respond to this public health issue in ways that have been shown to bring results, we have allowed our politicians to subject us to politically driven propaganda based on skewed statistics, designed to do nothing more than justify an enforcement approach that is clearly not working. Worryingly, this approach also prevents any public analysis of the underlying issues and the highlighting of solutions, whilst simultaneously further demonising and scapegoating young Black men. Surely now it is high time to share what we have known for some time in terms of prevention measures with the general public.

The highest rates of violence and crime in Britain take place in the most deprived areas and eighty percent of the Black community live in the poorest areas in this country. We also know that increased unemployment and poverty are directly linked to spikes in crime and civil unrest. More than 50% of Black men under the age of 20 are unemployed and that figure continues to rise.

Add to this, the over-representation of Black children and young people in exclusions from school, in the criminal justice system and on the mortuary slab, it soon becomes clear that we are reaping the results of a public health and economic crisis in our poorest communities that cannot and will not be solved solely by the heavy hand of police enforcement.

We need our politicians to take the long view, rather than constantly thinking in terms of selfish, irresponsible and politically driven cycles of forty-eight months. We need to invest our energy in focused long-term solutions. As one key gang member recently said to me, “We don’t want your pity and we don’t want your handouts! We want genuine opportunities!”.

Week after week I sit round the table with senior police officers and professionals from across the public sector spectrum, nobody talks about race or colour as the underlying cause. Nobody, especially the police, believes that enforcement, particularly not “A blanket approach to Stop and Search” or the wholesale warehousing of young people in prison will solve the problem of violent crime in our communities. Such responses are little more than cynical public confidence exercises that the public no longer buys into. So we must ask the question: ‘Which section of Joe Public are they trying to reassure?’ because this approach is irreparably eroding the trust and confidence of that section of the urban public which is currently bearing the brunt of the youth killings.

Workable solutions are about placing greater emphasis on prevention work that begins the moment issues with our young people or struggling young parents are identified. Workable solutions are also about schools having a clearly defined and pivotal role to play in addressing what is widely accepted as being primarily a public health and not an enforcement-led challenge. The Wave Report 2005: Violence and What to do about it, makes the points clearly and has cross party support, but unfortunately we have seen little progress in relation to actual implementation, and few of the widely accepted points made within the report have ever been shared in any meaningful way with the general public who are in greatest need of what literally is life saving information.

This most recent killing, involving young people who are allegedly all linked to the same Pupil Referral Unit in West Norwood comes as no surprise. A report produced by the London Youth Crime Prevention Board in 2008, chaired by Lord Victor Adebowale identified Pupil Referral Units as extremely high risk environments for young people. Forty high-risk units were identified across London with recommendations that they increase the numbers of Safer Schools Officers working in them.

We need to know what happened to the recommendations that came from this three year Pan-London Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) improvement project, which should now be in its second year of implementation.

We need to know why have not seen any regional and national public health campaigns aimed at increasing the safety of our youth as part of a wider coordinated strategy for London and the whole country.

We need to know when Boris Johnson will take up a leadership position in relation to this issue in accordance with his electoral promise that links in with a national response led by David Cameron.

Without a commonsense approach and strong leadership during this time of austerity, this situation will only get worse.

By Viv Ahmun

Viv Ahmun is a social policy consultant, Director of Equanomics UK and a service development advisor with 25 years experience in developing and running national and international services.

For further information contact: Ahmun@coreplanuk.com

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