by Matt Cavanagh
Cameron fools the tabloids into thinking he’s delivered his promises on ‘jailing knife thugs’ and ‘bashing burglars’ to distract from the shambles on sentencing reform.
Two weeks ago on Uncut I criticised Cameron’s cynical opportunism over knife crime: exploiting the moral panic in summer 2008 by promising to send everyone caught carrying a knife to jail, a promise he clearly had no serious commitment to delivering. As the latest figures show, never mind everyone caught carrying a knife going to jail, in fact a smaller proportion are going to jail now than under Labour.
In a now familiar pattern, Cameron had managed to escape direct personal damage for this broken promise, shifting the blame on to his coalition partners and cabinet fall-guys – this time Ken Clarke, who has come under sustained and vicious attack from the Sun. But it must have worried Cameron, and when he needed a tough-sounding announcement to distract from the shambles of the U-turn over 50% jail discounts for guilty pleas, it was knife crime he reached for.
He still had no intention of actually delivering his pre-election promise, even if he fooled some, including the Spectator, into thinking he had. What he proposed was different: a new offence of ‘aggravated knife possession’, carrying a mandatory minimum 6 month sentence – but applying to a much narrower category of cases, around 10-15% as many as are caught carrying a knife.
‘Aggravated knife possession’ means using a knife to threaten someone. This is, of course, already a crime – and not one which needs much clarifying. Not only is it already a crime, the sentencing guidelines – dating from that summer of 2008 – already recommend a minimum prison sentence of 6 months. So what Cameron actually announced, was a way to wriggle out of his original promise by narrowing it down to a small minority of cases, an unnecessary new offence to distract from this, and – the only genuine change – a new mandatory minimum in place of a recommended minimum sentence.
Luckily for Cameron, the Evening Standard among others ignored all this boring detail, and fell nicely into his trap with the hoped-for front page splash: “ALL KNIFE THUGS TO GET 6 MONTHS as David Cameron Cracks Down on Crime”.
So far so good. But Cameron had clearly been worried enough about how the day would go, to feel he needed more than one diversion. The second, splashed across today’s Mail and Express front pages, was his plan to “put beyond doubt that home owners and small shop keepers who use reasonable force to defend themselves or their properties will not be prosecuted”. This predictably sent the Mail and Express into raptures (the Express wins the prize with its “NOW YOU CAN BASH A BURGLAR”) but again, a longer memory – or a few minutes searching the web – would again have revealed Cameron’s history on this issue, and raised questions about how new this announcement really is.
In early 2010, Cameron successfully courted the front pages with another promise, to change the law on self-defence, to allow anything short of a “grossly disproportionate” reaction to a burglar or robber to escape without charge. That would have been a genuine change – albeit an unwise one. Yesterday’s proposal, which retains the quite different test of ‘reasonable force’ for people protecting their lives or their families or their property, appears simply to restate the existing legal position.
When Labour did this kind of thing – announce a new offence, or new legislation, seemingly to distract from how effectively or severely existing laws were being enforced – both the Tories and the Lib Dems complained. In 2008, for example, the then Tory shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling derided it as “using legislation as a public relations exercise”, while Nick Clegg sniffed that “weighing down the statute book with new laws is no substitute for good government”.
But leaving aside the politicians’ hypocrisy and the journalists’ gullibility over these diversionary tactics, what about the U-turn itself – should Labour gloat with the tabloids, or join the Guardian and Independent in mourning it as a setback for liberal reform? As usual, this is a false choice. Today’s impassioned Guardian editorial is right to call Ken Clarke’s original sentencing proposals “the revolution that never was”, but wrong in its analysis.
It is right to criticise Cameron for “backing the Clarke plans in private, then emerging to trash them in public”, but wrong to pretend that Clarke “stood ready to unlock 20 years of failed thinking”. I support sentencing reform, but these were the wrong reforms: carelessly thought out, badly framed, confusingly argued, and ineptly and weakly handled. Rather than lamenting their demise, we should charge Clarke along with the rest of his colleagues with clumsily wasting a once in a generation opportunity, and reinforcing the general assumption among the political class that reforming sentencing is impossible. It isn’t – but it is difficult, and that means careful thought, and careful handling. A smarter approach would have kept Labour onside and spiked the worst of the tabloid attacks. Instead we got an incoherent mix of Clarke’s view that “prison is an expensive way to make bad people worse” (which you can call liberal if you like, though I tend to see it as old-fashioned Tory pragmatism), Osborne’s cuts, and Cameron trying to be all things to all people.
Until yesterday, when Cameron came down against reform, and for the status quo. When he intoned at the press conference that “we will always pay the costs necessary to protect the public and to punish criminals, and we will not reduce the prison population by cutting prison sentences,” you wondered where he was in October, when his Justice Secretary and Chancellor announced that his government would do precisely that. You also wondered if you had slipped back in time to the Labour era. Blair Gibbs of Policy Exchange noted approvingly that “the objective now seems to be to ‘stabilise’ the prison population at around 85,000, not reduce it” – back to the Labour position. Mandatory minimum sentences – favoured by Labour, dismissed by Clarke as “ill-thought out, overly prescriptive, and over-used” – are back.
Cameron’s “three principles” were lifted straight from a New Labour script: “the first duty of government is to protect the public… Serious and dangerous offenders must go to jail and stay there for a long time … breaking the cycle of reoffending needs to be at the heart of the criminal justice system” (yes, even the third: Labour had a target for cutting re-offending, not for increasing the prison population).
We heard the same tired bromides we’ve had from successive Prime Ministers, Home Secretaries and Justice Secretaries about prisons being full of foreigners, and people with mental health issues and drug problems. We heard that the ‘drug free wings’ which were being piloted in a handful of prisons in 2009 have been renamed ‘drug recovery wings’ and are being piloted in a (different) handful of prisons. We were reminded about the Peterborough pilot for getting innovative social investment into schemes for tackling re-offending – a pilot started by Jack Straw.
It is not all bad news. There are sensible proposals which take forward the New Labour approach, including taxing the earnings of prisoners working on licence in the community, and channelling the money to victim support services. And Clarke still plans to go further than Straw or any other Labour minister in tackling the rising legal aid bill. This is both necessary and overdue, and those who oppose the detail of the planned cuts should suggest alternative savings, ideally within the legal aid budget itself. But overall this is a confused, confusing, and hobbled set of proposals.
The Ministry of Justice rather pathetically continues to describe it as ‘radical’, and Cameron gamely asserted yesterday that it would still somehow ‘transform’ the system. But the truth is, having talked up the problems – society was broken, crime rising, the justice system a failure and Labour’s policies hopeless – the Government has abandoned most of the radical solutions, with no replacement in sight. Even the solution urged on Cameron last night by his favourite think tank, Policy Exchange, expanding private prisons, they admit is “a continuation of a process that began under Jack Straw”.
Cameron wants to slip back into the Labour narrative and policies he spent years trying to discredit, and hope that everyone will forget this ever happened. But it’s not so easy. The budget cuts which drove the previous proposals remain in place, and the U-turn has done real damage. For all the ambitious talk, what we are left with for the remainder of this parliament is a cautious nervy incrementalism, implemented by a confused and demoralised department, living under the shadow of future budgetary crises. It reminds me of the Ministry of Defence in recent years – hardly the most reassuring parallel.
Matt Cavanagh was a special adviser on crime and justice under the last Labour government. He writes in a personal capacity.