John Carnochan

20th May 2011 at 01:00
The man behind Scotland's Violence Reduction Unit talks about the vital role of early intervention, whether parents should smack their children and the way forward to improve young people's prospects. Photography by Chris James

How did the Violence Reduction Unit come about?

Karyn McCluskey, a principal analyst and forensic psychologist, and I (as deputy head of CID) were asked to write a homicide reduction strategy in 2004. That presumed that the majority of homicides are intentional, but they are often unintentional; the violence is intentional but the outcome is often happenstance. So we very quickly came to the view that if we took care of violence, then many of these homicides would take care of themselves.

You focus on early intervention - why are you convinced this is the right approach?

The evidence. When we spoke to other people, they were coming to the same conclusions: Alan Sinclair, for instance, who worked at Scottish Enterprise, was talking about James Heckman's research that for every pound;1 you spend in early years you would have to spend pound;7 later on. What he found in a skills survey of employers in 2004-05 was that literacy and numeracy were not the high-skills shortages; it was communication, team- working and problem-solving, and when we looked at these abilities to negotiate and compromise, they are skills acquired in early years.

Do you think the qualifications and skills of the early years workforce need to be improved?

We seem to have thought that increasing the skills of people already employed will make other people's lives better. I'd like to see less spent on professional development and more on delivering positive outcomes.

Should children be removed earlier from parents with addiction problems?

Yes, I think so. Given what we know now about the importance of those early years, and the people who are present around babies and children, we should be identifying the risks as we know them - and that includes alcohol, domestic abuse and violent partners. I know people say that the care system - or corporate parenting - doesn't work. Well, fix the system. We've got more chance of fixing that, because it's in our gift.

Are there particular messages that teachers can take from the work of the VRU and use in the classroom?

If you want an effective education system, it will cost you money. Just by their very presence and by being good at what they do, teachers set a good example that's difficult to measure. Some perhaps forget that in the hurly-burly of delivering Curriculum for Excellence. My wife's a secondary teacher and I know the amount of time she spends correcting in the study. We should not be looking at how we can do it more cheaply. The more-for- less stuff? It's absurd.

Are you in favour of making it illegal for a parent to smack hisher child?

I don't think we should be assaulting children. The S word is not one I like to use. Smacking suggests it's a child so it doesn't matter, but it's assault - it's a big person hitting a little person. It's bullying. However, I don't think the legislative recourse is the way to go; I think we need to change attitudes first. Someone once said to me there are two things governments can do - make law and spend money - and they're not particularly keen on the latter, so what you get is a load of law.

Would you like to see more campus cops in Scottish schools?

Yes, I'm a convert to them. A normal police officer on the street will bump into young people normally in a confrontational situation; a campus officer attached to a secondary school will bump into the whole school population every day in a non-confrontational situation. For some, they're positive role models; in terms of teachers, they can establish effective information exchange. When campus officers go in on a Monday and access the database for the weekend, lots of the crime will get solved, because the kids will tell them what happened on Friday night. But that's not what they're about: the campus officer might look through the computer and realise John Carnochan's dad got locked up on Saturday night for assaulting his mum, and he's not in today; he's in fourth year so he's just about to sit his exams. So he'll go along to John's teacher and explain why he's not in today and they can organise a home visit. So they deal with the drama before it becomes a crisis.

Is neglect solely linked with poverty or do middle-class children suffer from it too?

Oh yes - neglect is not just kids who don't have clean clothes or aren't fed properly. Neglect is about "I'm too busy doing other things to spend time with you", and buying your kid a computer and locking him in a room. Nursery schools should not be national car parks for kids - they should be about enriching the lives of children, not so that mum can go back to work and they can have a five-bedroom house and two 4x4s.

What single thing should the next Scottish Government prioritise to improve the prospects of young people?

From the perspectives of teachers and social and criminal justice, we need to make early-years investment irresistible to politicians. Once we've done that, we need to demand that they resource it properly - not just for the next five, 10 or 15 years. They say: "But it'll be 15 years before you see a difference." No, it won't. If you help some of these inexperienced mums or dads, children won't need to go into care. That's cheap already.

Personal profile

Born: Motherwell, 1952

Education: Dalziel High, Motherwell, left aged 15

Career: Served in the Army; 1974 joined Strathclyde Police; Scottish Crime Squad, Scottish Police College, Drug Squad, Serious Crime Squad; 2005 established Strathclyde's Violence Reduction Unit; 2006 appointed Detective Chief Superintendent.

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