Published 14 January 2019
Aside from lobbyists and political nerds, few people pay much attention to party conference season. A good job too, given the oddity of these anachronistic annual rituals.
The conferences tend to show our political parties at their worst. But while much of the ‘theatre’ (if you can call it that?) on show is mildly ridiculous, conference season serves a useful function; chiefly that it is a decent barometer of how developed the parties’ thinking is on key areas of policy. So what did we learn about the future of policing and justice policy?
The new Home Secretary has made it his goal to reset relations with the police
Sajid Javid followed his well received speech at the Police Superintendents Conference, with another well crafted speech on the Tuesday of the Conservative’s conference. The fact that he has a compelling story to tell, given his brother’s role as a senior police officer in West Midlands Police, clearly helps, but it was noticeable that Javid again went out of his way to signal to the police that he would not just listen to their demands, but fight for them. It is a sign of just how fractured the government’s relationship with the police had become that the response of senior policing leaders was cautious rather than enthusiastic. There is still work to be done here, as the Fed’s decision to judicially review the Government’s decision not to award the three per cent pay rise to officers recommended by an independent body shows, but Javid has undoubtedly made a strong start.
The government appears to have finally got the message on serious violence
As Crest’s previous research has illustrated, serious violence is not just a problem for London and the big cities. Indeed six of the top ten areas where knife crime is now rising fastest are rural areas. Important shifts in drugs markets (including an increase in the production/ purity of cocaine) appear to be connected to the current increase in gang-related violence and the phenomenon of ‘county lines’. Yet in recent years, the Home Office has tended to take a back seat on crime – leaving directly elected Mayors and PCCs to determine a response locally. A ‘serious violence strategy’ published by the Home Office in the spring was light on substance, offering little by way of new policy, or resources. It appears that Ministers now recognise they have reached the limits of this approach. Serious violence is a national phenomenon, requiring a level of national coordination. Javid addressed this with his announcement of a new £200 million ‘youth endowment fund’ and his announcement to undertake a major review of the market for illegal drugs.
The Justice Secretary is focused on tactical improvements, rather than a grand vision of reform
Having experienced six different Secretaries of State in five years, it is perhaps unsurprising that David Gauke has decided to scale back his ambition for reform, focusing more on small tactical changes, than sweeping change. Gauke’s headline announcements continued a recent pattern – small isolated initiatives, such as the ‘financial crime unit’, to target a specific issue identified (in this case, organised crime within prison). There is logic to this approach. The Department is struggling simply to keep the show on the road, following several highly critical inspections of prisons and probation providers – it makes sense to focus on achievable operational changes, rather than ‘big picture’ change in the Gove mould. Nonetheless, reformers may have felt disappointed that Gauke was not willing/ able to sketch out a more coherent narrative or vision for the future of criminal justice policy.
Labour is doubling down on nationalisation and increasing spending
We didn’t discover much that we didn’t already know about Labour’s position on policing and justice policy. The party has committed to 10,000 additional police officers (a 2017 manifesto commitment) and is unlikely to significantly alter that position. Meanwhile, Richard Burgon, the Shadow Justice Secretary, committed to a “five point plan” to tackle the prisons crisis by hiring more staff and equipment. It appears the party’s attachment to nationalisation overrides any concern about overcrowding, since Burgon’s plan also included a commitment to stop any new private sector prisons being built.
The one area of consensus was Burgon’s pledge to end “super short sentences” – a goal shared by the MoJ ministerial team. In opposition, the job is largely about painting a picture in broad brush strokes, rather than getting too into the weeds of technical policy reform. And Labour is entitled to argue that the root of the current crisis in our justice system is a lack of funding (which they would correct). Nonetheless, the lack of serious new policy thinking from Labour’s front bench about “how” reform will be achieved is somewhat surprising, given the length of time they have been in post.
Theresa May’s speech will have raised hopes of better spending settlements for the Home Office and Ministry of Justice
The Prime Minister got her headline about ending the age of austerity but how well this lasts remains to be seen. Politics is often about expectation management and with the whole justice system yearning for more cash, somebody is going to be disappointed. The fundamentals as we pointed out before are that the Chancellor has limited room for manoeuvre. The NHS remains the public’s biggest concern after Brexit and it’s difficult to see how justice will get what it thinks it needs in this broader political and financial context.