A duty to prevent violence – empowerment or burden?

Roger Grimshaw examines the government consultation on a public health duty to address serious violence

By: 
Roger Grimshaw
Date: 
Thursday, 30 May, 2019

'Knife offenders will be treated like would-be jihadists under measures announced on Monday by Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, to crack down on violent crime.'

With this sensational opening line, there is no doubt about the intentions of a press eager to portray the government as opening a new front in an existential battle with the threat of knife crime. The language of ‘crackdowns’ has an obvious appeal to political forces eager for repressive action. Yet the substance of the government’s initiative on a public health duty to prevent serious violence is more complex, and, as I will argue, fails to answer some of the fundamental challenges.

The government has issued a consultation on ‘a new legal duty to support the multi-agency action needed to prevent and tackle serious violence’. It wants to hear from a range of organisations and professionals including the voluntary and community sector. 

How innovative are these proposals? In fact the government points to existing examples of multi-agency structures such as community safety partnerships and safeguarding arrangements. Its aim is improvement in this cooperative working, directed at serious violence in particular.

It presents three options:

  • a legal duty with local discretion and flexibility
  • a duty under a strategy led by the community safety partnership, and
  • voluntary cooperation

The first is the government’s preferred option. The obligations would fall on all the organisations mandated by the Prevent Duty to combat terrorism-hence the remarkable ‘jihadi’ comparison made by the press.

In principle, a public health duty to prevent violence would strengthen the hand of public health experts whose job is to recommend multi-agency programmes but, by itself, it would not address the persistent questions about funding which beset local authorities. 

At first sight the government messaging is reassuring. 

‘It does not mean that the Government is asking teachers and health workers to act as police officers or placing new burdens upon them.’ 
We don’t yet know how any of the options might be modified or implemented but sometimes it helps to contemplate ‘worst case’ scenarios based on this general direction of travel. Cases in legal dispute often favour the sides with the best funded lawyers and the outcome rests on their capacity to make a legal case, not necessarily on the merits of the situation.

Hence we’ve seen the creation of medical defence organisations and trades unions which protect, as far as they are able, the interests of professionals. But who would protect community-based educational or child care organisations in disadvantaged areas which fell foul of some approved protocol? 

Yet it is often these organisations which are closest to some of the people most at risk of violence. Might their work be discredited as a result of a negative inspection or officious action? Of course it is not always the actuality of legal action but sometimes the chilling effect of poorly drafted legal provisions that can undermine cooperation and understanding. An effective multi-agency approach could thus be strangled at birth. 

If we take an example from London, the problem can be made clearer. Operation Shield was a deterrent project, targeted at violence, but it was undermined by scepticism among some members about the prospect of groups suffering collective punishment. 

With a ‘tough’ public health duty, would such lack of support be treated as a serious failing and render those members ultimately liable to a legally founded rebuke?

More generally, the government seems to be following the example of Scotland in advocating the benefits of a public health approach. But it admits that the advances claimed for the policy in Scotland were not based on a legal duty. So why is a legal duty a favoured option? Greater administrative control might be one motivation but for another part of the answer, we might return to the article cited at the outset and consider the impact and tone of its breathless paraphrase. 

The results of the consultation should be fascinating reading.