Author: Danny Shaw, Senior Associate
Friday 16th December 2022
At the top of the criminal justice tree, everything changed in 2022. The leader of the country’s biggest police force resigned; the Home Secretary was replaced three times in seven weeks; there were two different Justice Secretaries; a new Chief Inspector of Constabulary; and after a delay of ten months, the National Crime Agency finally had a permanent Director-General. In other parts of criminal justice, however, there has been little to distinguish the past 12 months from the year before, with further damaging revelations emerging about police misconduct, charge rates continuing to decline and backlogs in the courts barely shifting. So what does 2023 hold in store? Crest Advisory Senior Associate Danny Shaw highlights five issues to look out for.
Higher costs, higher crime?
In the autumn, driven in part by soaring energy costs, the rate of inflation reached a 41-year high; it is currently just under 11 per cent. Mortgage rates have risen to levels not seen since Gordon Brown was Prime Minister and are expected to increase further. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that in real terms post-tax household income will decline by 4.3 per cent in 2022-23, the largest drop since comparable records began in 1956.
Andy Cooke was the first key policing figure to suggest that this combination - higher prices, rising bills and a squeeze on income - would have an impact on offending. His Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services, who took over from Sir Tom Winsor in April, told the Guardian: “Whenever you see an increase in the cost of living or whenever you see more people dropping into poverty, I think you’ll invariably see a rise in crime.”
Cooke clarified his remarks to say that he was referring to minor offences, presumably including shoplifting and theft, raising questions for police, prosecutors and the courts about their approach to such offending. A number of police and crime commissioners and social justice campaigners have made similar points about a possible link between the cost of living crisis and crime, emphasising that poverty may drive vulnerable people into the clutches of criminal gangs and drug dealers, an issue Crest explored in a report in 2021.
It is also possible, however, that a reduction in people’s disposable income may result in a fall in violence, as less money is spent on alcohol and going out to pubs and clubs. We are unlikely to know whether there has been a measurable effect on crime until late 2023, when the relevant figures have been collected and published. Even then the data will be difficult to untangle, but at Crest we will be analysing the statistics as we do every quarter when they are released and by monitoring demand and outcomes for a number of police forces through our Poliscope programme of work.
Over the past three years police forces have faced the increasingly complex challenge of dealing with protests from climate change groups - Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain and, most recently, Just Stop Oil. The tactics have changed and adapted, from colourful, sit-down gatherings on the streets to displays of defiance from motorway gantries; from targeted attacks on works of art and buildings to slow, peaceful marches which have brought neighbourhoods to a standstill. In 2022, legislation was introduced which gave police more powers to impose conditions on demonstrations, including where they cause significant noise or serious disruption. The measures were controversial, but they do not appear to have diminished the number or volume of protests nor reduced the burden on police time and resources. The Metropolitan Police says that in London alone, during October and November, it took over 12,500 officer shifts to handle the protests, at a cost of £5.5 million.
There is now the prospect, however, of more far-reaching proposals in the Public Order Bill, which represents the biggest overhaul of protest laws for 36 years. If the Bill is passed by Parliament, it will become an offence for people to attach themselves to objects or buildings, obstruct major transport works, interfere with key national infrastructure and cause serious disruption by tunnelling. Protestors could be ordered to wear an electronic tag to prevent them taking part in an event and the Home Secretary would be able to ask the courts to stop a protest where it would have a serious impact on public safety.
The Bill also contains plans around the use of police stop-and-search. Officers would be entitled to look for ‘lock-on’ items sometimes used by demonstrators such as glue, handcuffs and bicycle locks - a major extension of powers that are already highly contentious. How regularly the new stop-and-search provisions are used, when, where and on whom will be a key test for forces next year as they try to achieve a delicate balance between preventing criminality, safeguarding the public - and facilitating peaceful protest.
Crest has recently conducted extensive research on the use by police of stop-and-search and we will be working on the subject with a number of forces in the future.
A question of confidence...
Building public trust and confidence in the police will be a priority for the service in 2023 just as it was in 2022. Polling Crest conducted for our stop-and-search project suggested that 62 per cent of people trust the police, 12 percentage points lower than in 2020 when the Office for National Statistics (ONS) carried out a survey. There are also big geographical and ethnic disparities in public confidence in the police.
Our chief executive, Harvey Redgrave, analysed the problems concluding that the drop started around 2014-15 and may have been caused by declining police visibility, the hollowing out of neighbourhood policing, falling charge rates as well as a series of high-profile scandals that have affected the Met, in particular.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) chair, Martin Hewitt, set out how trust can be restored, during a speech at the annual summit of the NPCC and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, the programme for which Crest helped to plan. He spoke about the need for a more “inclusive” police culture that involved the public in decisions, was better at listening and had the highest professional and ethical standards. Progress on that front, however, is likely to take many years.
Hewitt, who is set to be succeeded in April by Surrey Chief Constable Gavin Stephens, also linked public confidence to cutting crime. He wants an end to the “widening” of the police mission, so officers can focus on preventing and investigating crime; a review of crime recording standards, which he claims paint a “misleading picture” of offending; and reform of the criminal justice system.
On the widening mission, there are early signs some police chiefs are beginning to push back at requests from other public services and in 2023 more may follow. The increase in officer numbers, with forces nearing the overall 20,000 recruitment target set for March, should help police focus on the crime-fighting basics but large-scale criminal justice reform does not appear to be on the government’s agenda. Instead, the Home Office is determined to ensure the police become more productive: the department has set up a review, led by the NPCC, to identify the “barriers” to effective working and the “most efficient” operating models. It will look at the scope for using new technology, streamlining processes and removing bureaucracy to “drive efficiency and better outcomes”.
At Crest, we have started our own research project on police effectiveness, funded by the Hadley Trust. Reports setting out the findings and recommendations will be published during the next 12 months.
Busting the backlogs?
In a report in October 2020, we said that Covid-19 had poured rocket fuel onto long-standing, combustible problems in the criminal justice system leading to growing court backlogs and lengthening delays for victims, witnesses and defendants. The problems have worsened since then, amid shortages of judges, lawyers and court staff, and there is little indication that they will get much better.
In October 2022, there were some 367,000 outstanding cases in magistrates courts in England and Wales, 5,000 more than a year earlier. The backlog in the crown courts was over 62,000 - 3,300 more than in October 2021 and the second highest on record. If the increase in the police workforce delivers what the Government desires - more suspects arrested and charged - then it is hard to see any material improvement in 2023.
And, as the flow through the courts returns to pre-pandemic levels so the prison population is rising again too; ministers have already said they may need to use up to 400 police cells because of a lack of space in jails. They will be hoping that the opening in 2023 of HMP Fosse Way in Leicestershire, which will house 1,715 inmates, and the refurbishment of prison wings elsewhere, provides enough additional capacity - because using police custody suites is not a long-term answer to prison overcrowding. It’s an area to watch closely.
One alternative to imprisonment, which we addressed in a report in January 2022, is to divert low-level offenders away from the criminal justice system by making more use of out-of-court disposals (OOCDs) and rehabilitation programmes. A new police framework on OOCDs is still being developed – 2023 should be the year when it gets off the ground.
There are more radical ideas for improving the way justice is delivered. In 2018, we explored how devolving extra criminal justice powers to local leaders could help to build safer communities – and we’ll be returning to the subject as part of a Hadley Trust-funded project.
On 22nd April 2023 it will be 30 years since Stephen Lawrence was murdered in a racist attack in south-east London. It will be a time to reflect on the progress made in tackling racism in society – including in the Met which was branded “institutionally racist” by the inquiry report into the killing – and what further action is needed. A final version of the Police Race Action Plan, developed by the NPCC and the College of Policing for forces in England and Wales, is expected to be approved in the coming months.
Stephen’s murder prompted fundamental reforms in many aspects of policing, particularly in the investigation of homicide, but approaches to tackling violence among young people, including knife crime, are still evolving. One major change about to take place in England and Wales is that police forces, local authorities, health bodies and justice agencies will be obliged to work together to prevent and reduce serious violence as part of a new statutory duty. Crest has been supporting work to tackle violence in Devon and Cornwall, including preparations for the new duty, and we have been commissioned by the Home Office to support all 43 force areas as they put the new requirements into practice in 2023 and 2024.
The link between serious violence and social media is a recent phenomenon which we have researched in some depth. Crest has been pressing for legislation to make technology firms and websites more responsible for their content and 2023 may well be the year when it finally happens, as long as MPs and peers vote through the Online Safety Bill. We are also working with the ONS to re-develop a section of the Crime Survey for England and Wales that deals with gangs. The statistical findings from the newly-designed gang questions should lead to better informed policy decisions so that help for young people can be more targeted and effective.
In June 2023, all 43 forces will be expected to move towards a new system of investigating and prosecuting rape, Operation Bluestone Soteria, which focuses on suspects and their previous offending behaviour. Soteria was piloted after a highly critical review into the way serious sexual offences were dealt with by the criminal justice system; it was given added impetus following a wave of concern about violence against women and girls when Sarah Everard was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a serving police officer in March 2021. An independent review into how five forces have adapted to Soteria suggests police still lack sufficient specialist skills, knowledge and resources to deal effectively with such cases. It’s a sobering reminder, as we head into 2023, that in policing and criminal justice the journey from concept to delivery can be a long and painful one.