The old phrase is that politicians ‘campaign in poetry but govern in prose’. The truth is that Boris Johnson doesn’t care much for governing and instead seeks to continue campaigning poetically, quoting Latin and Greek texts taught at Eton whilst attempting to run the country. This leads to bad decisions and poor legislation, and this week we saw the perfect example in the form of the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill.
The Johnson government, through the ever-willing Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, thought they’d found another weapon in their endless culture war in deciding to change the law to allow for the desecration of a war memorial to carry a ten-year sentence. The move had particular attraction for Tories after the furore around statues during the Black Lives Matter protests last year. It’s clearly right that we reasonably protect public symbols from vandalism, but this government could not help themselves and provided for the absurd prospect of somebody being sentenced to a decade in prison for graffitiing a bench.
Such gimmicks have a way of coming back to haunt you. After the shocking murder of Sarah Everard, and a renewed focus on violence against women, it was natural that this provision would be compared to sentences for some of the most heinous crimes. It was perfectly reasonable, then, for Nick Robinson to ask the quivering minister on the Today programme, “but minister, you do realise you will be giving longer sentences for attacking statues than you will be for attacking women?”. This is what happens when the culture war backfires.
The government’s zealous, statue-protecting agenda is as rigorous as its attempts to restrict our right to protest. These provisions, so powerfully deconstructed by Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy in the House of Commons, are part of a strategy to provoke activists now and make it easier to ignore them later. Again, the culture war backfired, with images on the front pages of young women gathering to pay respects to and protest the death of Sarah Everard being pinned to the floor aggressively by male police officers. The moral repugnance of this police action was clear for all, even the Daily Mail, to see.
Whilst the government’s focus is politics, there are real issues in the area of criminal justice that cannot wait. Much has been written about the lack of any provisions in the bill regarding violence against women. In a 307-page bill, there was not a single mention of women or girls and the crimes committed against them. Labour was right to call this out, vote against the bill, and set out its own ten-point plan to tackle this scandal.
There was another striking omission. At the heart of sentencing and prisons policy must be a programme for rehabilitation: to give ex-offenders a second chance, but also to cut crime. Re-offending rates for those that serve short-term sentences is at a staggering 66% with people spending short periods inside, disrupting familial and economic relationships, before being thrown out without appropriate support in the hope they’ll change. The human cost is tragic, and the economic cost is immense, with the Ministry of Justice estimating that the cost is around £18bn per year.
What does this government have to say about this? There are only two pages of the bill that go to rehabilitative measures, all of which tinker at the edges of a broken system. In our prisons, there is a mental health crisis, with incidents of self-harm at record levels. Violence is an every-day occurrence and conditions within prisons have reached dismal, inhumane levels during the pandemic. And what awaits these inmates on release? Over 11,500 men and women are released from prison into homelessness each year. Unemployment rates remain incredibly high for ex-offenders.
In the context of this tragedy that affects us all, the government have quietly demoted the role of prison and probation minister to a junior minister portfolio. Across the criminal justice sector, a deep sigh of regret, if not resignation, could be heard.
There is so much scope for reforms that could bring about significantly better outcomes. One small example is the current ‘discharge policy’, which gives prison leavers just £46 (a figure unchanged in 26 years) and hopes for the best. With recent research from the charity Switchback showing record numbers of people being released without any identification document, bank account or phone, how are these people meant to build a life away from crime?
The Ministry of Justice should be working across government to publish a long-term plan for prison leavers to include a guarantee of accommodation and schemes to offer the opportunity of employment. This is not merely an altruistic gesture, but would go a long way to cutting low-level crime to protect us all.
Nothing on tackling violence against women, not enough on rehabilitation to cut crime, but an awful lot on protecting statues. These are the priorities of Boris Johnson’s government.