YOUNG PEOPLE DON’T FEEL SAFE by Steven Gauge            9 June 2008



Over twenty years ago, the disappearance of a 24 year-old Estate Agent called Suzy Lamplugh was big news. Her death led to the establishment of a charity and a wealth of initiatives to improve the personal safety of women at work. The trust rapidly grew to take on personal safety for everyone, everywhere. Today, the story is of a seemingly endless stream of teenagers being murdered at play. With every new funeral there is a chorus of appeals for “Something to be done,” but there is no consensus around what that “something” should be.


Young people don’t feel safe. The average age of homicide victims is getting younger each year so an increased fear amongst the young is hardly surprising. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust is regularly asked to go into schools and youth clubs to teach young people what they need to do to stay safe.


There are things that young people can do to improve their personal safety and carrying a knife is not one of them. They can learn how to avoid potentially violent situations. They can develop skills for diffusing tension and looking out for their friends. Sometimes, young people need to learn that their own actions can make things worse and turn a minor dispute into a dreadful tragedy.


So there are things that young people can do for themselves to stay safe but surely we have a responsibility as adults to create a safer world for them to grow up in. Knee jerk reactions are not enough.


750 people of all ages are murdered every year in this country. Two and a half million are victims of violent crime. If those figures were associated with a medical disease, millions of pounds would be raised for research and awareness raising campaigns. Celebrities would be seen wearing delightful t-shirts and auctioning off their underwear to raise money. Violence and aggression is a social disease and it is now beginning to affect younger and younger children. There will not be a great deal of profit to be made by the pharmaceutical industry developing a vaccine. No new wonder drug will be able to cure being stabbed.


There is an urgent need for more robust research into the causes of violence and aggression in society. An evidence-based approach to policy making in this area has to be adopted. Millions have been spent preparing a response to bird flu, which hasn’t mutated yet into the form we need to worry about. Yet precious little is being done to cure the social disease of violence and aggression, which is wiping out young lives almost every weekend.


Perhaps tougher sentencing might work. I personally doubt it, but no one appears to be testing that hypothesis in a remotely systematic way. Some evidence suggests that offenders believe that sentences are higher than they really are. So they have clearly not been deterred by the higher sentences they thought existed.


The statistics on stabbings being collected are pitiful. To monitor knife crime researchers have to use the proxy of measuring admissions to hospital of people injured with a sharp instrument. If we are relying on the NHS to provide the raw data perhaps we should involve them in developing the cure. What would NICE say about the cost effectiveness of the latest government initiatives to reduce knife crime? Does anyone have the faintest idea what really works?


I suspect there are probably strong links between social infrastructure and violence in societies. Communities where people know their neighbours, and know their neighbours’ children probably are safer. They will certainly feel safer. Quaker Social Action ran a successful programme of street parties in East London last year and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust was invited to participate by providing personal safety workshops. People on the same floor of a council block, who had never spoken to each other before, got to know each other, understand a little more about their different cultures and began to look out for each other. More research into the benefits of these and other initiatives might indicate other effective ways to spend public money.


Communities where people feel that they are a valued part of society are probably safer too. When we glorify celebrity we undervalue everything else. If I hear another reality show contestant talk about their dream of changing from an ordinary housewife, plumber, bin man, nurse etc. into someone allowed to sing on the telly even I might be tempted to punch Piers Morgan. Recognising and celebrating wider range of lifestyles and occupations might go some way to reducing the alienation felt by young people and might in turn lead to lower levels of violence.


As the property markets and the banking industry collapse, perhaps a few newly redundant analysts and economists could turn their number crunching brains to the more pressing social need of reversing the spread of violent crime.


(c) Steven Gauge 2008                                                                                    {Ref 1005}


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