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What can we take from this year’s conference season?



Sophie Davis, Director of Research

Monday 23 October 2023

With the last of this year's party conferences having come to an end, Crest Advisory’s Director of Research, Sophie Davis, reflects on what the main parties said about crime, how they plan to tackle it and whether - with the criminal justice system currently operating in crisis mode - any individual policies will make a positive difference?

First, the numbers

If you listened to the main speeches on crime and justice, you would have heard a lot of numbers bandied about. Below, we unpick some of the main claims.

Reoffending is down from 32% to 24% since 2010. (Justice Secretary Alex Chalk). Taking reoffending statistics at face value can be misleading, as my colleague Danny Shaw has repeatedly pointed out. Proven reoffending is defined as any offence that results in a court conviction, caution, reprimand or warning in the year following a previous offence. Because they rely on offences being detected and sanctioned, reoffending statistics are likely to be affected by the performance of the police, the courts and the wider system. Yet we know that over the last few years the charge and caution rate has fallen dramatically, with the proportion of crimes resulting in a charge and/or summons currently under 6%. In other words: the fall in reoffending figures may simply be a function of the collapse in the charge rate.

Knife crime has gone up by 70% in eight years. (Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper). Between 2014-15 and 2022-23, there was a 72.9% increase in recorded offences flagged as knife crime across England and Wales. It is important to note that this covers crimes recorded by the police which means it is subject to changes in recording practices (which are likely to have had a significant impact). The Office for National Statistics (ONS) Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), another key source of data to understand crime patterns, isn’t as good at estimating high-harm crimes, including knife crime, although Crest recently worked with the ONS to redesign a section of the survey asking about gangs and weapon carrying. Using this data alongside other sources, such as hospital admissions data and other types of surveys, would produce a more realistic estimate.

More adult rape cases are being prosecuted than when Labour was in power (Justice Secretary Alex Chalk). The volume of prosecutions doesn’t in itself doesn’t tell us very much as it doesn’t account for, for example, higher levels of rape being committed or more of them being reported to the police. Police figures show rates of rape steadily increasing since 2010 and currently at record levels, although estimates by the CSEW suggest that the prevalence of rape has remained more or less the same (which could mean that more rapes are being reported, or recorded). No one statistic can provide a complete picture but many other metrics, such as the proportion of rape cases that result in a charge (which stands at under 2%) the attrition rate for victims (around 2/3rds) or the time between offence and completion (currently measured in years) suggest that the criminal justice system has a lot further to go to better protect and support victims of rape.

90% of crimes now go unsolved (Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper). Home Office figures show that across England & Wales in the year to March 2023, only 5.7% of offences recorded resulted in a charge or summons (although 8.5% had not yet been assigned an outcome). CSEW figures suggest that, if anything, the claim that over 90% of crimes go unsolved is likely to be an under-estimate.

Making sense of these claims can be difficult. In particular, the question of whether we are fundamentally more or less safe than 13 years ago is frustratingly nuanced. The government is right that, if we go by the CSEW as a measure of trends, the totality of crime has probably declined (although there are still doubts as to whether online crime is sufficiently accounted for). However, it is also true that the scale of serious violence has grown. Although this directly affects fewer people, it has a much more severe impact for the individuals and communities concerned, and creates higher levels of fear.

What we can say with confidence is that performance outcomes within the criminal justice system have deteriorated since 2010, with fewer crimes being solved, fewer criminals being charged, a record court backlog and prisons literally full to bursting. It is no exaggeration to say that the criminal justice system is facing an existential crisis. It is against this profound challenge that we ought to judge the substance of the various conference announcements.

What did the Conservatives announce?

The Conservative Party conference started with the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, announcing a ban on anyone convicted of a sex-related crime changing their identity - a move that aims to close an important loophole but which may raise questions over its compatibility with equalities legislation.

The Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk, then announced an automatic suspension of parental responsibility from a person who is convicted of the murder of someone they share parental responsibility with. Otherwise known as Jade’s law, after Jade Ward who was killed by her partner in 2021, this has cross-party support and will be welcomed by many. He also clarified that the legal expectation placed on judges to hand down whole-life orders will apply retrospectively to those who have already committed the crime but are yet to be sentenced. More of a surprise, and certainly more controversial, was his announcement that the Government was looking into renting prison capacity overseas to try and relieve the pressure on our prisons.

What did Labour announce?

A number of Labour’s announcements focused on tackling violence against women and girls (VAWG), in line with the party’s “mission” to halve VAWG in a decade. This included new counter-terror style powers to deal with the worst offenders; new legal advocates for victims of rape in every police force (based on the trial carried out in Northumbria by Dame Vera Baird KC and Police and Crime Commissioner Kim McGuiness); and a review of the laws on stalking, whistleblowing and co-habitation to ensure women are better protected.

A new youth programme, announced by Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, would bring together a range of services into 92 new hubs aimed at preventing teenagers from being drawn into violence. Billed as a “sure start for teenagers”, it builds on the work of former Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield, who called for community hubs to support those more at risk from criminal exploitation. Finally, a new “community policing guarantee” brings together a range of existing proposals, including recruiting 13,000 more neighbourhood police & police community support officers and taking a zero tolerance approach to anti-social behaviour, with new proposals to scrap the category of “low level shoplifting”.

Both main parties are putting crime at the core of their offer to voters

For what may be the last conferences before the next election, both parties were keen to stress their law and order credentials. Labour, historically weaker on crime and justice issues, knows that this is an area where they need to gain the voters’ trust if they are to win the next election. They have made “safer streets” one of their five missions for government, positioned law and order as the central plank of their local election campaign and are adopting Tony Blair’s language of “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. The Conservatives, on the other hand, will seek to emphasise their success in recruiting 20,000 more police officers and hope to exploit what they perceive to be Labour’s indulgence of so-called ‘woke policing’ - a rather vague phrase encompassing a range of things from taking the knee through to refusing to clamp down on protestors for fear of causing offence. With surveys showing that swing voters in those all-important red wall seats value a tough approach on crime and approve of stricter sentencing, expect to see a lot more announcements and tough-on-crime rhetoric over the next year.

But will any of these policies actually make a difference?

Beyond the rhetoric, one of the most important omissions - although it was raised at most of the fringe discussions - was the need for wider reform of the justice system. Charge rates are at record lows, with fewer than 6% of crimes resulting in a charge or summons, and the courts backlog is at a record high. Our prisons are at capacity to the point where recent days have seen judges ordered to delay sentencing hearings, including for some of the most serious offenders. Emergency measures set out this week by Alex Chalke - to end the use of short prison sentences and sanction a return to early release - may alleviate the immediate crisis but fall far short of the structural reform needed to reduce prison overcrowding in the long term.

Reducing the attrition rate for rape victims would be a great achievement but not if victims have to wait years before their case goes to trial. Cracking down on the worst abusers and increasing the length of their sentence would reduce violence against women and girls, but only if these abusers actually end up in prison. And if more bobbies on the beat mean more arrests and charges, how will the courts cope? Labour’s plans for a neighbourhood policing guarantee and a new youth programme suggest a welcome focus on the need for prevention. But without structural, serious reform of our criminal justice system, the parties’ promises risk being empty ones.


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