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The first responsibility of any Government is, of course, to keep their citizens safe. Much of that responsibility in Scotland falls to the Scottish Government, and it is worth while discussing the Scottish experience with violent crime.
Serious violence is an emotive subject in this Chamber and across the country. The emotive nature of the subject has meant that politicians are too often pushed towards reactionary and populist “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” policies without properly addressing the latter sentiment. These mistakes can be made because politicians can too often play into the public's fears or can perhaps be consumed by their own base instincts. More often than not, taking this tough Daily Mail, Old Testament approach is the easy thing to do—it is simply the politically expedient thing to do.
As much as I understand this urge—I am a politician—I believe we can aspire to a criminal justice system that is more effective at reducing crime, as well as to a fairer justice system that encompasses a whole-system approach that sees violent crime for what it is: as a societal disease that can be treated, and as a crime that is all too often based in poverty and that can be, if not eradicated, then reduced with a rational, systematic and evidence-based approach. I am therefore convinced that the public health approach is the best strategy to deal with violent crime, particularly knife crime, which is rampant on the streets of London at the moment. That approach was outlined almost two decades ago by the World Health Organisation and first implemented in Scotland. Its adoption elsewhere has been slow. The public health approach recognises that we all have a collective responsibility to tackle violent crime. It is an approach that emphasises rigorous and objective methods, using knowledge from a range of fields. It pools the best practices from everything—economics to education, sociology to medicine, and every discipline in between. In essence, it takes the best we have to offer and turns it on the worst problem we have in justice—generational violence.
Where attempted, the public health approach has been proven beyond doubt to work. It saves lives and allows people to live a life where violent crime is a much smaller risk: it gives peace of mind as we go through days already fraught with worry. It leads to safer communities, better social cohesion, and better mental health and security. The only regret I have is that these steps were not taken far sooner.
Scotland took the first steps towards the public health approach in 2005 when Strathclyde Police launched a holistic public heath strategy. This strategy resulted in the creation of the violence reduction unit which has led the way in bringing Scotland to the lowest recorded crime rates in 40 years. The VRU goes by a simple, but powerful motto:
“Violence is preventable, not inevitable.”
Strathclyde Police was the only police force in the world, at the time, to adopt the public health approach and it is now a national centre of expertise on violence and visited by many UK Government Ministers. Since it was founded, it has led the way in good policy deliverance which is making a real positive impact on people’s lives and our communities across Scotland.
In 2005, violent crime in Scotland was at epidemic levels, and Glasgow was infamously crowned by the World Health Organisation as the murder capital of Europe. It was the same year that the United Nations called Scotland the most violent country in the developed world. The VRU carried out its own analysis and it showed that the areas where violence was most out of control were the most deprived: they had the highest rates of addiction, teenage pregnancy, suicide, and domestic abuse, the latter of which I will come on to address.
The Scottish Government provided the VRU with £12 million and has supported violence reduction and prevention programs such as Medics Against Violence, which targets young people who are at risk of being killed or becoming victims of serious life-changing injuries. Health volunteers are used to deliver education sessions in high schools focused on talking to young people about the consequences of violence and how to keep themselves safe. The Mentors in Violence Prevention Programme is another initiative by the Scottish Government which aims to empower young people to challenge and speak out against violent and abusive behaviour.
Fast forward to today, and Scotland has been recognised by the World Economic Forum as a leader in violence reduction. Indeed, the UK Government have praised the approach that the Scottish Government have taken. Moreover, I have been heartened by the recent proactive, perceptive and progressive approach taken by Ministers in the Ministry of Justice and, to an extent, the Home Office. I wish them luck in advancing this approach in politically sensitive areas, such as the presumption against short sentences. Just last week, the chief executive of Community Justice Scotland, Karyn McCluskey, who helped to set up the VRU, met the Justice Select Committee to outline Scotland’s approach in this area, our successes, our failures and our future challenges.