Friday 19 May 2017
This week the parties’ manifestos came out. What do they tell us about the state of criminal justice policy in Britain today?
Let’s start with the areas where there appears to be broad consensus. All the major parties now prioritise doing more to reduce violence against women and girls, including domestic abuse. Both the Conservatives and Labour commit to the establishment of a commissioner to tackle violence against women and girls while the Lib Dems pledge to fund a national rape helpline. All three parties offer a raft of measures to help victims of crime, with the Conservatives and Labour repeating their 2015 promise to introduce a specific law for victims. The Lib Dems also promise legislation for a single point of contact and other rights.
Here the consensus ends, with each party offering different perspectives on criminal justice reform.
Whilst Theresa May has won headlines for redefining the Conservatives’ approach to economic and social reform, on policing and justice she is, unsurprisingly keen to continue the direction of travel she set as Home Secretary. This involves expanding the role of Police and Crime Commissioners, some more restructuring with the Serious Fraud Office disappearing into the National Crime Agency and a new Police Infrastructure Force, tougher inspection for prisons and opening up police recruitment.
Beyond the headline pledge of 10,000 extra police officers and devolving policing to Wales, Labour’s offer can be broken down into three broad categories: unpicking recent Conservative reforms, for example reversing police and fire service mergers and changes to legal aid; restricting or removing the role of the private sector from criminal justice, for example in prisons and child protection; and specific measures affecting particular groups, for example introducing tougher sentences for animal cruelty and some forms of hate crime.
Lib Dem proposals reflect strongly their support for civil liberties and opposition to Brexit. All police would be equipped with body cameras while the sale of cannabis and sex would be decriminalised: the Prevent programme would be scrapped and state surveillance curtailed. The Lib Dems would replace PCCs (the party has none itself) with ‘Police Boards drawn from local councillors’ (basically police authorities) and further devolution would be on demand with no automatic preference for mayors.
Two more things are worth noting. First, the parties appear to broadly agree about the need to continue scaling back stop and search. This is perhaps surprising, given the recent upsurge in knife crime. Whilst the evidence around its effectiveness is disputed, many officers (not to mention the press and members of the public) continue to believe that more stop and search is what’s needed.
Second, whilst it is welcome to see the Conservatives’ commitment to a new national community sentences framework – Crest recently published a report on this very subject – there is no mention of reviving Liz Truss’ prison and courts bill (withdrawn in the last legislative session) or the MoJ’s review into the future of probation. Whether or not that suggests a broader change in direction at MoJ remains to be seen.
What are the implications of all this for those of us working to improve criminal justice policy, communication and practice? Broadly, to expect continuity rather than big change. In practice, that is likely to mean further devolution over criminal justice powers and budgets to PCCs and directly-elected mayors; a continuing need to manage rising demand alongside shrinking budgets (no additional revenue is being promised, beyond Labour’s policing pledge); and further attempts to open up the policing and prison workforces..