A week ago, the Home Office launched their new campaign to curb the rise of knife crime across the United Kingdom. Fried chicken boxes with messages deterring would-be perpetrators have been distributed in a number of shops including the Morley’s Fried Chicken and Chicken Cottage chains across “England and Wales”. Under the lid of the box there are real life accounts of knife crime and its horrific impact.
The initiative drew immediate criticism. MP David Lammy, writing in the Guardian, noted: “The Home Office is using taxpayers’ money to sponsor an age-old trope. Boris Johnson has already called black people ‘picanannies with watermelon smiles’. Now his government is pushing the stereotype that black people love fried chicken. This ridiculous stunt is either explicitly racist, or at best, unfathomably stupid.”
The Home Office confirmed All City Media Solutions were the PR agency behind the campaign and they became the focus of further criticism when screenshots of their website went viral and increased the whiff of racism around the project. The bizarre post said: “Never has there been an opportunity that can target the youth, the ethnics and urban city audiences with ease[…]Why has no one pushed the chicken across the road? Suddenly, a fellow diner leaps to his feet and approaches the counter. ‘Oi, Bossman! Give me six more wings! Man’s chicken game is STRONG’. In another image, an infographic explained that chicken shops serve a 70% black and minority ethnic audience, comprising of “45% Afro-Caribbeans, 40% Asians and 45% Middle Eastern”.
In an effort to control the fallout ACM Solutions subsequently backtracked and issued a statement in which they claimed: “We launched the #knifefree campaign with the Home Office as part of a wider media strategy to target young people aged 10-21 from all backgrounds. Never has this been about race…..this idea had always been from the Home Office”.
There’s only one Chicken Cottage branch in Wales and no outlets of Morley’s Fried Chicken. A phone call to the only Chicken Cottage here confirmed that these boxes were not being used in Wales. A number of calls to other popular chicken shops were unfruitful, with one particular outlet in south Cardiff laughing at our question before hanging up. It doesn’t look like they are being used in Wales.
While the boxes haven’t made it over the Severn Bridge yet, the statistics reflect how significant a problem knife crime now is in Wales. The number of offences involving knives or sharp objects has more than tripled over the last five years. While dwarfed by some of the figures released by English forces, Gwent Police recorded the biggest increase in the 12 months to September 2018 compared to 2013 going from 42 to 141 incidents, a 236% hike. North Wales Police was up 211% with 277 cases in 2018, while Dyfed-Powys Police cases more than doubled from 75 to 156. South Wales Police, responsible for over 40% of the Welsh population, had the lowest increase but the highest incidence with 735 offences in 2018.
A number of factors are clearly at play with this dramatic increase in knife crime and the UK Government’s austerity measures are undoubtedly key.
Statistics starkly illustrate the links between the growth in knife crime and cuts to social services such as youth centres and interventions for children expelled or excluded from school.
The changing nature of the illegal drug market is also a factor. Local drug gangs in the UK used to deal most drugs outside the major cities, but gangs based in the cities are now sending youngsters into rural areas to sell them, creating more competition and more violence.
The closure of many youth centres where these children once spent time and the rapidly increasing number of children expelled from school have created a fertile recruiting ground for these County Lines gangs.
We’ve seen swingeing cuts to youth services across Wales over the last decade. In Cardiff, youth services were cut 80% in 2010. In 2018 Cardiff Council announced they want to “regenerate” youth club Butetown Youth Pavilion at a cost of £400,000. The pavilion is at the heart of the community, used for dancing lessons, film nights, sporting events and even dinners and awards ceremonies. Many community members in Butetown fear this repurposing will reduce the use of the venue for youth work.
If there is a glimmer of hope in all of this, it came with a commitment from the Welsh Government just over a month ago to halt the decline in youth services. The new strategy will see a doubling of funding and includes targeted support for homelessness and mental health services.
Education Minister Kirsty Williams said the strategy sets out a “positive future” for youth work in Wales. She added: “I want Wales to be a country where young people thrive, with access to opportunities and experiences, in both Welsh and English, which provides enjoyment and enriches their personal development.”
How quickly these changes might impact is difficult to say and it’s equally difficult to gauge how much of a reduction in knife crime they might deliver. What is clear is that they will have more of a direct and positive impact than the Home Office’s racist chicken box gimmick.