Published 22 June 2018
One of the oddities of the ‘David Cameron years' in Number Ten was how little the politics of crime featured, compared to his predecessors. Following the election in 2010, crime fell in salience, at one point even falling out of the top ten issues prioritised by the public.
It was thus little surprise that law and order barely featured during the 2015 election campaign. The only question was whether this represented a longer-term shift in the political climate, or a temporary blip. Three years on, we have our answer. Crime has risen back up the public consciousness – now third behind the NHS and Brexit – and is firmly back on the political agenda.
This presents a strategic dilemma for the government with the next Spending Review imminent. With serious youth violence on the rise and crime having risen up the list of public concerns, the government will come under immense pressure to commit to a real terms increase in police funding in 2019. Indeed, the new Home Secretary, in a bid to reset relations with the Police Federation, has already fired the starting gun on Spending Review negotiations by pledging to ‘prioritise police funding’ and explicitly acknowledging the link between crime and police numbers – something his predecessors repeatedly refused to do. A similar dynamic exists with respect to the Ministry of Justice. With the state of our prisons and probation system making national headlines (for all the wrong reasons) for the first time since the early 1990s, there will be an expectation of additional funding, though the new Secretary of State’s background (former Chief Secretary to the Treasury) may make him less sympathetic to these arguments than some of his colleagues.
Yet, taking an objective view of the government’s choices next year, there would appear to be limited scope for increasing policing or prisons budgets. The Prime Minister has already made clear her number one priority for the Spending Review will be an injection of funding into the National Health Service, having announced an (as yet unfunded) £21 billion increase in NHS spending. Whatever Theresa May says about a ‘Brexit Dividend’, she understands that an increase of funding of this magnitude will require tax rises – a point confirmed by the Chancellor in his Mansion House speech on Thursday evening.
But even if the government finds a way to increase tax receipts, meeting the NHS commitments will almost certainly also mean a reduction in other day-to-day departmental spending if the government want to avoid further borrowing. The IFS has already calculated that the NHS commitments would equate to a fall in non-protected departmental spending of 13 per cent. An additional penny on income tax raises about £6 billion. In all scenarios, it is difficult to see how the police and prisons will get the increases in funding they are hoping for.
Which takes us back to the fundamental dilemma. Given the increases in serious violence, continuing disorder in our prisons, and the ongoing threat from terrorism, concerns about funding shortfalls in policing and justice are only likely to grow over the next year. If spending increases are off the table, what other tools do the government have at their disposal to deal with the problem?
In normal years, the government might have looked to publish a White Paper and legislate their way out of the problem. But with a wafer-thin majority in parliament, not to mention the all-consuming nature of Brexit, this is not a viable option. Besides, it is far from clear that the usual nationally prescribed solutions – greater police powers, tougher sentences – are what is required in this instance.
An alternative strategy would be to accelerate the shift towards a more localised criminal justice system. Giving Police and Crime Commissioners and Directly Elected Mayors the powers and control over resources to join up services locally and design their own solutions to local crime problems might help to take some of the heat off Ministers. As Crest have argued elsewhere, devolving power and money to PCCs would give them the means (and incentive) to tackle the roots of crime, shifting resources into early intervention and smoothing the transition from prison into the community to prevent people reoffending. It is worth remembering that this is also a Conservative manifesto commitment.
Whatever path the government ultimately chooses, there is no getting around the hard choices that lie ahead. And as the Spending Review debate hots up, Crest will continue to closely monitor both the debates around police and justice funding as well as the growing public concern about crime.