David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the 2019 general election.
As we are now in August, politics can be expected to slow. This can be a dangerous period for the Government, because issues which are important but usually do not cut through at other times of the year can gain prominence.
One such issue is crime. There is vulnerability here for the Government for a number of reasons. As we unlock, crime is likely to increase; there is even a risk that some types of crime rise like a bobbed cork as some seek excitement after months of lockdown. The criminal justice system is under strain with long delays (and, yes, these are problems that have built up over years – including the period in which I was Justice Secretary – not just during Covid). The relationship with the police is inevitably fractious given the recently announced pay freeze. And the Conservatives’ target voters care a lot about crime. No wonder that Labour is focusing upon it.
Presumably, all these factors persuaded the Government to make last week “Crime Week”; the intention was to get ahead of the issue, demonstrate activity and, if crime does become a difficult story in the next few weeks, point to all the various announcements and say “we’re on it, we’ve already talked about it and aren’t Labour terrible?”.
So one can see where the Government was coming from and, I suspect, it will turn out to be worthwhile in terms of protecting a vulnerable flank. But there was still something of the good, the bad and the ugly about it.
Let us start with the good. There are some very sensible measures being taken in terms of rehabilitation and reducing reoffending. Our reoffending rates are horrendous, and far too many people get themselves trapped into a criminal lifestyle. Often people with mental health problems and addiction issues become persistent criminals; they end up in prison; see their problems worsen and, on release, return to criminality.
Extra investment into drug and alcohol treatment, temporary accommodation to help keep prison leavers off the street and a further push to encourage employers to take on ex-offenders can all contribute to breaking that cycle of criminality.
There is also a willingness to make use of new technology in our criminal justice system. It makes sense to expand the use of electronic monitoring for thieves upon release from prison. Assuming this works, this could also be applied to other offences and, with a bit of political courage, such monitoring could mean that fewer people are sent to prison and, if they are, for spend less time inside and more time tagged.
The Government will also be trialling the use of alcohol tags – which detect alcohol in the sweat of offenders guilty of drink-fuelled crime – on prison leavers in Wales. Again, this has potential to be expanded if the evidence shows that it is working and help ensure that non-custodial sentences can be more effective and credible to the general public.
As for the bad, it is clear that the process did not go smoothly with lots of reports of interested parties only learning about the proposals at very short notice. The impression was given that the whole plan was cobbled together in a few days with little consultation.
No doubt some will say: so what? It is certainly true that you cannot expect to keep everyone happy and give everyone a veto on every policy announcement. Nonetheless, engaging with “stakeholders” (to use the ghastly Whitehall phrase) is worthwhile. It is a largely unseen part of government but, nonetheless, vital. It can prevent unnecessary mistakes and it can help refine policies. It can help land announcements more favourably than would otherwise be the cases; consultees appreciate being taken into the confidence of a Minister, special adviser or official and this can often be enough to temper criticism or encourage praise.
Even if a policy does not have universal support, in the long term it is nearly always better to engage than bounce ideas on people, especially if you are relying on those people to implement the policy. Any Government needs credibility and rushed announcements – motivated by winning headlines – often undermine that.
Maybe the Government identified the need to say something on crime very recently, and a hurried response was the only option. That can happen, but it would have been much better to have identified this need some time ago and worked out a proper plan. Sometimes governments can get away with a failure in process but, in this case, it was all too obvious.
As for the ugly, there was more than a little populism in the announcement. I am not going to rush to condemn the change of approach on stop and search. The sensitivity over race is a real one and community relations could be damaged but, used well, stop and search may prove to be useful for the police in reducing knife crime. The arguments are finely balanced and we should look at the evidence as a consequence of the more permissive restrictions on its use.
The trumpeting of “chain gangs” in “hi-vis”, however, is unattractive. Rehabilitation by means of humiliation is not going to work. As James Timpson, of the shoe repairs business, rightly said: “Instead of making offenders wear hi-vis jackets in chain gangs, how about helping them get a real job instead? In my shops we employ lots of ex-offenders and they wear a shirt and tie. Same people, different approach, a much better outcome.”
The Prime Minister’s comments about Labour being “on the side of left wing criminal justice lawyers not the public” is also more than a little embarrassing. I have taken my fair share of criticism from “left wing criminal justice lawyers” (who would like more money spent on the criminal justice system in general and the courts system in general), but let us not pretend that they are the enemies of the people. I am afraid the Prime Minister – and the Home Secretary, for that matter – too often give the impression that representing unpopular or undesirable people is somehow socially repugnant, as opposed to an essential part of our justice system.
It all smacks of government as newspaper column. A rush to meet the deadline; some colourful phrases which have a pop at your readers’ favourite bogey men; and an eye-catching policy proposal that probably will not amount to much. All very entertaining but nothing much to inform or educate the public as to how one could do something useful to tackle crime. It is a pity because once you get beyond the headlines, the Government is actually pursuing some good and useful measures.