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Knife asbos won’t cut crime – but they will harm vulnerable young people | Dean Ryan

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The new knife crime prevention orders introduced by the home secretary, Sajid Javid, will only serve to stigmatise and criminalise young people. The KCPOs, which will target children as young as 12 who are suspected of involvement in knife crime, even if they are not caught with a blade, include measures that already exist and don’t work.

Punitive measures proposed in the orders include street curfews, barring young people from meeting up with “other gang members” for two years and mandatory attendance of courses about the effects of knife crime. Yet the police have the powers to do this using the existing criminal behaviour and dispersal orders; they are already needlessly trapping young people in the youth justice system through repeated arrests for breaching orders.

Police can target young people regardless of whether they have committed a crime. Indeed, many young people see these powers as tools to harass and criminalise them. As one young person living in the north London borough of Haringey asked me recently: “If the government and police don’t want us to hang out on the streets, why have they closed all of our youth clubs?” Human rights barrister Adam Wagner, of Doughty Street Chambers, made an important point in response to Javid’s announcement when he tweeted: “My concern is that this is just another in a long line of laws which chip away at the requirement for police to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a crime has taken place before a person can be punished by the state – including onerous restrictions on their lives.”

Javid claims he will “do everything in [his] power to tackle the senseless violence that is traumatising communities and claiming too many young lives”. If this is his intention, he should consider the actions of his party – past and present – in creating the conditions in which knife crime and the illicit drugs trade thrive.

Studies such as John Pitts’ Reluctant Gangsters and John Hagedorn’s A World of Gangs have identified that the economic policies of the Thatcher era in the 1980s led to widespread deindustrialisation, creating social misery and laying the foundations for the modern-day drugs trade. Changes to the education system have exacerbated the situation, particularly the Thatcher government’s Education Reform Act 1988, which removed local decision-making powers, and the introduction of school league tables by the Tories in 1996. These have led to skyrocketing school exclusions, especially of young black boys. The latest figures from the Department for Education show that there were 40.6 permanent exclusions per day in 2016-17, up from an average of 35.2 per day in 2015-16.

These exclusions are providing a fertile recruiting ground for criminal drug gangs, who prey on vulnerable young people, especially those in the care system. In October 2018, the charity Barnardo’s reported that “school exclusions are fuelling gang violence”. It has been estimated that 86% of those in young offenders institutes have had at least one permanent exclusion from a school.


‘Lives instead of knives’: one woman’s fight to end knife crime in London – video

Yet there has been no acknowledgment of this by Javid, who was in David Cameron’s coalition government, which dismantled the Every Child Matters policy and abolished the £30-a-week education maintenance allowance, which was key to working-class young people being able to continue to study.

Instead he prefers to play to the gallery with unenforceable gestures, such as barring those suspected of being involved in knife crime from using social media to encourage feuds. The Tories are keen to demonise young people who make drill music videos, fuelling the racist stereotype that knife crime is a problem that is prevalent in the black community.

There is a significant body of research that suggests social class, not race, is the driving factor behind youth violence. When Glasgow was the knife crime capital of Europe, there were no demands that the white community take responsibility for their children, or media commentators lambasting “feckless” white dads. Yet the finger of blame is always being pointed at the black community.

If Javid is serious about tackling the causes of knife crime, there are three immediate steps he can take. He can legalise, or at least decriminalise, drugs to undermine criminal gangs and stop the “county lines” exploitation of young people. He can properly address the lack of affordable housing – there are currently 79,000 homeless families in England alone. And he must halt the scandal of school exclusions, which is creating a lost generation of vulnerable children with complex emotional needs and no stake in society.

Dean Ryan works with young offenders and excluded schoolchildren in north London. He writes in a personal capacity

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