Aside from coughing fits and attention-seeking comedians, party conferences generally fulfil two purposes: they illustrate which of the parties has undertaken the deepest thinking on policy; and they provide a useful barometer as to the state of our political discourse.
What has the last fortnight taught us about the state of policy and politics within crime and justice in 2017?
First, ‘police funding’ and the impact of austerity continues to dominate the politics of policing. That was probably inevitable, given the backdrop to party conferences (five terrorist attacks in seven months and rising recorded violence, particularly within urban areas). Labour’s manifesto pledge of an additional 10,000 police officers – reiterated again last week – has helped to keep the pressure on the government, already dealing with the fallout following a number of pointed interventions from senior policing leaders, most recently from the Head of the National Police Chiefs’ Council. Ironically, the government’s attempt to neutralise some of this pressure – by announcing the lifting of the 1% cap on police officer pay – has probably had the opposite effect, particularly since it appears that PCCs will be made to bear the costs of the uplift, rather than the Home Office, with implications for officer numbers. This is a debate that isn’t going away anytime soon.
Second, there was a conscious attempt by the new Justice Secretary to shift the tone on prisons in a more liberal direction, with a greater emphasis on ‘rehabilitation’ as an end in itself, rather than the more nebulous concept of ‘security and reform’ used by his predecessor. The falling salience of ‘law and order’ issues (the MORI issues index which tracks what people view as the most important issues facing Britain suggests law and order is at its lowest score since 1991) would appear to be a real opportunity for the government to set out a more sensible and intelligent approach to prisons policy, without fear of being attacked for being ‘weak’ or ‘soft’, as has been the case in the past. Crest are currently carrying out a year-long project into how we currently punish and rehabilitate offenders and would love to hear from you if you have insights to share.
Third, it is clear politicians – of all parties – are struggling to come up with evidence-based, practical policy solutions to the rise in recorded violence we are witnessing in our big cities. The only new idea to arise from three weeks of political debate was the Home Secretary’s announcement that the government would ban acid sales to under 18 year olds, which rather begs the question: what will happen to those over the age of 18 buying the same substances? This felt like an announcement in search of a headline, rather than a genuine attempt to deal with the problem. In a world of powerful city mayors and PCCs, perhaps it unsurprising that most of the interesting new policy thinking is going on locally rather than nationally. Yet one might have expected party conferences to at least have engaged with the issue, even if only to cite good practice on the ground.
Fourth, the debate about how as a country we prevent extremist groups from poisoning the minds of our young people and recruiting them into violence is in danger of becoming locked in a sterile argument about process, rather than outcomes. For Labour and the Lib Dems, it has become fashionable to argue that the ‘Prevent’ programme is now a ‘tainted brand’, which says precisely nothing about (a) how effective the programme is, or (b) what they would do to improve it. The Conservatives, on the other hand, appear to have decided that the only reforms that are needed are tougher sentences for those that view extremist content online. We need a more comprehensive and mature debate about the role ‘Prevent’ can and does play in safeguarding those most at risk of being turned towards violence; our expectations of public servants, from police officers to teachers and how government can best support community institutions to build resilience and deter extremists. Watch this space for more on this from Crest in the weeks and months ahead and if you have thoughts please do get in touch with us.
Harvey Redgrave is Managing Director at Crest Advisory. Previously, Harvey worked as a senior policy advisor at the Labour Party and was a deputy director at the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit.