On 14 July the Government announced it would introduce new legal duties on public services to work together to prevent and tackle serious violence. This forms part of its new ‘public health approach’ to tackling violent crime.

This Insight will take a closer look at how the Government intends to implement this ‘public health approach’ and explore the challenges to making it work.

Is violent crime increasing?

This announcement comes amid concerns of rising violence in the UK. As early as 17 May BBC News reported that the UK had reached 100 stabbing fatalities for 2019.

The Office of National Statistics recently released new crime data. It showed that some types of violent crime are increasing – although some of the increase is down to improvements in recording practices. Between 2013/14 and 2018/19 homicides rose by around 30%. Offences involving knives and sharp instruments rose by just over 80% during the same period.

A graph showing the increase in offences related to serious violence between 2014 to 2019. It shows that the largest increase has been in crimes involving a knife or sharp instrument.

The problem is worse in urban areas. ONS data tells us that London has the highest rate of knife crime in England and Wales. In 2018/19 there were 168 knife crime offences for every 100,000 people in the capital. Gwent, in Wales, had the lowest rate of knife crime, with 24 knife crime offences for every 100,000 people.

What is a ‘public health approach’?

A ‘public health approach’ treats violence like an infectious disease. It suggests that policy makers should search for a ‘cure’ by using scientific evidence to identify what causes violence and find interventions that work to prevent it spreading. A ‘public health’ approach involves multiple public and social services working together to implement early interventions to prevent people from becoming involved in violent crime. 

How is the Government implementing a public health approach?

The Government has slowly adopted the terminology ‘public health approach’ to describe its policy on tackling violent crime. The phrase does not appear in its Serious Violence Strategy published in April 2018. Instead, the strategy is described as a “balance between prevention and effective law enforcement.” However, in October 2018, newly appointed Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced a consultation on a “new legal duty to underpin a ‘public health’ approach to tackling serious violence.” The consultation opened in April 2019 and the Government published its response last Monday (15 July).

The response describes the “building blocks” of the Government’s ‘public health approach’. These are:

  • Providing £35m worth of funding to 18 police forces worst effected by violent crime to set up Violence Reduction Units (VRUs) modelled on Scotland’s VRU. Since 2006 the Scottish Government has provided around £1m a year to Police Scotland to run its VRU. The VRU co-ordinates a public health approach by working with multiple public services providers on early intervention projects across Scotland.
  • Investing £200m over ten years into the Youth Endowment Fund, which provides grants to public, third sector and for-profit bodies working on targeted early intervention with young people, and establish a Serious Violence Taskforce to provide oversight and challenge to this spending.
  • Introducing two new legal duties on local public service providers to take a proactive approach to tackling serious violence.

What are these the new legal duties and how will they work?

The Government is proposing to introduce both a brand-new legal duty and amendments to existing legal duties, which will require local public services to work together to prevent and tackle serious violence.

A brand-new legal duty

The Government has committed to introduce a brand-new legal duty for a yet unspecified list of public service providers to “collaborate and plan to prevent and reduce serious violence.” Its announcement says this duty will “cover the police, local councils, local health bodies such as NHS Trusts, education representatives and youth offending services.” However, its consultation response says it will: “carry out further informal targeted consultation” to “finalise the list of specific organisations or authorities” subject to the new duty. So, we don’t yet know who exactly will be required to uphold the new duty.

It is also unclear what these public service providers will be required to do. The Government talks about “sharing data” and “targeting interventions” but it hasn’t published draft legislation, so we cannot tell exactly what it is planning.

The Government has given some detail about what will not be in the legislation. It won’t provide a definition of ‘serious violence’ as there is no agreed definition. The Serious Violence Strategy focuses on crimes involving knifes and firearms but the Government has stated it wants each “local area to set its own reasonable definition of serious violence for the purpose of defining the scope of its activities.”

Amending existing legal duties  

The Government has also committed to amending existing legal duties which require local services to agree strategies to combat crime.

Provisions in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 currently require local authorities, probation services, police forces, fire authorities and Clinical Commissioning Groups to work in Community Safety Partnerships (CSPs). These generate and implement strategies to combat local crime.

The partnerships work differently across the country, but most tend to have priorities which span the totality of crime and focus both on low level anti-social behaviour and serious and organised offending. For example, Doncaster’s CSP lists both improving the town’s CCTV coverage and providing taxi drivers with training to spot and report child sexual exploitation, as some of its successes. Similarly Dartford’s CSP lists providing support to domestic abuse victims and running operations to target fly tippers.

Some CSPs, including Dartford’s and others like Liverpool’s already work on early interventions to combat ‘serious violence’. The Local Government Association estimated in 2016 that between 21% and 29% of CSPs were already prioritising violent crime.

The Government has said it will introduce amendments to the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to ensure that CSPs must consider ‘serious violence’ when generating their strategies. It says this will ensure that serious violence “remains a priority at a local level.”

How will these new legal duties work together?

It is unclear how CSPs will interact with the new legal duty – without knowing exactly who will be required to work together under it. It is likely that many local service providers will be required to work on both. Local services will have to figure out how best to ensure that CSP strategies align with the work of new serious violence partnerships.

There is also the question of funding. The Government estimate that local public services will incur costs of £281 million over ten years to implement the partnerships. Councillors in Teesside have already warned that “extra responsibilities on councils need to be accompanied by extra funding.”

Is a legal duty necessary?

Whilst legislation would ensure that local partners are required to work together, they often do so without specific requirements. In Scotland, where public services have been working on a ‘public health approach’ for some time, no such legal duty to do so exists. Instead the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) co-ordinates evidence gathering and early intervention work with funding provided by the Scottish Government.

The UK Government has committed to establishing 18 VRUs across England and Wales. It says these VRUs will “ensure there is effective planning and collaboration to support a longer-term approach to preventing violence.” Like in Scotland, these VRUs will be based in police forces but expected to work with a variety of local public services.

The Government has said the new legal duty will “compliment and assist Violence Reduction Units.” But with VRUs, the new serious violence partnerships and CSPs all being required to work on a local ‘public health approach’ to serious violence, local co-ordination could get complicated.

What next?

The Government’s consultation response doesn’t say when the new legislative proposals will be introduced to Parliament. For now, police forces and other local providers continue to work with their existing resources and powers to combat serious violence in communities across England and Wales.

Further reading

About the author: Jenny Brown is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in home affairs and justice.