Niven Rennie: 15 Years On and Still Challenges Remain
‘Violence is preventable, not inevitable’. So said Nelson Mandela and that statement has become the byword for the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit.
It doesn’t sound so radical nowadays, but it was in 2004/5 when Scotland was amongst the most violent places to live in the world and Glasgow had the reputation of being the ‘murder capital of Europe’. In the communities of Glasgow young people were being maimed and were dying on the streets every day. For them, violence was merely part of the struggle of everyday life. To believe of a different future, a better set of outcomes for those young people, amongst the darkness they were experiencing was truly radical.
Scotland has come a long way since those dark times and the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit has played a part in that. We have walked beside an army of determined doctors, teachers, nurses, police officers, social workers and many more who do their duty every day – putting communities and the people who comprise them at the core of their daily work. Long term change can only be achieved if everyone pulls together with a message of prevention allied to mutual respect and understanding.
The journey that Scotland has undertaken has been identified by many as ‘good practice’ and thus ‘Violence Reduction Units’ are now appearing elsewhere. Whilst it is nice to see our initiatives being recognised, I always stress to those who look for advice that our work is not yet done. We may have reduced homicide by half since 2005 but Scotland remains a relatively violent country. 60 homicides in the last year pays testament to that fact. Too many lives still scarred by violence and too many lives lost in tragic circumstances. We may have seen significant and undeniable progress but there has been a levelling off in terms of reduction and the big drops we once saw are now harder to achieve. Further reduction will require social change.
We know that it is in some of our poorer communities violence remains a daily normality. If you are poor in Scotland you are still more likely to become a victim of violence. That is unacceptable. Added to that we know that those living in our poorer communities are more likely to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs to blur the reality of their daily lives. Indeed, their children are more likely to grow up with significant childhood trauma and the likelihood of poor life chances with limited expectation. Thus the cycle repeats.
In the last year, Scotland has recorded the highest number of drugs deaths in Europe per capita, our levels of suicide are a cause for concern and homelessness and foodbank usage appears to be on the rise. These issues are related and whilst a ‘public health approach’ is within the current lexicon of the public sector, we still appear to tackle each issue in isolation rather than addressing the underlying causes of poverty and inequality. I constantly reaffirm my belief that the structures of our public services were created for the problems of the 1950’s and may no longer be suitable to address the challenges being presented to us in the 21st century.
Many of the key services dealing with drug addiction, alcoholism and homelessness are delivered by the third sector for low levels of remuneration and subject to constant competitive tendering where cost savings often appears to be the driver. A true ‘public health approach’ would recognise the importance of these vital services and prioritise them accordingly.
Added to that, our historic approach to drug and alcohol misuse have not addressed the problem. Perhaps there is a need to take a wholly fresh approach, one which addresses the chaotic needs of the individual rather than seeking to punish them for their shortcomings.
With this in mind, I am delighted to read the conclusions of the Youth Violence Commission. They reflect the understanding of violence that we have gained over 15 years of operation and the need to provide properly funded and sustained services if we are truly to address the impact of poverty and social exclusion in all its forms. I believe that employment offers the best solution to these issues, but our young people require equality of opportunity and the removal of often unnecessary barriers if that is to be achieved.
In Scotland, the VRU will continue to work with partners to develop solutions to the violence that still infects us. Our strength has been in our ability to innovate without being held to the normal public sector demand to meet targets and produce outcomes. We don’t believe in quick fixes – it takes time to develop interventions that work. Soundbites are not solutions!
Determination, graft and a commitment to follow the evidence (not the ideology) have been the hallmarks of the SVRU approach. There can be no bystanders in addressing the issue of violence in our communities. There can be no excuses if we are to prove that violence is preventable and not inevitable.
I sincerely hope that the recently established regional VRU’s in England and Wales provide such a vehicle for change and that the recommendations of the Youth Violence Commission report will be welcomed and implemented.
Niven Rennie is Director of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit