12:37, April 02 286 0 theguardian.com

2019-04-02 12:37:05
Youth knife crime must be tackled. But not by copying Prevent

Some truly dystopian proposals have been woven into the conversation about serious youth violence in recent months, from knife-crime asbos to armed police patrols of inner-city neighbourhoods, to deploying the army. Now, in a bid to be seen to be doing something as its serious youth violence summit begins, the government has announced a consultation on yet another measure that is likely to do more harm than good: the public health duty to tackle serious violence.

If the government’s preferred formulation of the duty becomes law, a long list of public authorities across local government, health, education and policing will be required to “have due regard to the prevention and tackling of serious violence”. The government would issue guidance, but services themselves would be left to figure out how to comply over and above their existing safeguarding duties.

If this all sounds depressingly familiar, that’s because it is: it’s basically a copy and paste of the divisive and discriminatory Prevent duty. Under Prevent, a broad array of public services have a legal duty to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.

Few would dispute the need to keep the public safe from serious violence. Yet it is far from clear that this is what Prevent actually does. A cacophony of concern has been raised about the policy in recent years, including from representatives from every political party, members of the security establishment, and of course Liberty.

Initially focused specifically on Muslims, Prevent encourages public sector workers to view Muslim and ethnic minority patients, pupils and families with suspicion, and to report them to the police should they have concerns that a person is vulnerable to terrorism or “extremism” – defined somewhat chillingly as opposition to “British values”.

The result has been a web of public service surveillance, with people being funnelled into contact with the police, often without them being suspected of or committing any criminal activity at all. Only a tiny fraction of Prevent referrals require further action.

Schools have called the police on children because of the colour of their skin. Youth centre workers have been pressured into gathering intelligence for the authorities. Muslim students have been forced to self-censor on campuses. And workers have been interrogated by their colleagues and counter-terror police. If that wasn’t enough, reams of sensitive personal data have been shared with the police with scant transparency on how it has been retained or which other agencies it has been handed to. Now, increased data-sharing is one of this new duty’s stated aims as well.

The cost to society and communities has been alienation, stigma and fear. And in an age of predictive policing and automated risk-scoring, this kind of dragnet surveillance risks long-term repercussions for the people subjected to it.

For the government to attempt to replicate Prevent under the rubric of youth violence therefore isn’t just misguided, it’s dangerous. A debate about whether or not the government is truly espousing a public health approach is raging. But what this misses is that so-called preventative approaches can all too often become pretexts for disproportionate and ultimately counterproductive state intrusion into people’s lives.

It’s this pre-criminality that characterises so many of the deeply illiberal proposals that have been floated over the last few months, and indeed, longer-established policies like the gangs matrix. Giving police free rein to stop and search people without any suspicion, when racial bias in stop and search is at its highest in more than 20 years, is a charter for the humiliation and consequent resentment of young black men who have done no wrong. Subjecting children as young as 12 to knife crime asbos based on police estimates as to whether or not they have carried a knife in the last two years will simply channel them into the criminal justice system. And requiring public services to identify people at risk of violence and criminality – with little distinction between the two – will lead to a deluge of people being targeted for intervention, at best out of misplaced concern, and at worst, rank stereotyping.

Youth violence is a pressing human rights issue. Yet rarely does government seem to countenance the policy proposals of the people and communities most affected by it. That young people are routinely carrying weapons and causing one another serious and often fatal harm is a deeply worrying phenomenon to which we as a society must respond. But whatever approach the government adopts – or co-opts – we owe it to young people to ensure that basic principles like confidentiality, data protection and the presumption of innocence are at its heart.

Gracie Mae Bradley is policy and campaigns manager at Liberty