Ministry of Justice attempts to distract from ministerial faux-pas

Rachel Victoria Lewis reports on the speeches made this week by David Cameron and Theresa May on crime and justice, and asks: “why now?”

Last week was not a good news week for the coalition. There was confusion over the Government’s energy policies and new accusations of senior ministers being out of touch with the public, Friday afternoon must’ve seemed like a good day to bury bad news. Andrew Mitchell quietly announced his resignation in the hope that weekend news coverage of the scandal would be minimal. By Sunday, political communications were looking to move on, so journalists were offered a story in the form of David Cameron’s  speech on crime and justice. With sound-bites ready before the speech had even been released, most articles published Monday morning included the same quotes: ‘hug a hoodie’, ‘tough but intelligent’ and ‘black or white’. The speech to the Centre for Social Justice had been long anticipated, and was clearly a contrived attempt to reset the news agenda for the week. Running alongside the crime and justice message, Home Secretary Theresa May delivered another statement about a new firearms offence of ‘possession with intent to traffic weapons’, even though its effectiveness had been previously questioned this year.

Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan did not acknowledge the speech as a ‘serious announcement’, highlighting that the government has created no new policies for crime and punishment in the last 29 months, and David Cameron has not explained how these new policies are going to be paid for. In reality, there have been cuts to police numbers and budgets, and judges have been circumscribed. The Ministry of Justice underwent a shift to the right in the reshuffle last month as Chris Grayling replaced Ken Clarke. One of Grayling’s first policy announcements was a call for more legal protection for householders who react with force when confronted with burglars.

The real story is not about the crime and justice speech, devoid of any substance, but the fact that this message is to divert the focus from the Governmental faux-pas of last week. Cameron and May’s statements offered no new policy commitments; instead they covered initiatives already in action and policies which had previously been ignored. Cameron framed the speech as revelatory and powerful when he talked about the coalition taking ‘bold, unprecedented action’ to crime but it was all hot air. He made generalisations about society, crime and young people but nothing more profound that Steve at the pub would tell you if asked for his opinion. Many ideas (not policies) felt amateurish, and not based on genuine research. One seemed to take inspiration from ‘The Sweeney’, suggesting a return to ‘good old tough, no nonsense crime fight instead of that pesky bureaucracy’. Another idea felt a little dystopian, recommending that offenders are GPS tagged and tracked, and prisoners are made useful by carrying out compulsory work.

The suggestion which Sadiq Khan seems to be questioning is how the ‘payment-by-results scheme’ is going to be funded. In a bid to privatise yet more public services, Cameron’s key idea is payments to independent bodies in exchange for rehabilitation services in prisons. However this raises questions of regulation and potential bias, Rhodri Davies, policy manager of the Charities Aid Foundation emphasised “ministers need to improve the way these contracts are designed so charities are not simply squeezed out in favour of large private sector providers”.

Home Secretary Theresa May highlighted gun trafficking as a real issue that needs to be addressed in the UK, she told BBC Sunday Politics “those people supplying firearms are as guilty as the people using them”. This was a bizarre statement to make as the Home Office had already consulted on the issue and found that only around 20 offenders could be implicated each year by the new offence. The evidence on whether it would reduce firearms offences was ‘mixed’; any reduction in gun offences was likely to be temporary, with the gap in the market ‘likely to be filled by other individuals’. The Firearms Act is already successful in arresting offenders, with sentences from 10 years to life imprisonment.

There were some useful initiatives highlighted which will allow more public involvement in the crime and justice process, although these are already in action. A victims’ commissioner is going to be appointed to represent the voice of crime victims, and the Police and Crime Commissioner elections will be held on November 15th. The voting turnout may not be very high but the principle is very positive: more accountability for those in charge of policing. We will have the opportunity vote-in a representative for law and order, who will then set budgets and priorities, as well as hiring and firing. Cameron also explained that crime doesn’t keep normal working hours and the justice system shouldn’t either; so courts will be open earlier, in the evenings and weekends, an idea that is already   beginning to be implemented.

Overall these speeches on crime and justice message felt a little vacant, no doubt designed to distract the media away from other fiascos at the heart of Government, but in that sense they appear to have been successful. David Cameron and his team can produce as many buzz-word laden speeches as they like, but if they fail to produce any sort of policy success, they can kiss goodbye to any hope of re-election in 2015.

Rachel Victoria Lewis