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27 March 2023

Rishi Sunak wants to get tough on crime – but are the Tories credible?

The Conservatives’ record over the past 13 years leaves them vulnerable to challenge.

By Zoë Grünewald

With the local elections just over a month away, Rishi Sunak laid out his “tough on crime” plans in Essex today (27 March).

Initiatives include funding for “hotspot police” enforcement patrols in 16 areas with high rates of antisocial behaviour, and the trialling of “immediate justice” schemes, which the Prime Minister said would mean “swift and visible” punishments for offenders, and repairing damage as swiftly as 48 hours after a crime. Sunak also pledged to come down on illegal drug use, give landlords more powers to evict “unruly tenants” and ban nitrous oxide (laughing gas).

His policies will be welcome news to many. Some 64 per cent of Red Wall voters say antisocial behaviour is a problem in their area, while 63 per cent of the same demographic say the area they live in is becoming more dangerous. Across the country, according to YouGov, 65 per cent think the government is handling crime badly. Crime disproportionately hits poorer communities, so it is considered an important element of any levelling-up strategy.

However, the Conservatives’ record on crime since taking power in 2010 leaves them vulnerable to challenge. The party’s austerity policies hit the criminal justice system hard – Sunak is still in the process of replacing the 21,000 police officers cut by George Osborne. Plus, a programme of court closures across the country, coupled with Covid, led to a backlog of cases that, despite government efforts to bring it down, still stands at 61,737. Meanwhile, Louise Casey’s report into the Metropolitan Police last week revealed misogyny, homophobia and racism were rife in the UK’s largest police force.

[See also: Keir Starmer must not panic]

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There has been a huge decline in public trust in the police. Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ polling for the i found just 26 per cent of people have a positive view of the police in Britain, compared with 40 per cent who feel negatively towards them. Conviction rates have fallen by 13 per cent since the 12 months to March 2020, while there was a 21 per cent rise in reported violent crime in the year ending September 2022 over the 12 months to March 2020, with 2.1 million offences. Considering statistics like these, Sunak knows it will be difficult to prove to voters that his party can credibly improve the situation.

Sunak’s announcement differed in tone from Keir Starmer’s crime plan last week. Whereas the Labour leader’s lengthy address drew on his time as director for public prosecutions, and offered a deeper analysis of how crime was affecting minorities and working-class communities, Sunak kept it brief and snappy.

Starmer talked about the real-life impact of violent crime on victim’s families, but the Prime Minister took a more distanced approach. Sunak described antisocial behaviour and nitrous oxide cannisters as a “scourge”. Starmer talked tough but placed a greater emphasis on prevention – youth work, neighbourhood policing and mental health support. Sunak’s focus was on criminalisation and increasing police powers.

Labour’s announcement included a number of highly ambitious targets to cut crime – for example, the promise to halve the number of some offences – which, as I wrote last week, were so high they may become a problem for Starmer should he reach government. By comparison, Sunak, with the government machine at his disposal, was able to offer quick fixes that can come into force immediately, such as establishing an antisocial behaviour task force.

Some policies, like allowing victims to make choices about an offender’s punishment, are lifted directly from Labour’s own proposed antisocial behaviour laws, put forward by the shadow justice secretary, Steve Reed, back in December. This isn’t the first time the Conservatives have been accused of stealing Labour’s policies – expanding childcare and reforming the benefits system have also been “reappropriated” by the government in recent months. Sunak may have won himself some strong headlines today, but in the longer term he leaves himself open to another criticism: that he has few ideas of his own.

[See also: The cracks in Keir Starmer’s Labour Party]

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