Here's what the manifestos of the 3 main parties propose on crime and the criminal justice system.
I've rated them in terms of the following (max. score 10 in each heading, so total out of 30):
Labour's manifesto is a better at denouncing the state of things than doing anything about it that would make a difference.
For example, it rightly says prisons are in trouble because over-crowded - but there's no intent to get numbers down. It says 'prison should always be a last resort' but that remark is just left hanging. Nor will they build extra capacity. So...what?
The manifesto also rightly says understaffing is also a cause of the current crisis in prisons, which they will deal with by adding 3,000 officers – but this is not included in their otherwise careful costings of manifesto commitments. Welcome thought this is, it would still leave about half the Tory cuts in staffing still in place, so one might doubt this will be enough to turn round the current crisis, with prisoner numbers remaining unchanged. Removing the cap on increases prison staff pay would also help recruitment, they say.
Re-offending remains high, so what will Labour do? Require a personal rehabilitation plan for every prisoner. So how's that different? Probation privatisation is a disaster, but there's no commitment here other than to hold a review. In fact there's a lot of commitments to 'review' things, like prison officer training and legal aid. Why not just 'review' everything? It's free, after all....
Like all the parties, Labour address women's and minority issues: there's to be a new National Refuge Fund for women (but no money for it!), compulsory school classes on consent issues and cross examination of victims in abuse cases will be limited.
The big ticket issue is crime, which Labour say is increasing. They offer 10,000 more officers, which is (pace Diane Abbott!) properly costed. Research suggests this is very unlikely to affect crime rates, which rise and fall for societal reasons we done really understand, but you might at a stretch think it would go some way to speed response and improve confidence.
Some of the manifesto shows signs of hurried drafting. For example, they say prison escapes 'cause distress to people living near prisons' – but prison escapes are very rare events indeed; and nothing is proposed to reduce that already small number. The remark just hangs there in mid-air.
Other sections are banal and empty of content – there will be a new Commissioner for domestic abuse (more gestures), Labour will provide 'appropriate support' for victims of crime (meaning...what?), will develop 'strategies to prevent crime' and 'incentivise good policing practice' (wow!).
real issues? 6
effective action? 2
feasible, costed, funded? 3
LibDems 15/30 (but depending on whether fully costed or not)
The LibDems also worry about rising crime and the state of prisons.
They'd put £300m of new money into policing, without tying it to staff numbers,the same as Labour's offer. They'd replace Police and Crime Commissioners with panels of elected Councillors.
They would not increase prison staffing numbers or build more capacity, but unlike the other parties, would work to get prison numbers down, though the suggested means of doing so – tougher community penalties and presumption against short sentences – have been tried before with limited results. Still, the intent is there. They would 'promote' Community Justice Panels and RJ.
There's again an aspiration to transform prisons into places of rehabilitation, learning and work but nothing on how to do that.
A lot of their proposals are about diversity issues – over-representation of ethnic minorities in CJS, recruitment of ethnic minorities to the police, location of transgender prisoners, a Women's Justice Board (but without new money, what difference would that make?)
There's a really bold proposal to decriminalise drugs to a considerable extent, and bring in a lot of money by taxing cannabis sales. For cannabis, the medical evidence suggests this is the right move (and is being done in several other countries, without significant problems.) So, a big hurrah. Whether it's a good idea to decriminalise some other drugs, such as NPSs, looks more questionable.
Some other proposals might have some effect – compulsory body camera for police - but some looks minor stuff or vague: 'secure extra funding for criminal legal aid from sources other than the tax payer', or 'use data more effectively to reduce crime' - and again with the 'reviews' – of the investigation and prosecution of sexual and domestic violence, for example.
Costing unclear because there's a catch-all 'other items' figure which might or might not fund the extra police spending.
real issues? 6
effective action? 4
Feasible costed affordable? ?5 (but costing unclear)
Silent on recent rises in crime - but claim 'the last seven years have seen historic falls in crime and improvement in public safety', which wins the prize for sheer bloody nerve, given that the 'historic fall' in crime occurred almost entirely under Labour, 1997-2010.
No increase in police numbers - or prison staffing. £1bn to build 10,000 new prison places but as I have said before, they aren't clear whether this just replaced old buildings or represents a net increase in capacity and so possible a reduction in overcrowding – seemingly the former, though the response to my FoI inquiry on the point suggests Minsters themselves hadn't made up their minds on the balance.
Nothing on where the £1bn comes from (its mostly not in current spending plans). Fiscal rectitude is only obligatory for the opposition parties, it appears.
Otherwise, silence on the crisis in prisons.
Probation is failing to cut re-offending – another prize for sheer bloody nerve, coming from the party that ripped the probation service to shreds because it was so sure privatisation would improve performance in probation. So what do they propose? To set up a 'National community sentencing framework'. And what difference would that make? Seemingly, promote tagging. Which has been shown to have zero effect on re offending rates.
Quite a bit on victims – expansion of the definition of 'hate crimes' and of the right of appeal against 'undue leniency' – but again no costing of the implied effect of prison numbers. Victim rights to be enshrined in law (but no money to back this.)
The role of Police and Crime Commissioners would be extended though not, seemingly to probation or prison services.
real issues? 3
effective action? 1
feasible, costed, funded? 0
There's depressingly little real analysis of the problems here, for example crime has halved since 1995, so why are we so preoccupied with the fairly tiny recent upturn? Police numbers don't correlate to crime levels, so why spend heavily on increasing them?
And depressingly little that is likely to make much impact on the big, immediate challenges, especially the prison crisis, failure of probation privatisation, and the scourge of the NPSs.
Depressingly also, there's almost nothing new: the exception being the decriminalisation of some drugs by the LibDems (their intent to getting prisoner numbers down is not entirely new - last advocated by the Tories a quarter of a century ago – but is new in modern times).
Too much waffle and gesture politics.
And finally, nothing here is likely to have any effect on voting, given crime is so low on the public agenda (see my last post). This makes the Tory decision to offer no new commitments of any significance a cynically sensible choice.
But – and isn't this the most depressing thing of all? - all this is bound to absorb substantial amounts of extra public spending, which we can ill-afford, and which is desperately needed where it would make a difference, on the NHS, social care, housing – you name it.
If it's true a nation gets the politicians it deserves, our faults must be grievous indeed.
What do others think?
We will shortly see what the parties' manifestos have to say on crime (though a characteristically insightful piece by Anthony Wells argues that the actual content of manifestos penetrates remarkably little into the minds of most people and therefore has far less effect on voting decisions than the politically involved like to assume:
This is neatly borne out by polls on reactions to Labour's leaked manifesto – basically, people quite like the policies, but don't like Corbyn, and think the party is divided:
While we wait, it's revealing to look at the changes over time in what issues the public think are important to the country, in MORI's time series (which importantly, asked that question unprompted).
People are far less concerned about crime nowadays than for many decades. The MORI data shows concern about crime actually increasing in the 2000s – despite the extraordinary fall in crime since 1995, a phenomenon across the developed world. But since 2010, crime has fallen right down the list of concerns and a poll last month showed only 12% of respondents mentioning it, less than for almost any political issues (not surprisingly the EU, NHS and immigration are top, ahead of the economy).
(The cynic in me wonders if these trends are related. The Right trades on fear: if crime wont supply it, maybe foreigners - EU/immigration - will do the trick?)
Now one might wonder if the downgrading of crime as a political issue might make some kinds of reform easier politically – notably, doing something about our costly addiction to imprisonment, given all the evidence that it doesn't do much for us.
Unhappily, it seems like issues work as a one-way ratchet – when they are important to people, they influence policy making (and drive spending up), but when they decline in importance, it isn't politically attractive to take money out. The best one can hope for, seemingly, is that the use of incarceration should stop rising, not that it will fall: that's what has happened in the State, where 'peak prison' was around 2008.
No such luck here, though. We've seen the virtual extinction of Liberal Toryism of the Ken Clarke variety, which historically was brave enough to tackle this issue (we forget that the only policy-led fall in prison numbers was under the Tories, in the early '90s – Labour followed Howard's lead in driving numbers up and up). Instead we have the dim-witted Truss celebrating the doubling of prison numbers as a triumph and a source of pride all round:
and then promising a huge building programme to increase capacity still further.
Not that Labour are any wiser. Their leaked manifesto promises an extra 10, 000 police officers (Diane Abbott's car crash of an interview in which the numbers, both of officers and the cost, totally escaped her and playfully ran riot in the studio, can be heard here:
though I find it too embarrassing to take pleasure in (and too symptomatic of the complacent innumeracy of our political class).
But why on earth prioritise spending on police, when crime has halved – and when the public no longer see crime as a major problem? Is this further evidence that Corbyn is stuck somewhere back in the 1980s, when his political development seems to have come to a full stop?
re to edit.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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