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17 September 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 1:00pm

The Tories’ claims that they’ll get tough on crime are based on falsehoods

Ratcheting up rhetoric on law and order is a familiar refuge for the mendacious politician.

By Andrew Sperling

This week’s Sunday Telegraph devoted its front-page lead to an overview of “tough new sentencing” proposals by the Johnson administration. The piece shows the dangers of journalists failing to question politicians, a failure that looks especially bad in light of the paper’s close links to their former columnist. 

Sunday’s piece included false or inaccurate statements that were easily verifiable by simply looking at the law.

The claim that “for the first time, murderers of pre-school children will be subject to whole life orders” is obviously untrue given it has been the starting point for this offence since the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which was passed under a Labour government.

The claim that the government will “rip up Labour’s policy of prisoners becoming eligible for release at the halfway point of their sentences” is also deeply misleading. It was a Conservative government that passed the 1991 Criminal Justice Act that introduced eligibility for early release at the halfway point of the sentence, and a Conservative government that in 2013 passed a major piece of criminal  justice legislation, The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which retained the concept of early release at the halfway point of sentencing.

The use of the anonymous “government source” appears to be a licence to say anything at all. The minimum a decent journalist should do is subject the source’s claims to some scrutiny. There is no evidential basis at all for the assertion “most people think all parties and the courts have lost the plot on sentencing”. This is either unsubstantiated speculation or complete fiction. It tries to create its own self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Johnson has been playing the long game with this kind of narrative. One of his Telegraph pieces before his coronation contained another outright falsehood: ”It is becoming more and more regular for prisoners to be let out early – even when they have been convicted of the most serious and violent crimes.”

There was absolutely no evidence for this claim. Ethical journalists and editors require evidence, they do not invent facts. They should not repeat unchallenged wildly inflammatory comments like “parliament does not want to do what the people want on crime”.

This is unadulterated propaganda. It is highly dangerous because it seeks to build a narrative that justifies the erosion of democratic checks and balances. There has been no criminal justice legislation which has been blocked by the current parliament. The Conservative Party have been in government for over nine years. It is not credible to try to frame this story as a plucky attempt by a new government to overturn the terrible policies of another administration.

The toughest sentencing of the past 20 years was the implementation of Imprisonment for Public Protection by a Labour administration. This heralded a massive expansion of indefinite sentences for a very wide range of criminal offences. It was a disastrous policy which has been lamented by Conservative justice secretaries including Michael Gove.

The sentence was abolished by a Conservative-led administration in 2008 but not retrospectively. There are thousands of prisoners still serving this sentence. Michael Gove encouraged his successor to use powers of executive clemency to release several hundred IPP prisoners.

Gove is a cabinet minister in the current administration. The current Justice Secretary Robert Buckland QC spent several months as prisons minister before being promoted after David Gawke was purged from the Conservative government. Gove and Buckland will be acutely aware of the perils of sentence inflation. Journalists should be asking both why they are going along with Johnson’s bluster.

We have the highest imprisonment rates in Western Europe. We have more prisoners serving indeterminate sentences than any other country in Europe. Ratcheting up rhetoric on law and order is a familiar refuge for the mendacious politician.

Responsible, adult politicians pay attention to detail and base policy on evidence. They do not make baseless statements simply to whip up the public.

Andrew Sperling is a solicitor-advocate and the managing director of SL5 Legal.

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