There is a crisis of trust in UK police forces. Just a few weeks ago it was reported that over 40 per cent of the public has no trust in the police. The murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Met Police officer in 2021, officers taking selfies with the bodies of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, and the conviction of David Carrick of rapes committed while an officer have given urgency to a national conversation about institutional misogyny, violence and racism in policing. Last week, during the search for Nicola Bulley, there was outrage when the police announced publicly that Bulley had “significant issues” with alcohol brought on by struggles with the menopause.
Not many, then, would envy the challenge before Sarah Jones, the shadow policing minister. “In our democracy, policing by consent is one of the jewels that we have to hold on to,” Jones tells me, solemnly, when we meet in her office on a chilly Thursday. “And it is at threat at the moment because the police haven’t got the resources to do what the public expects of them.”
Is it simply a matter of resources? The criminal justice system, like many public services, has faced severe cuts over the last thirteen years. More than 23,000 police jobs and 7,000 police community support officers (PCSOs) have been lost since 2010. At the other end, court backlogs have been increasing rapidly as a result of funding-related delays and the challenges of the pandemic. Many people are left wondering if the law can still be enforced effectively.
Even the Conservatives 2019 commitment to 20,000 new police officers seemed like too little too late. “We’ve heard anecdotal stories of shortcuts being taken to get people through the door,” Jones explains. “[This] is taking us in the wrong direction and not learning the lessons that we should have learned a decade ago.”
Jones, 50, the MP for Croydon Central in south London, says she understands the experience of crime, because she has been a victim of it on several occasions. She has had death threats sent to her family and her home burgled twice, and was groped by a stranger on public transport. She told the Daily Mirror last year how these incidents have helped her in her ministerial role: “I know what crime feels like. It feels horrible. And that’s why I know people want to be safe and they want to be able to walk on the streets without feeling scared.”
People were losing faith in the police even before the widespread accusations of misogyny in the last few years. A suspect is charged in less than 6 per cent of reported crimes, according to Home Office figures published last year, down from 14 per cent in 2015. Sixty-eight per cent of people now believe the police have given up on trying to solve crimes like shoplifting and burglaries. “If you are burgled and ring the police, they might not come,” Jones says. “If your bicycle is stolen, you probably won’t ring the police because you will assume nothing will be done. That’s what’s affecting confidence.”
Jones says that levelling up is key to tackling crime. In London 80 per cent more crime was recorded in the areas with highest deprivation levels. As such, Labour has committed to creating 13,000 new neighbourhood officers and PCSOs. “We know that neighbourhood policing works. We know it can prevent crime all the way up to really serious crime like terrorism. We know that that intelligence on the ground is reassuring.” Restoring faith in policing and making town centres feel safe again will help communities, Jones explains. “Tackling those spaces and reclaiming those communities and town centres for everybody is absolutely core to what we want to do.”
Simply introducing more police officers will not be enough. In February last year a policing watchdog review found “disgraceful” misogyny, discrimination and sexual harassment within the ranks of the Met Police. Across the country, female officers and whistleblowers from other forces have revealed similar personal experiences.
Standing up for women was an important part of why Jones joined the Labour Party in 1992. The Conservative minister Peter Lilley had just given a speech at his party’s conference in which he chastised “young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list”. As a young mother herself, Jones was deeply offended: “It just made me very angry that there was this big powerful man basically blaming me for all the problems he created.”
Now she is adamant that, when it comes to the police, the trust of women can be regained, but she admits that Labour has a “battle on their hands”. She says that the government has failed to learn from past lessons and should have legislated for national standards “years ago”. In 2011 a Northumbria Police officer was convicted of sexually assaulting vulnerable women he met on duty. During the investigation it was revealed that he had already been accused of a serious sexual offence prior to him joining the police force. Yet, as Jones explains, almost twelve years later “none of [the lessons from 2011] have been put into practice, and it’s entirely at the government’s door”, meaning similar incidents keep happening. Putting in place national standards as law rather than guidance is “absolutely an initial priority”.
Vetting reform would be another of Jones’s first commitments in office and she makes some suggestions of what this would look like: “Some people are suggesting a five-year licence to practice. Another way is to properly inspect how police forces do vetting and put them into special measures if they don’t comply.”
The Police Federation, which represents officers, has claimed licensing would be “fraught with danger”. “Police officers carry a warrant card and make an oath when they begin their policing career. They should be able to undertake their oath without fear of reprisal every five years,” a spokeswoman said last year. But, arguably, a licensing system might have prevented Carrick staying in post for the 17 years over which he committed 80 sexual offences.
Tackling violence against women and girls is another priority. “Rishi Sunak has been in power for 100 days,” Jones says. “During that time 30,000 women will have been raped, and 20,000 of them report it and only 300 odd will ever see anybody be charged, let alone prosecuted. The journey is enormously painful for those victims, so giving specialist support for victims when they come forward is integral.” Jones’s figures are based on estimates used by Labour that include rapes that are not reported. In the year ending September 2022, 70,000 rapes were recorded by police.
Jones says Labour would put rape victims “at the heart of the process”, ensure specialist support for victims and create specialist teams in every police force. At present just 1 per cent of rape cases result in a charge, after an average wait to go to court of about three years. Last year nearly a third of victims withdrew from rape investigations before the case made it to court. Labour would therefore commit to fast-track rape courts, allowing cases to bypass the backlogs in the justice system.
Early last year Boris Johnson’s government voted against an amendment by the Labour backbencher Stella Creasy to make misogyny a hate crime, which the Home Office declared would be “more harmful than helpful”. Labour will still push to make street harassment a crime, Jones promises. “At the moment you drop litter, you get a fine, everybody knows you’re not supposed to drop litter. You shout abuse of a woman and there’s no there’s no comeback. That’s the wrong balance.”