Is Cameron feeling vulnerable on crime?

by Matt Cavanagh

The lead story (£) in today’s Times tells us that David Cameron is feeling stung by the accusation that his government lacks a coherent policy on crime and law and order. This accusation will be familiar to Labour Uncut readers, for example this piece last year, and more recently after the latest set of crime figures here.

Cameron’s response, we are told, is a new policy of “virtual prison” for offenders on community sentences, tagged and placed under curfew for up to 16 hours a day. But while “virtual prison” is an evocative new label, the policy itself is not new: it was announced in August.

On the inside pages, the Times home affairs expert Richard Ford does a better job of putting the story in context, reminding us that this is “yet another attempt, by yet another government”, to strengthen public confidence in alternatives to prison (similar attempts by the Brown government, for example, can be seen here and here).

The other element in today’s story is No 10’s apparent unhappiness with the Ministry of Justice, and speculation that it may be broken up – based on an article earlier in the week by the Times’ Rachel Sylvester, picked up today by ConservativeHome. Contrary to Conservative Home’s Paul Goodman, I think this is very unlikely – though we agree that “there are few less futile Whitehall activities than merging and unmerging Departments” (as I argued in relation to the plan announced earlier this week, to split up the UK Border Agency).

Structural reforms won’t do anything to help Cameron’s fundamental problem on crime and law and order, which is a lack of ideas. This was disguised temporarily by his ability to strike the right tone over the riots (as far as the majority of the public was concerned), after an initially sluggish response.

But as those events recede into memory, the problem returns. It is evident in the way Cameron tends to skate over the subject, keen to avoid getting bogged down in a debate over police cuts. When pressed, he falls back on stock lines about what the government clearly sees as its flagship reforms: online crime maps (a development of a policy inherited from Labour), initiatives to tackle “troubled families” (again inherited from Labour), and of course the one policy which is truly new: elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs).

Perhaps because this is the only genuinely new idea, it ends up bearing far too heavy a load: the new Commissioners are offered as the solution to every problem, from knife crime, to crime in general, to the riots, to phone hacking and corruption – despite the rather obvious counter-argument that many of these problems have been concentrated in London, which is the force already closest to the PCC model.

But if Cameron and his colleagues really did persuade themselves that these individuals would somehow singlehandedly cut crime and sort out every other problem, that may explain why they are looking nervously at the list of Conservative PCC candidates who are actually putting themselves forward.

On justice policy, the incoherence of the first year of the Cameron government – punitive rhetoric from some ministers, contradicted by others arguing that prison is pointless or unaffordable – has gradually resolved into a more coherent and grown-up attempt to balance the competing considerations of punishment, public confidence, and cost. I have argued before that this is something Labour should welcome.

The justice secretary Ken Clarke has been lionized by the liberal media, but in fact his initial approach to sentencing reform was characteristically lazy: carelessly thought out, badly framed, confusingly argued, and undermined by inept handling of the politics and his cabinet colleagues. He wasted an excellent opportunity, succeeding only in reinforcing the general assumption among the political class that sentencing reform is impossible.

Even before the riots, the government’s policy position had shifted back to trying to stabilize the prison population, rather than reduce it. Under a moderate amount of pressure from the media and Conservative backbenchers, Cameron felt obliged to clarify 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”.

Mandatory minimum sentences for serious crimes – favoured by Labour, initially dismissed by Clarke as “ill-thought out, overly prescriptive, and over-used” – were back.

Cameron has made the classic strategic error of relentlessly talking up the problem – society was broken, crime rising, the justice system a failure and Labour’s policies hopeless – and then failing to come up with a solution which seems anywhere near radical enough.

Instead, he is slipping back into the Labour narrative and policies he spent years trying to discredit, and hoping no one will notice. The closest thing to a Cameron speech on crime and justice, a Downing Street press conference in July 2011, could in large part have been lifted straight from either of his New Labour predecessors.

Cameron’s second problem is the cuts. The Ministry of Justice’s budget settlement remains largely unchanged from the period when Clarke was assuming he could cut prison numbers significantly. The department is confused and demoralised, living under the shadow of a budgetary crisis. At the same time, the cuts to police funding are starting to bite. Cameron’s defensive lines – insisting that “visible policing” is increasing, and constantly citing the example of his local Thames Valley force, whose situation is totally unrepresentative of other forces around the country – will look more and more exposed over the coming year.

Crime and law and order remains consistently in the top five issues for voters. The Conservatives have traditionally enjoyed a healthy lead on the issue, but the gap was closing before the riots, and hasn’t really recovered. With crime seemingly on the rise, police numbers falling, and a government clearly out of ideas, Labour has a real opportunity – though it has some work to do on its own strategy first, as I have argued elsewhere.

Matt Cavanagh was a special adviser on crime and justice under the last Labour government.

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5 Responses to “Is Cameron feeling vulnerable on crime?”

  1. Nick says:

    So basically he’s inherited everything from Labour.

    All the crimes.

    The Policies

    The debts and lack of money

    If he’s inherited the lot, I’d keep quite about Labour’s role in the mess.

  2. Jane says:

    My county has reduced its police divisions and combined beat areas. As a result, my small market town is better policed with 2 additional officers and only 1200 extra residents as a result of the combined police beat areas. We are much pleased. Police cuts have been popular in my community as we see more officers!!!

    I fail to see why the Ministry of Justice is being demonised. I say this as I worked in the Criminal Justice system for forty years so have watched policies being resurrected by all political parties. The cycle of sentencing has not changed much. Extra prisons were built at great public expense and lo and behold we sent more people to prison. It is absolute disgrace the number of our citizens who are in jail. Noone has persuaded me that we are a more criminal society – just a more punitive one. Ken Clarke tried to reduce the prison population by stating that short term sentences were useless. This was based on research and we have all known this for years. Trying to reduce prison numbers by looking at who should be incarcerated at huge cost to the taxpayer is valid and is a continuation of policy over 20 years. Sadly, the ghastly press and the ghastly Sadiq Khan came out against his proposals. Very disappointing. I disagree with your analysis of Ken Clarke’s handling of the situation. I thought he did it well but was on the back foot because of the hostile media we have about any considered change of policy on sentencing. The hysteria was outrageous and as to be expected the loyal opposition jumped on the bandwagon.

    The Party will never persuade the public that they differ from the Conservatives when we have a poor Shadow Secretary and Ken Clarke is so popular with the voters. Ken could run rings around any appointee to this post particularly the present one. Further, there is absolutely no point on going on about being more punitive when we all know that we cannot afford (nor should we)to build more prisons and when we all read regularly, the high rate of reoffending of those released from prison sentences. It is immoral to do so and all I see is opportunism which is a disgrace when we are talking about incarceration. I see the spokesperson for the party being no different to the Tabloid Press and I find this offensive.

  3. John P Reid says:

    I live in an Area divided by A major Road that seperates Working class and Middle areas, We accepted that there could be A merger of Safer Neighbour hood sergeants in the Middle class areas AS we need cuts But Boris has merged the SNT Sgt’s in the Working calssa reas, One of which is A sink estate and One is residential old people homes, it’s impossible for A team to try to work in two different ways.
    Regarding Cameron’s concern at law and order, He got rid of Section 44 stops treid adn fialed to ahve more sction 60 stops (for football grounds and train stations,) It hasn’t worked the knife project has gone up.Boris made something of his ousting of Ian Balir ,yet Boris then cuts rape and child abuse centres.
    MArgaret Thatxher famously said that crime didn’t double in teh 80’s due to Poverty tripling ,yet Ken clakre said the reason crime fell in teh mid 90’s wasn’t due to Michael Howards ‘prison Works’ But due to his handling of the economy ecenomic good times, that resulted in people feeling the need to stealless,And Boirs had explained away the reason that crime has risen in teh outer london areas more than inner london Not due to him cutting Police in Outer london but due to the Recession, so either Thatcher was wrong to say that crime and poverty aren’t linked or Ken clarke and Boris are wrong, I feel it’s a bit of both, but when Laobur came up with Idea like the Polce mergers or 42 day detetnion the Tories were agisnt them, And Now ian blair is regarded as A forward looking Police chief, and his sucsessors aren’t, Although There are ideas now, teh tories should have looked to soem of the ideas ACPo, or Charles clakre or the federation proposed and admit the 5 year pay freeze . baring in mind Labour also went back on it’s word on the agreed 2.5% pay rise in 2008 and actually give the police the resources they deserve

  4. swatantra says:

    The plain truh is that the present prison regime is too soft and does not deter offenders re-offending. Maybe we should look atgain at the mantra, yes I agree that we have to be tough on crime but too much attention is given over to pandering to the offender and looking into the causes of crime. And that is the problem. The purpose of the CJS is to catch and pounish. We know what the causes are, usually poverty, lack of education dysfunctional families lack of role models ad stability etc. Add to that ‘prison is a soft option for many. Commit the crime ; do the time. Only the ‘time’ is more like a residential at Butlins. Prisoners need to be made to work for being detained at HM pleasure.

  5. Cory says:

    Thanks Matt – these articles are always worth a read & all the better for being written by someone who knows what they are talking about (not something you can say of some broadsheet journo’s who persistently comment on crime & policing issues!).

    There is no objective reason that Labour should trail the Tories on law & order, particularly given the current governments failure to get a grip on the issue. I suspect its mainly down to the constant partisan drubbing Labour get from our Tory leaning press.

    The last Labour government had a good record on tackling overall crime and some worthwhile initiatives, particularly on crime prevention e.g. alley gating schemes in urban areas reducing house burglaries & fly tipping, CCTV in market towns reducing pickpocketing and CCTV on public car parks reducing car theft).

    One issue not mentioned above are the cuts to crime prevention initiatives and crime prevention officer numbers within many police forces. This seems a disconnect in thinking on the part of the current government – they trumpet the need for increased prevention in health care via changes to public health funding, yet when it comes to policing repeatedly claim they are focusing on the ‘front-line’, despite the evidence showing that crime prevention works.

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