When the police are cut-back and crime rises as a result, it is deprived communities that suffer most. A recent study by Edinburgh University confirmed that high levels of crime are linked to key indicators of deprivation. Half of the communities with the highest crime rates are found in the top 20 per cent of areas with the highest levels of chronic health problems.
Past research has shown that lone parents and the unemployed are twice as likely to be burgled as the average household, and that the deprived and the unemployed are twice as likely to be victims of violent crime than the average.
The truth is when crime rises and access to justice is curtailed, it is deprived areas and the voiceless who suffer the most.
That’s why under the last Labour government our words on law and order were matched with action and police numbers reached levels no previous Tory government came close to. We introduced tough new penalties to crack down on anti-social behavior. It was a sign of how we knew instinctively that a well-resourced and accountable police force keeps our communities safe.
In the years since we were last in power, what has happened on the law and order front is truly unprecedented. Violent crime has risen, neighbourhood policing has collapsed and the crucial link between communities and police so vital for intelligence to fight terror has shriveled.
As a result, many feel nothing less than under siege in their own communities.
Reducing the police to nothing more than blue lights on the tops of speeding cars who only turn up when the worst has happened, as this Government seeks to do will roll back decades of work to improve community relations and tackle crime.
What’s more, the way the police are funded – through a combination of police grant and council tax precept – means that most deprived areas have fared significantly worse from police cuts over the last seven years. Surrey raises almost half its budget from local council tax and has therefore only seen a 12 per cent cut whilst Nottinghamshire and Sheffield, with our lower council tax bases, have seen real-terms cuts of 17 per cent and 20 per cent.
Undoubtedly this means that the wealthier areas of our country are better equipped to police themselves and protect their residents from crime and anti-social behaviour.
It is the areas that need investment the most that are worst affected by crime and worst protected by Conservative Governments.
And it’s not just crime and policing where the Tories are rolling back decades of progress.
2018 has already raised serious questions about how we treat victims of crime and the confidence we all have in the justice system. The Worboys case – which saw a man convicted of multiple serious sexual offences against women approved for release after serving less than 9 years, despite being given an indefinite term in 2009.
The victims in this case have found themselves without a voice, and their interests relegated to an afterthought. It has parallels with access to justice more broadly.
Cuts to legal aid have left the poorest and most vulnerable unable to access the legal representation that is their right.
Take victims of domestic violence – the Government promised to protect their legal aid, but then imposed stringent evidence tests in order to access it. The result has been that the number of applicants for civil legal aid for domestic violence cases has fallen by 20 per cent, whilst the number of victims representing themselves against their abusers in family courts has more than doubled.
Thousands of women are quite literally being forced to decide whether to face their abuser in court or forgo justice and risk the protection of themselves and their children.
If you’ve been a victim of discrimination at work, if you’ve had your benefits wrongly sanctioned and you face losing your home, if you’re fighting a bitter custody battle – the very last thing you have the energy for is to fight a lengthy battle to get legal representation, or worse represent yourself in court. But that’s exactly what the Government’s changes to legal aid have done. If you have the money you can pay for justice, if you don’t you’re forced to represent yourself or give up on justice altogether.
It’s not just legal aid where victims have been left without support by this Government. The Conservatives matched Labour’s promise to introduce a ‘Victims Law’ in 2015, but two years later victims are still waiting for it to be delivered.
And just as policing by consent depends on trust between communities and the police, our justice system relies in public confidence, particularly the confidence of victims, in the justice system to deliver fair sentences.
Labour used community orders because they led to lower re-offending rates and did away with ineffective short-term prison sentences. But under this Government, over half of community orders don’t involve an element of work to payback the community. If communities and victims are to retain confidence in the justice system, justice must be seen to be done.
Under the last Labour government we invested more in our police and criminal justice system than any other country in the OECD and slashed crime rates by over a third. It took a Labour government to pass the Race Relations Act and tough laws on LGBT and disability hate crime. It was Labour who first introduced legal aid to ensure everyone had the right to obtain justice whether rich or poor.
But while our record speaks for itself, in the Labour movement we haven’t always felt comfortable occupying this territory.
As shadow ministers representing South Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire seats, the miners’ strike and accompanying police brutality are forever etched in our communities, our families and our movement’s history.
If you’ve been involved in protests and demonstrations and been subject to police brutality; if you’ve been repeatedly stopped and searched growing up because of the colour of your skin, it’s entirely understandable. But being conscious and critical of failures doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also be tough on crime and its causes, or support our criminal justice professionals to do difficult jobs with greater accountability and effectiveness.
So Labour must make the progressive case for standing up for police officers who’ve been bashed constantly by Theresa May over the last seven years.
We will make the case for standing up for victims to ensure whatever your background, and regardless of what you earn, everyone has equal access to justice and receives the support they need.
We must work together to strengthen police accountability, to improve the work of the IPCC and to ensure that all communities can trust the police will treat them fairly both as victims and offenders of crime. But we must also make the progressive case to protect the police, probation officers and criminal justice professionals both as public servants in themselves and as the public service they provide to our communities.
The Tories have vacated the ground on law and order, it’s time for Labour to occupy it as our natural territory once again.
Gloria De Piero is shadow justice minister and MP for Ashfield. Louise Haigh is shadow policing minister and MP for Sheffield Heeley.