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Youth Empowerment: A Call to Action Against Knife Crime

An article by Mark Shelford, Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner

In the few years I have been the Police and Crime Commissioner for Avon and Somerset, I have had the heart breaking duty of responding to several fatal stabbings. It is indeed a heart breaking duty. The three fatal stabbings in Bristol recently have moved me to speak.

To think about these children with their whole lives ahead of them, who have had their lives taken, the loss to their families, and also the loss to the families of those who commit these crimes—it makes the heart ache. And things don’t need to be like this.

Unfortunately, this is not isolated to one month, one area, or one gang. According to the Home Office, there were nearly 49,000 crimes in England and Wales involving knives or sharp objects during the year ending September 2023, and data from NHS Digital shows there were 3,775 “hospital episodes” recorded in English hospitals in 2022/23 that were due to assault by sharp objects.

This cannot go on.

I want us to think about how we, collectively, can stop it. How do we reach out early enough to the young people who end up involved in knife crime? How can we alter the course of their lives?

The Home Office, councils, and charities are trying hard to fix the problem. I know from working with these caring people that their shoulder is to the wheel. Time and money invested in creating opportunities provided by dedicated professionals. But it is not enough. We need answers as to why these interventions aren’t reaching those who need them most.

I believe as a society, we need to make our young more resilient and resistant to gang culture that leads to crime and violence. We need to give them tools and education to resist gang involvement. Many say this cannot be achieved, but I fervently disagree; it can if we set our minds to the problem, which we must, we can solve it. There is both a moral and a financial imperative to do so. A few years ago, I worked for an American NATO commander who had a saying: “You can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time; you have to choose one or the other.” Well, I choose to roll up my sleeves, to try, and if we are to succeed, I need your support.

There are mechanisms in place to help the young, but they all kick in once they have fallen out of full-time education. Not only are the costs considerable, but for some, I worry it may be too little too late. The young person is left trying to negotiate life with few or no qualifications. How easy will it be for them to find apprentices, to find work, to resist the seemingly easy wins they may be offered by criminal activity?

There is a massive emotional and psychological cost of criminalization, to the young people themselves and to their communities. But there is also a very real financial cost. The Youth Violence Commission Final Report in July 2020 stated:

“The costs associated with serious violence between young people are of an entirely different magnitude: £10 billion over the coming 10 years assuming rates of violence continue at their current levels.”

£10 billion pounds in 10 years!

What we are currently doing is not working. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” I propose that we must be both brave and bold to make the change we and our young people need. We need to help these young people, and we need to help them now.

We have the tools, the know-how, the capability, and the money; what we need is to collectively demonstrate that we also have the gumption—that magic fusion of competence, confidence, resilience, and enthusiasm. The money really is already there; we simply need to reapportion it.

What am I talking about? I am talking about making youth service a compulsory part of the curriculum. I don’t mean the reintroduction of National Service, but I am talking about the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, the Cadets, and the Scouting and Guiding movement. All of these organisations lead to positive outcomes for our young people through their focus on physical activity, skill acquisition, and community service. These elements generate a sense of accomplishment and self-worth which in turn contribute to improved physical and emotional well-being, resilience, and a sense of belonging within society.

Personally, I joined the Scouts followed by the Cadets, and I loved my time in both, but don’t take my word for it. Recently, the Northampton Cadets commissioned a study on the benefits of joining a cadet force entitled “What is the Social Impact and Return on Investment Resulting from Expenditure in Cadet Forces in the UK?”[1]  It provides compelling evidence:

“The implications of this finding are important for policymakers. Given that higher levels of self-efficacy are correlated with being more resilient, doing better at school, and getting a job, it is very possible that being a cadet is, for a young person from an economically disadvantaged background, a key factor that enables them to achieve positive life outcomes.”

This is excellent stuff, and it needs to be scaled up. It can be!

I am proposing and committed to supporting initiatives to expand the strategic direction of these existing organisations—such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme—with the aim of reaching one million young people every year over the next five years. Ideally, I would like even further roll-out of the program to embed the scheme within educational institutions and form part of the national curriculum.

Today, I’m starting a conversation!

How do we collaborate with and contribute to raising awareness of, and the broader roll-out of these impactful programs? Is the fact of them being voluntary to join actually a barrier to those who need it most? Please join the conversation and let me know what you think!

Do you support youth services being part of the National Curriculum? Then I urge you to tell your local Police and Crime Commissioner and your MP!