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Knife Crime: Violence Reduction Units

Volume 836: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to assess the efficacy of violence reduction units in addressing knife crime.

My Lords, the Home Office has commissioned a multiyear independent evaluation to assess the impact of violence reduction units on the most serious forms of violence and their progress in adopting a public health approach. Recent findings have shown a statistically significant reduction in hospital admissions for violent injuries in VRU areas since funding began in 2019.

With the effects of serious violence falling on some communities far more than on others—here in London we have had 1,000 homicides since 2016—what work has been done by VRUs to increase the effectiveness of the money that they are allocating?

My Lords, since 2019, the Home Office has provided over £43 million to develop and run London’s violence reduction unit, which includes an investment of £9.5 million in 2023-24. As part of their funding terms, all VRUs are required to deliver evidence-based approaches that are shown to deliver the most impact in steering young people away from violence. In London, the various interventions being delivered include those that the independent youth endowment fund has found to be capable of delivering the highest impact. That includes the delivery of specialist support for young people affected by violence on admission to A&E or custody suites, as well as personal support such as mentoring programmes, where sport is used as a hook to attract participation.

My Lords, a major risk factor for young people’s involvement in violent gangs is the lack of a father at home, so what are the violence reduction units doing to make absent fathers part of the solution? Many are still very present in their children’s minds, and being estranged from ex-partners does not automatically mean they have no sense of responsibility towards the children who have gone astray. How are VRUs harnessing and encouraging that responsibility?

My Lords, the violence reduction units deliver a range of preventive work with and for communities, as I outlined in the previous two answers to my noble friend Lord Bailey. That can include families, which of course obviously involves fathers as well as young people, and includes a wide range of approaches, including mentoring and trusted adult programmes or intensive behavioural therapies and, as I mentioned earlier, sports-based diversionary activities. In London in particular, the VRU’s My Ends programme provides community leaders with resources to enhance violence prevention measures in their areas. In addition, the Young People’s Action Group, which is made up of young people from across London, works alongside the VRU to ensure that the voices of young people influence policy and funding decisions.

My Lords, a 2014 Scottish study by Professor John Crichton found that the kitchen knife was the most commonly used weapon. The author suggested that the introduction of knives without points as an effective public health strategy might positively affect the rate of death and serious injury. I quote:

“It would not be necessary to enforce an absolute ban on long pointed kitchen knives, but simply to limit availability, thereby making a lethal weapon less likely to be at hand in the context of unplanned violence”.

Is this something that VRUs are taking forward and that the Government would support?

The noble Baroness raises an interesting point. Of course, we keep all knife legislation under review, and noble Lords will be aware that moves have been made recently to ban, for example, zombie-style knives and machetes. Secondary legislation was laid in January, guidance will be available from 26 June and the ban will come into effect on 24 September. I will ensure that all forms of knives are kept very closely under review, particularly in view of patterns of use.

My Lords, obviously, large urban areas such as London have particular problems, and I would argue that there is a lot more crime. Are any comparative assessments being done so that each VRU can learn from others in all sorts of ways?

Yes, again, the noble Baroness raises a very good point. She is right, of course, that London has particular problems in this area. The activities of certain violence reduction units have absolutely influenced the way that the whole programme has been established across England and Wales—and indeed taking a lot of the lead from Scotland.

My Lords, knife crime is up by 70% since 2015 and, according to the YMCA, youth services were cut by 71% in the decade after 2010. Does the noble Lord think these two statistics are linked? Does he also believe that, building on the work of the VRUs, local youth services should be introduced and backed in a way to try to prevent further knife crime?

On the noble Lord’s latter point, I agree, which is one of the reasons the Home Office has invested £200 million in the youth endowment fund, to which I have already referred. As regards knife crime across the country, the rise is driven largely by the situation in London. For police-recorded offences involving knives or sharp instruments, there was a 5% increase year-on-year nationally, but the increase in London was 22%. If London was taken out of those figures, the natural trend would be a 1% reduction.

My Lords, violence reduction units can definitely reduce knife crime, as has been shown time and time again, but for them to be able to do their job properly they need long-term funding and they are not being provided with it. The Government’s three-year funding model runs out next year and there is great anxiety about what will come next. Will the Government reconsider their current funding model and provide the sort of long-term funding that these units, which are so desperately needed, require to do the job they were set up for?

As I have already outlined, we have already committed over £110 million since 2019 across the country. Of course, we want to see VRUs continue to operate beyond the end of 2025; by that time, though, they will have received investment for six years. We would encourage VRUs to become financially sustainable organisations. We will of course support them to obtain matched funding and partnership buy-in, but future funding beyond 2025 will depend on the needs of the VRUs and the outcome of future spending reviews.

My Lords, how many of the VRUs include domestic and gender-based violence within their definition of serious violence? Does the Minister agree that artificially separating public violence —street violence—from private violence in the home ignores the links between the two, not least the impact on young people’s future behaviour through what they might learn is normal?

Again, the noble Baroness raises a good point. I think it is important to collect the statistics as accurately and in as granular a way as possible. So I would perhaps mildly dispute the second part of the question. However, we need to look at the way violence occurs in the round—so the noble Baroness raises a very good point.

My Lords, it is critical to rebuild trust from these communities and public services who are so affected by violence if violence reduction units are to be successful. This is obviously possible but it is very challenging. What steps are being taken to evaluate successful measures to rebuild trust and share those between violence reduction units, so that this can be done effectively?

I thank my noble friend for that question. Part of the funding for VRUs has to be allocated towards evaluation, but an independent evaluation programme shows that, alongside the Grip, which we have talked about before from this Dispatch Box, there are serious violent hotspot programmes. These are putting additional highly visible police patrols into key locations. The VRU programme is having a statistically significant positive effect, as I referenced earlier. An estimated 3,220 hospital admissions for violent injury have been avoided since funding began in 2019.

Can I just challenge the Minister? He suggested that in the future, VRUs will depend on match funding and non-governmental sources of money. Surely, violence reduction and the protection of our young people is a core activity and it is entirely right that it should be fully funded by the taxpayer. Other money is for add-ons and extras: this, surely, is not an add-on or an extra.

I was not making the case that it was an add-on or an extra; I was saying that future funding beyond 2025 will be dependent on the needs of the VRUs and the outcome of future spending reviews, and of course the evaluation that is already under way.

My Lords, is not the increase a direct consequence of the cuts in public services, for example to local government, youth services and the police? The police used to make visits to schools and many police authorities have stopped doing that completely. Do the Government not need to understand that their cuts over 13 years have had a dramatic effect on this issue?

My Lords, I referenced earlier that there is some new funding. The London Metropolitan Police, for example, will receive an additional £8 million this year and the City of London will receive an extra £1 million for additional visible patrols in serious violence and anti-social behaviour hotspots. The funding supports the delivery of a combination of regular high-visibility patrols in the streets and neighbourhoods experiencing the highest volumes of serious violence and/or anti-social behaviour.

I remind noble Lords that there are currently more police in this country than ever before. The Metropolitan Police currently has 35,000 and could have had more; the budget was available but they were unable to recruit up to the budget, which is a shame because it obviously cost them some resource. The Government have delivered on their police uplift programme.