Posts Tagged ‘Matt Cavanagh’

Cameron’s broken promises on policing

22/07/2011, 11:00:01 AM

by Matt Cavanagh

A few days before the general election, David Cameron famously promised that “Any Cabinet minister, if we win the election, who comes to me and says ‘here are my plans and they involve front line reductions’ will be sent back to their department to go away and think again.” As late as last September, home secretary Theresa May was insisting that “lower budgets do not mean lower numbers of police officers”. The breathtaking disingenuousness of these soundbites has been exposed again yesterday, as Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary publish the first authorised estimate of how the government’s 20% cut in police funding, announced in October’s spending review, will affect police numbers – and in particular how it will affect the front line.

The report, based on detailed investigation of individual forces’ plans, estimates that 16,200 police officers will be cut between 2010 and 2015. This entirely undoes Labour’s investment between 2000 and 2010, taking police numbers back to 1997 levels.

There is undoubtedly scope for efficiency savings in the police. Some of these were already in train before the election (they are set out in Chapter 5 of the 2009 White Paper). But as is clear from the graph on p24 of the HMIC report, with 81% of police funding going on staff costs, and another 10% going on areas like transport and premises, the 20% cuts announced in the spending review were always going to cut deep into police numbers. (more…)

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The government is spinning crime rates rather than tackling them

14/07/2011, 05:58:51 PM

by Matt Cavanagh

Earlier today the Home Office published the annual crime figures for England and Wales. The Spectator blog informs us that ministers are trying ‘to spin the figures as a vindication of their nascent reform programme’. This is foolish: their only big reform, elected Police and crime commissioners, will not come in until next spring at the earliest. The other policies ministers are fond of citing, like online crime maps, local beat meetings, and a reduction in top-down targets, are all broadly welcome but are incremental developments of initiatives begun under Labour.

Meanwhile, the only major changes in today’s BCS figures which the statisticians judge to be statistically significant are a 9% fall in vandalism – this is the extent of the good news – and a 14% rise in burglary, a 38% rise in assault with minor injury, and a worrying 35% rise in domestic violence. The raw BCS figures also show a 6% rise in all violence, and a 1% rise in overall crime, but neither is judged to be statistically significant.

It is too early to say whether these increases are blips; or a sign that the long downward trend in crime since 1995 has flattened out; or the start of a belated surge in crime associated with the state of the economy. The second is the preferred hypothesis of Home Office statisticians; the third has some grounding in past experience, in that burglary and domestic violence are particularly prone to rising in tough economic times.

At the start of the downturn in early 2009, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats reacted to a much smaller increase in burglary by, first, accusing Labour of complacency, and second, predicting a ‘recession crime wave’. They were wrong on both counts: far from being complacent, ministers had already been working with the police to try to pre-empt a rise in acquisitive crime; and the increase in burglary turned out to be a blip, in marked contrast to the pattern in the last recession in the early 1990s – as I set out on this site two weeks ago.

I hope these latest increases will also be a blip. But it would be more reassuring, as well as more consistent, if Tory and Lib Dem ministers showed the same concern as they evinced in 2009 in reaction to today’s figures, and rather less complacency. The real test of their reforms – and of the impact of their cuts – will come in the equivalent figures in 2012 and 2013.

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

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Rise in burglary illuminates the empty space where Cameron’s crime policy should be

29/06/2011, 08:24:09 AM

by Matt Cavanagh

A couple of weeks ago, the media were briefed to expect David Cameron’s first prime ministerial speech on crime. They are still waiting. Crime remains a top-five issue for voters, but Cameron’s problem is that he doesn’t actually have any big ideas on crime, besides cutting prison places (maybe, or maybe not, it’s not quite clear) and cutting police numbers (definitely), and these aren’t policies to which he particularly wants to draw attention.

He could talk about the development of online crime maps (though don’t expect him to admit that Labour introduced them), and of course elected police and crime commissioners, though he has talked about those quite a lot already. He’s in danger of looking like he believes these mysterious individuals will cut crime all by themselves; and, anyway, there isn’t much new to say about them, other than explaining how he proposes to stop the House of Lords scuppering the idea altogether.

He’s already used up a couple of crowd-pleasing pseudo-policies, on knife crime and “bashing burglars“, to distract the tabloids from the U-turn over Ken Clarke’s jail discounts for guilty pleas. There is nothing more to say about these either, and he might even face awkward questions about whether he was economical with the truth in how he presented them, as I set out here last week. (I pointed out that the “bash a burglar” policy simply restates the existing law, as Clarke confirmed yesterday in the Commons; and that the knife crime policy fell far short of Cameron’s pre-election promise, applying only to a small sub-category, and merely hardening existing sentencing guidance, as angry Tory MPs have started to realise).


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Cameron’s sleight of hand distracts from sentencing reform shambles

22/06/2011, 12:00:19 PM

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.

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The week Uncut

11/06/2011, 02:42:29 PM

In case you missed them, these were the best read pieces on Uncut in the last seven days:

Dan Hodges says it’s time for Labour’s flat earthers to get real

Matt Cavanagh on Cameron’s lies and betrayal on knife crime

Michael Dugher says the NHS changes tell us all we need to know about Tories

Peter Watt looks at Labour’s funding challenge

John Denham says Labour needs relentless focus on private sector growth

Anthony Painter reviews the Master Switch by Tim Wu

Atul Hatwal says our message on the economy isn’t cutting through

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Knife crime: Cameron’s pre-election lies and subsequent betrayal

06/06/2011, 03:00:54 PM

by Matt Cavanagh

Five years ago, shortly after he became Conservative leader, David Cameron made a speech in which he called on politicians to “stop making incredible promises that the public do not believe they will keep”. He announced a “taskforce” that would help him sort out this problem. The man he asked to chair it was Ken Clarke.

Last week, Ken Clarke’s department released figures showing how he and Cameron are getting on with one particular promise Cameron made loudly and often while in opposition: that anyone caught carrying a knife would go to jail.

In fact, Clarke had already let slip back in December that this promise had been abandoned. But the latest figures show that, never mind everyone caught carrying a knife going to jail, in fact, a smaller proportion are going to jail now than under Labour. This was greeted with predictable outrage by the Sun, Telegraph and others who have campaigned for tougher sentences on knife crime.

Tory MPs have also reacted angrily, blaming either Clarke, the Liberal Democrats, or the judges. But on this issue, the blame must go to the top. Back in 2008, it was David Cameron who personally led the Conservatives’ attack on Labour’s response to the moral panic over knife crime then gripping the country. He encouraged the media and the public to believe it was the job not of judges but of politicians, and in particular the prime minister, to ensure that people caught carrying a knife were getting the punishment they deserved. He made his position clear in July 2008, in an exclusive interview with the Sun: “anyone caught carrying a knife will be jailed under a Tory Government, David Cameron vows today. The Conservative leader declares automatic jail terms for carrying a dangerous knife is the only way of smashing the current epidemic gripping broken Britain”.


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This government’s back-of-the-envelope approach to national security must change

21/04/2011, 04:05:03 PM

by Matt Cavanagh

Con Coughlin’s article in today’s Telegraph will make uncomfortable reading for those Conservatives (and News International journalists) who like to pretend that Cameron’s national security council (NSC) is a genuinely radical reform based on a serious attempt to learn the lessons of the last decade. Coughlin writes:

“To judge by the NSC’s increasingly inchoate response to the challenge presented by Gaddafi’s regime, it seems to me that all it has achieved so far is the replacement of Blair’s much-derided “sofa government” with a new, back-of-the-envelope approach.”

argued in November that Cameron had persistently over-sold his reforms to our national security machinery, which really amounted to “a tinkering and re-badging exercise”. In the first couple of weeks of the Libyan crisis, the continuing lack of strategy, coherence, and grip was obvious.

The narrative changed when Cameron was able to take the credit for British diplomatic efforts to secure UNSCR 1973, and for being one of the first leaders to call for military intervention. The changed narrative didn’t change the facts – that Cameron’s call for intervention was more a response to immediate domestic pressure than part of a real strategy, and that UNSCR 1973 itself didn’t seem to be part of a real strategy – but it did push these inconvenient facts into the background. At that stage, what mattered was that Cameron seemed to be winning the international argument.

Now what matters is who is winning on the ground. The curiously timed joint letter by Sarkozy, Cameron and Obama, insisting that Gaddafi must go, hasn’t made that outcome any more likely compared to the various possible outcomes which leave him in place – the potential collapse of the revolution outlined by Anthony Loyd in this month’s Prospect, or a protracted stalemate, or a messy negotiated settlement. The letter has, however, increased the extent to which the West’s reputation, as well as Libyans’ future, is on the line.

It might therefore be time to look again, not just at the implications of the Libyan crisis for our defence and foreign policy – reopening or updating the strategic defence and security review (SDSR) – but also at the implications for our national security machinery. It needs real reform, rather than tinkering and re-badging, if we are to increase the chances of our foreign and security policy being driven by strategy rather than emerging out of the interaction between media coverage, domestic politics, and bureaucratic dysfunction.

Matt Cavanagh was a special adviser on defence in the ministry of defence, treasury, and Downing Street from 2005 to 2010.

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It’s not too late for Cameron to learn from his shambolic foreign policy failures

10/03/2011, 11:30:55 AM

by Matt Cavanagh

Over the last fortnight, David Cameron’s approach to foreign policy has suddenly come into sharp and unforgiving focus. Not all his problems have been of his own doing, and veterans of previous crises will have felt sympathy at times. But the public, our armed forces and diplomats, our allies, and even our enemies have been left confused by contradictory messages.

A long-planned trip to the Middle East to promote trade and defence exports was hastily re-branded as a pro-democracy tour. A sluggish and uncoordinated response over Libya was suddenly replaced by unilateral sabre-rattling about no-fly-zones and arming rebels, only to be replaced in turn by another retreat to a more conventional multilateral approach. Even the SAS’s involvement – over-briefed by government sources the weekend before – turned into another fiasco, whether through bad planning or bad luck. And in the background, the government’s handling of defence cuts and military redundancies has continued to look botched as well as badly timed.

Some of the lessons here are about basic competence, both in pulling the levers of government, and in communicating the message. Cameron had already accepted the need to overhaul his Downing Street operation; it must be worrying that much of the new team was already in place, and must therefore share responsibility for the recent shambles. Perhaps he will also heed recent advice that he apply himself a bit harder, rather than trying to get by on intelligence and instinct. But there are more substantial lessons too.

Underneath the inconsistent messages, there has been a real shift in policy – indeed, yet another U-turn. Previously, Cameron had signalled a new approach, arguing that we should “think through much more carefully whether Britain should get involved in foreign conflicts”. Sympathetic commentators were encouraged to interpret this as a rejection of Labour’s “wide-eyed interventionism” in favour of a “new Tory realism”. The foreign office was told to focus on trade rather than geopolitics, and bilateral relationships rather than multilateral organisations. (more…)

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