News & Insights
Mark Watson considers the implementation and impact of Violence Reduction Units in England.
The Refrigerator, the Television, Toasters, Colour Photography, ATMs, Tyres, Bovril, Bicycles, Canals, Docks, Street lighting, Irn Bru, Propellers, the discovery of Insulin, Aussie Rules Football, Golf, Ice Hockey, Anaesthesia, the Telephone, Penicillin, Waterproof coats, Lawnmowers, the Postage stamp, RADAR, the Syringe, Hypnotism, the BBC, and the Jesus and Mary Chain.
These are just some of the excellent things that Scotland has contributed to the world.
In 2018, the Home Office published its Serious Violence Strategy, which addressed the increases seen in knife crime, gun crime and murder.
One of the key areas identified is early intervention and prevention amongst young people.
As a direct result of the strategy, eighteen Violence Reduction Units [“VRUs”] were established in 2019.
These were established in the eighteen areas of England with the highest instances of violent crime.
VRUs are teams which bring together local Police, Government, Community Leaders, Health Organisations and similar pastoral organisations to attempt to identify the specific causes of violent offending in their areas.
This is an incongruous approach to dealing with crime from a Government whose strategy to reduce offending is to increase the length of sentences and to ensure convicted offenders stay in prison for longer.
What a novel and enlightened approach!
Glasgow was once referred to as “the murder capital of western Europe”, and “the murder capital of Europe” by the World Health Organisation.
Scotland’s homicide rate in 2002, according to the World Health Organisation, was 5.3 per 100,000 people in males aged 10-29; the overall rate for Scotland was 3.1. These figures disguised significant differences across Scotland and in particular in Glasgow.
In 2005 Scotland was branded the most violent country in the developed world, with 137 homicides in just one year. 41 of those deaths were in the city of Glasgow alone.
This directly led to the establishment of the VRU by Strathclyde Police in 2005.
Since its inception, Scotland has seen a 35% reduction in homicide cases between 2010-11 and 2019-20. Glasgow city accounted for 41% of that decrease.
The VRU became a national concern in 2006.
The key difference, and some could say the reason for its success, was the approach that its architects employed. The VRU approached violent crime as a public health issue, rather than an incident to be dealt with.
His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services [“HMICFRS”] commissioned a report, examining how well the police tackle serious youth violence. VRUs were considered within this report.
In 2021, the Home Office carried out an evaluation of VRUs. It estimated that between 2019 and 2020, 41,377 violence without injury offences and 7,636 violence with injury offences were prevented in VRU areas, contrasted to areas without VRUs.
That is a significant reduction.
The VRUs within the Metropolitan Police Service geographical area were singled out for praise, noting significant partnerships focusing on serious violence amongst youths.
This praise is deserved, however the fact that one area is highlighted implicitly identifies an issue. Consistency.
In order for funding to be secured by a VRU from the Home Office, it is required to submit a strategic needs assessment, a response strategy and a delivery plan before the start of each financial year. This has to be repeated each year.
VRUs set their geographical borders but generally they reflect the Police force’s area in which they are located and the existing partnerships in said areas.
Given the individual needs in each specific area which have VRUs, it is unsurprising that the report notes some VRUs lacked a consistent approach to allocating resources, along with a lack of proper evaluations of interventions undertaken.
This inconsistent approach is indicative of the varied success of VRUs in reducing violence in their particular areas.
The report recommends that VRUs must receive consistent training in order to improve monitoring of activities and evaluation of intervention in order to increase success.
Identified in the report is another area for improvement, which is unsurprising when one considers the various organisations and bureaucracies attempting to work together; improving communication.
The fact that VRUs were funded on an annual basis led to real difficulties in being able to establish long-term activities or intervention.
In 2022 this was addressed by the Home Office and now VRUs are financed in three-year cycles. The Home Office has increased the funds available to VRUs by £64 million, compared to the £105million available since February 2021.
While the VRUs take a holistic approach to reducing violent crime, there is a point of view that this may not be enough to address the complex and deep-seated social and economic issues that contribute to crime. These run far deeper and are well-beyond the ability of VRUs unfortunately to tackle.
Finally, VRUs may not be sustainable in the long term.
While the VRUs may be successful in reducing levels of violent crime in the short term, it is obvious that it is impossible to maintain this level of success and reduction in violent crime over time.
Inevitably the figures will begin to look less impressive the longer that the VRUs are in existence and will have a diminishing return.
This is deeply problematic in a political culture that strives for catchy slogans and publicity and is susceptible to dramatic upheaval every four years.
Further, where there are diminishing returns suddenly that budget that the VRUs currently enjoy could appear to Government to be better used elsewhere. This strikes at the heart of the reform of the funding model of the VRUs from 12 month to three-year cycles.
VRUs are a good thing.
However, what is needed is consistency in approach. Hopefully the Met VRU will serve as a template for other VRUs, meaning they will all enjoy similar levels of success.
What is also needed is trust. Trust from the Government to not interfere with the model if suddenly the numbers change slightly. Also trust from communities, and indeed the individual organisations involved in the VRUs.
All of these things will be essential in ensuring the future of the VRU model.
Mark Watson is a member of Mountford Chambers who specialises in financial crime and serious general crime, and was called to the Bar in 2011. In addition to his criminal practice, Mark is the Secretary of the Criminal Bar Association.
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