Violence prevention in Scotland – on paper, in policy, in practice

17 Jun 2022

By Fern Gillon

What is prevention?

“Violence is preventable, not inevitable”

The statement above is the well-known tagline of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (SVRU). And it’s true. The public health model, adopted by the SVRU, clearly and unequivocally situates violence within a wider ecological model of individual, community, and societal risk factors. The logic follows that addressing these primary issues will lead to better outcomes, and should lead to a reduction in violent incidents. As such, their work has to-date included engaging with those who may be more susceptible to these factors, being present and active in the communities where these issues cluster, and more broadly addressing our national affiliation with alcohol. But what does it mean for others in Scottish policy and practice?

Prevention on paper, prevention in policy

The truth and value of prevention has long been realised in a range of Scottish policy circles – it is evident, for instance, in the Early Years Framework; Building Safer Communities; Preventing Domestic Abuse: A National Strategy; and Changing Scotland’s Relationship with Alcohol: A Framework for Action. Prevention was prioritised in the national vision for the future of public services set out in the Christie Commission Report, alongside People, Partnership and Performance (4Ps). Explicitly prioritising prevention, even if only in rhetoric, created a shared agenda for disparate agencies and organisations, across a range of policy areas.

The application of prevention can be seen most clearly, though, in children’s policy. Used and tested across Scotland since 2006, Getting It Right For Every Child (GIREFEC) provides a framework to underpin all work with children, young people and their families, with a renewed focus on their wellbeing, and a shared language for agencies. The principles of prevention and early intervention to promote wellbeing and improve outcomes applied also to children who come into contact with the law, and importantly, under the Whole System Approach (WSA), extended to those young people who caused the most harm. The Whole System Approach sees prevention and early intervention as key to desistance. This tiered approach prioritises a needs-led lens on children who come into contact with the law, no matter the stage of intervention with the justice system.

Of course, this strong discourse should be taken with a generous dash of salt. Despite this strong and prolonged prevention narrative, there has not been the shift in finance and service delivery which is required to truly realise this ambition (Lightowler, 2017). So where does that leave prevention in practice?

Prevention in practice

A primary focus of the WSA was in early intervention and diversion, following the rationale that addressing low level offending prevented future escalation. While prevention and early intervention are hard to evidence, due to their complex nature, sustained practice of Early and Effective Intervention (EEI) and Diversion may stemmed the flow of young people coming into contact with the law, the escalation of either their behaviour (as needs have been met) or the escalation of their progress through the system (as they have been diverted). What then remains, and where attention can turn, is the now smaller, but potentially more complex group of young people for whom violent offending behaviour remains an issue. Research evidence and practice wisdom tells us this group are often the most vulnerable and victimised, marginalised and complex. These young people still present a serious risk of harm to themselves and to others. For this group, existing preventative efforts do not appear to have been enough. The question remains of how our society could better meet the needs of this group, and how our systems could better address their vulnerabilities.

Successful prevention?

While it might not be directly using the terminology of public health, national policy and practice in Scotland endorses central aspects of prevention, early intervention and participation which are complementary to the Public Health Approach. Prevention and early intervention are cornerstones of youth and youth justice policy. It is fair to say that, in general, young people in Scotland are not offending at the same rate and are not escalating their behaviours to the same level of violence as previously. But how do we know what is really making the difference? By approaching the phenomenon of youth violence reduction through data, experience and expertise - which includes the lived experience of individuals and communities - as this project seeks to do, we can begin to approach an explanation of what has worked, what continues to work, and what is still required to prevent this most damaging and complex social phenomena.