By all means let’s be tough on crime, but let’s also be principled

by Matt Cavanagh

During my years working on prisons policy, I used to think that if the government was being attacked at the same time from left and right, that wasn’t a bad place to be (at least if we were being attacked from the right for being too soft, and the left for being too hard, rather than from both for being incompetent). When I see the new government finding itself increasingly in this predicament – attacked from the right wing media, former home secretary Michael Howard and Conservative backbenchers for being too soft, and from the Guardian and the left for being too hard – I am instinctively inclined to sympathy.

Where does Labour stand? When the sentencing bill was first published in June, Labour was very critical – and justifiably so. This was the Cameron government at its worst: the familiar pattern of early nonchalance, followed by last-minute panic, with a hasty, botched result. Not for the first time the mess was covered up by a bravura performance from David Cameron, good enough to fool the media on the day, but merely delaying the unravelling – as some of us predicted at the time.

In contrast to this, last week’s final changes to the sentencing bill looked like government, if not at its best, then certainly in decent working order. A substantial disagreement between two ministers, May and Clarke, each with a legitimate stake in the policy, was carefully brokered by Downing Street into a coherent and balanced package. Media coverage predictably focused on the Cabinet “split” and the “humiliation” of Clarke, who was seen as the loser – gleefully by the right wing media, sorrowfully by the left. In fact, this was a genuine compromise. Clarke lost some battles, but won others, more than his disillusioned liberal friends gave him credit for. He successfully defended the distinction between adult and youth sentencing for knife crime, even if at a lower cut-off age, and insisted that new mandatory life sentences for second convictions for the most serious violent and sexual offences – the so-called “two strikes and you’re out” sentences – would be very tightly defined. The main reason Clarke was seen as the loser was because he was so unguarded about his bargaining position; in other words, because he showed the kind of honesty the media say they want from politicians, but tend to punish when they get it.

A fairer interpretation would be that the incoherence of the government’s first year in office – punitive rhetoric from some ministers, contradicting others arguing that prison is pointless or unaffordable – is gradually being replaced by a more serious and responsible attempt to balance the competing considerations of punishment, public confidence, pre-election promises, and cost. There is one lingering problem, which is the lack of any follow-through in the funding to pay for this new approach, as Labour’s shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, rightly pointed out. The ministry of justice’s budget settlement remains largely unchanged from the period when Clarke was assuming he could cut prison numbers significantly.

But in policy terms, this emerging approach not only seems more balanced, but also echoes Labour’s approach over the last decade: an unapologetic (and politically realistic) commitment to tougher sentences for the most serious and dangerous offences, combined with an attempt to stop this feeding through into a general upward drift across all sentencing, and a continuing recognition that young people should be treated more leniently.

Instead of giving this new, more balanced and coherent approach a cautious welcome, Khan and Labour attacked it as soft on crime, or “taking risks with public safety.” Despite the fact that Labour themselves contemplated scrapping indeterminate sentences for public protection (“IPPs”, under which prisoners can be held indefinitely until the parole board is sure they no longer pose a danger), they have now allowed themselves to be cast as their defenders – while also defending the right of judges and magistrates to remand offenders in custody even when they are unlikely to go to prison if convicted.

Labour’s other line of attack, that the government has shown a lack of consistency, would be more effective if it were not so easily turned back on them. A year ago, Ed Miliband famously pledged that, under his leadership, the party would not try to “out-right the right on crime”. Many saw this as a mistake: even if he believed this, saying it in public just closed down his room for manoeuvre. Conservatives have an inbuilt advantage on crime, but this particular Conservative-led government lacks a sure touch on the issue, and has some real vulnerabilities, including coalition dynamics, poor choices made in opposition (for example on DNA), cuts to policing, and above all the risk that crime will start rising again after fifteen years of steady falls. With crime consistently in the top five issues for the public, these opportunities are too important to pass up. At the same time, Labour surely cannot want prison numbers to keep rising inexorably, so must have its own answer to how it would stop that – and it will find it hard to identify more palatable options than the ones it has now chosen to oppose.

More important than the detail, however, is the broader positioning. A year ago, the party seemed too purist on justice, but now it seems too populist, or too beholden to vested interests. Worse still, this feels like it has been driven by tactics rather than strategy. Opportunism is a key part of opposition, but it needs to be principled: opportunist tactics, underpinned by a principled strategy. The only principle we have been offered during this latest debate was that Labour will “give judges all the tools they need”. This forgets the role that judges (and magistrates) have played in rising prison numbers over the last decade, as well as their other flaws, visible again after the riots: the lack of consistency, and the susceptibility to influence by the media. Like most powerful groups – the police, the military, the City – judges and magistrates need oversight and accountability, and that isn’t helped by oppositions urging governments to give them everything they ask for.

It is time for Miliband and his team to pause and think strategically about where they want to position the party on crime and justice, on the spectrum from tough to liberal. There are two different ways to approach this: they could select the most politically advantageous position on that spectrum which their principles and politics will allow, and then stick to it; or else they could work out what they actually believe, check that is politically viable, and then stick to that. Either way, they should remember that when the government occasionally get something right, as they have done over the last week, there is no harm in saying so.

Matt Cavanagh is an associate director at the IPPR and was a special adviser on crime and justice under the last Labour government.

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5 Responses to “By all means let’s be tough on crime, but let’s also be principled”

  1. Jane says:

    I very much agree with this article. I keep abreast of criminal justice matters having spent my life as a one time sentencer and then someone who worked with offenders. I can recall the introduction of public protection sentences. My memory suggests that this sentence was envisaged for few offenders – a couple of hundred per year at the most. Paedophilia for example when someone had committed a series of offences and were clearly a danger to the public and, when the offence they committed could only attract a minimum length sentence. It is an absolute disgrace the number of offenders sentenced to an indeterminate sentence without sufficient resources to ensure they progress through the penal system. They are treated as life sentence prisoners with the same hurdles to overcome to progress through the system and we have never resourced this category of prisoner to ensure their rights when incarcerated. Indeed, a dereliction of duty by sentencers in giving these sentences for so many and an infringement of liberty for sosme who receive them. We have read about the injustice of this for years and you are quite right to say that Labour were intent on reviewing the sentence with a view to removing it from the statute book. I am not at all surprised that they now criticise the government for doing so. That is what they do in all areas of policy not only criminal justice.

    I have now switched off from listening to the party particularly on criminal justice matters. Ken Clarke recommended many sensible policies which EM had agreed with. However, the party jumped on the bandwagon of the tabloid press with their ill informed headlines and as you say came across as opportunistic and without any clear strategy. Wait for the next headline and then agree with it rather than offer a considered response.

    I do not think the party had a good record on crime. They presided over huge rises in police budgets and a record number of officers and at a time when the economy was booming. At the same time, many offences that came before the Courts are now dealt with by fixed penalty, or street caution. Prison numbers soared whilst crime decreased. This in itself was quite shocking. I read a Home Affairs Select Committee Report chaired by John Denham and he tackled the police on their abysmal detection rate despite the budget increases and increased workforce. In my area Sanctioned Detection rates (I am on the community panel) has remained at about 13% for years despite all the budget increases. Funny also that now budgets have been reduced by a small amount, the management of the service in my area have reorganised their staff and we now have extra police officers on the streets!!! The Winsor report aptly describes the unreformed service we have and yet Labour continue to try and appeal to red top readers by putting fear into us on police numbers when we all know that throwing money at services does not improve performance and in the case of the police does not equate to safer communities.

    In despair………………

  2. swatantra says:

    The time for principles comes after you’ve been tough on crimes and the causes of crime, not before.

  3. Matt Cavanagh says:

    Thanks Jane. I can’t agree with you on some of that: in particular, I think Labour did make a positive difference on crime (though obviously other factors, including the economy, were relevant as well), and I think that in the last few years we were in power, public confidence in policing was steadily rising, for a number of reasons including the advent of Neighbourhood Policing, an initiative I don’t think Labour really got enough credit for. Of course the police cannot be immune from cuts, and there are efficiency gains to be made, and improvements in things like shift patterns, as you suggest. But – as I have argued on this site before – I do think the current proposals on police cuts are reckless, and in particular, rather than a blanket cut across all forces, I think they should take more account of the different challenges in different areas. Finally, figures recently published by the Ministry of Justice confirm that in 2007-10 in particular, the trends in youth crime and youth justice were going in the right direction – something I worry may be reversed in the coming years:
    I do strongly agree with you on IPPs, though, and it is really good to have someone commenting here who has front line knowledge of how these things work. And please don’t despair! Regards, Matt

  4. aragon says:

    Crime – we’re against it right ?

    I regard crime as a metric of social and economic policy, an area where the Conservatives are weak (e.g cuts to youth activities, poor economic policy etc).

    However I do have a particular principled objection to the database and surveillance state: DNA, ID Cards, CCTV, ANPR etc.

    The use of arbitrary justice (90 days detention, fixed penalties etc) is also a source of concern. A perspective Labour does not appear to share.

    Clearly the riot sentencing was wrong and disproportionate, social unrest often stems dis-satisfaction with the society, and peoples place in it.

    Of course we need to review who we lock up, I am just not sure Mr Clarke has it right (I have my own preferences). And his foot in mouth disease is self inflicted, not just consequence of openness.

    Isn’t Life an indefinite, and frequently too short sentence when applied to murder, why should it work better for repeat serious offenders ?

    There is no justification for the use of knives, as weapons to threaten and attack people, and the possession of knives (for this purpose) needs to be strongly discouraged. Dangerous dogs are another issue, where the current legislation is not working.

    Mandatory sentences are a reflection of the perceived failure of the Criminal Justice System to adequately address a problem. If the Judges won’t address societies concerns then a blunt instrument in the form of mandatory sentences is the consequence. Not a solution, but another symptom of crisis in policy or implementation.

  5. john p reid says:

    good point swatantra, but after the casues of crime, unless we prove that poeverty is a cuase of crime we can’t say it’s not teh criminals fault and Thatcher got the public believing for 15 year the rise in crime under he wasn’t due to poverty

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