As election day for the Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) draws ever closer, it seems a good juncture to take stock of the debate around crime and justice the campaign has drawn out. Labour has a genuine opportunity with the PCC elections to reorientate the discourse of what falls into the remit of ‘crime and justice’, ensuring that Labour values of equality and fairness remain at the heart of these elections, and putting forward a progressive alternative which ties criminal justice to social justice.
As can be expected, Labour candidates have taken a strong stance on anti-social behaviour, domestic violence and youth crime; while at the same time many PCC candidates have championed a progressive opposition to police cuts. However, Labour candidates are often failing to think outside the traditional comfort zones of crime and justice, when they, more than any other party, have a unique chance to challenge the criminality of the Coalition’s economic policies and harmful neglect of the environment.
It would be helpful for Labour’s PCC candidates to conceive of justice not just in terms of criminality, but also in terms of social harm. Looking at harm, as opposed purely to criminality, could see a dramatic opening-up of debates around justice. This would mean challenging the illegality of mortgage misselling, of companies failing to pay workers the wages they are due, and harms in the community that may be more life-threatening than crime itself such as work-induced health problems or environmental degradation.
An example of one of the areas currently off the campaign agenda, which Labour’s PCC candidates could bring to the fore, is the unreportedly large number of companies currently in non-compliance with the National Minimum Wage. According to the 2011 Low Pay Commission Report, in 2009/2010 there were around 1256 cases of non-compliance with the nnational minimum wage. Although this was a 28% fall in the number of cases from the previous year, this resulted in only a 17% fall in the number of workers not paid the minimum wage.
The Low Pay Commission estimates that in the UK there are currently between 146,000 to 219,000 workers not being paid the minimum wage who are owed it. Since the introduction of the minimum wage, only 2 companies have ever faced criminal action over non-compliance with the minimum wage, around 0.13% of cases of non-compliance, exposing a significant failure in the system to bring companies to justice. Labour PCC candidates could expose this great injustice and spearhead it as a central part of their campaign which affects ordinary people who are victims of corporate crime.
Similarly, workplace safety is an area where Labour has a strong record in government, and ensuring that Labour champions workers’ rights and campaigns against the criminal neglect of workers by the Coalition government is essential. There were 175 workers killed at work in 2010/2011 according to the Health and Safety Executive, with 1.2 million people suffering from a workplace illness. These figure are only expected to grow as a result of Coalition policy, making major cut-backs in safeguards to prevent people at work being harmed. By 2015, the Health and Safety Executive will have suffered a 35% budget cut, which will result in workplace inspections falling to below 18,500 a year, down from 60,000 inspections a decade ago.
Labour PCC candidates can weave these shocking facts into their narrative about what makes communities safer; danger in the community isn’t only embodied by the ‘hoody’ on the end of a darkened street, but is right there in your workplace, and it is Labour’s job to prevent that. With 26.4 million working days lost due to work-related illness and workplace injury, preventing harms in our community also prevent harms in our economy.
The role of the Police and Crime Commissioner is in fact a very broad one, concerned not just with policing, but also with crime reduction grants, drug and alcohol services and probation, and Labour must recognise that the debate should be as open as possible. Labour can be incredibly bold about the offer it can make to the public during the PCC elections, and can afford to be quite maverick in its approach to crime and justice.
During the last Labour government, Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” soundbite in practice seemed more intent on the former, and viewed the latter as an afterthought. Labour has an impressive record on crime reduction, and one we should be proud of, but crime and justice cannot be seen in a vacuum to other societal harms.
Reconceiving justice not only as that which is defined by Daily Mail headlines, but as tied unbreakably to our broader vision for a more equitable and prosperous society should be imperative to the upcoming PCC elections and the general election beyond. By envisaging opposition to the corporate destruction of our environment as an as essential part of our crime and justice platform as promising to put more police on our streets, Labour can make a truly radical reconception of how justice looks in Britain. This would be a justice where criminals at the top of society have as much chance of conviction as those at the bottom, and the harms which afflict our communities are prevented and not just reacted to.