State repression re-packaged as ‘levelling up’: the Boris and Priti ‘Crime Week’

By Piers Mostyn

Despite Johnson’s boosterism, or perhaps because of it, the government never seems more than a few steps away from a political cliff edge. Between mismanagement of the pandemic and continuous crises as Brexit plays out, he is at risk from both his left and his right.

Entirely predictable then that, following the Police Federation’s no confidence vote in response to the public sector wage freeze, Johnson should launch a ‘Crime Week’ alongside Home Secretary Priti Patel. The aim is to shore up the key Tory territory of ‘law and order’ and put clear blue water between the Conservatives and Labour.

Crucially, Johnson has located his ‘Beating Crime Plan’ as central to his so-called ‘levelling up’ agenda. His much heralded ‘levelling up’ speech the week before was criticised as lacking content. So ‘tough cop’ policies are now being re-packaged as the key to addressing the despair of communities ravaged by decades of under-investment, job insecurity, public sector cuts and the like.

Diane Abbott described the policies as “alarming and counter-productive”. Perhaps no surprise there. But the Police Federation have also criticised the idea as “ill-thought out” and “containing gimmicks”. And police chiefs are reported to have been privately mocking in response, one describing it as like “an explosion in a strategy factory”. It seems that the police were not even consulted on its key measures.

The most alarming announcement is the permanent relaxation of restrictions on the application of s.60 stop and search by the police. ‘Normal’ stop and search requires officers to have “reasonable” grounds to suspect a person is carrying drugs, a weapon, stolen property or something that could be used to commit a crime. In 2019-20 there were 577,054 stops in England. This number had risen over the previous five years – with the proportion of black people subject to it doubling. And of those stopped, black people were over three times more likely to be detained than white.

S.60 stops take away the thin veil of accountability in ‘normal’ stops by removing the “reasonable” suspicion requirement. It’s a draconian power that has little utility and causes deep community resentment. Only 4% of those stopped under it are arrested and black people are 18 times more likely to be stopped.

The Tories are now going to make permanent Priti Patel’s 2019 temporary removal of the restrictions governing its deployment – introduced by Theresa May in a bid to fend off mounting evidence that it was racist and counter-productive.

Mark Blake, a Haringey councillor who formerly led on police community relations in the borough, said: “I’m filled with dread at the thought of the Met ramping up stop and search in some supposedly ‘evidenced’ response to knife crime.” He points out that a previous high-point of the tactic was followed directly by the 2011 riots, arguing that “serious youth violence is a complex social problem. An enforcement approach will fail. We need leadership and an alternative agenda on policing and criminal justice.”

An eye-watering 20% increase in prison places is planned – a clear signal that tackling the complex long-term causes of criminality is not the priority.

Across Europe and even in top-of-the-league USA, which warehouses 25% of the global prison population, incarceration rates have been in long-term decline – correlating with a 30-year reduction in the crime rate. The ‘Beating Crime Plan’ admits this. UK crime levels are now 25% of what they were, falling 41% overall in the last decade, with violence down 33%.

But the UK is one of a minority of European states with rising rates of incarceration in recent years, in defiance of a broad consensus among experts in the field that not only does prison not work, but it also generates crime, disorder, gang culture and terrorism. Recently retired Merseyside police chief Andy Cooke has stated that “the best crime prevention is increased opportunity and reduced poverty… there needs to be substantial funding into the infrastructure of our inner cities and our more deprived areas.” He added that the police, courts and criminal justice system cannot simply scare people into not offending.

It’s true that homicide and knife crime has increased in the past seven years or so, but Johnson and Patel make no serious attempt to analyse its causes – let alone take any responsibility for its occurrence under Tory rule. Instead, they fall back on a simplistic logic that says the rise in homicide and serious violence is rooted in a proliferation of drug supplying and associated criminality like gangs, therefore a show of punitive strength against those suspected of involvement is the way to re-assure people.

The undoubted rising drug crisis has multiple causes, but it is closely linked to deprivation and is a public health emergency – rooted in mental health issues, housing shortage, long term insecurity, family break up and the like. Self-medication fills the gap where welfare, social solidarity and community cohesion used to exist. A first step to resolving this crisis is decriminalisation, which would immediately split drug use from criminality, in particular serious crime.

Particularly depressing is a January announcement of 500 new prison places for women costing £150 million. Women are simply not responsible for serious violence and drug proliferation. There is a near consensus that non-custodial solutions are required and that women’s offending is deeply rooted in mental ill-health, debt, homelessness, domestic abuse and substance abuse.

Sentences are typically short and therefore have no rehabilitative value. The self-harm of women in prison is now at its highest level in a decade. The majority have children under 18, of whom 95% have to leave home when their mothers are imprisoned. The long-term negative impact on those children’s health, mental health, education and life prospects barely needs stating. 

The government’s crass justification is that more women’s prison places are needed to meet the anticipated increase in charging arising from the recruitment of the 20,000 officers to replace those cut in the last decade of austerity. Hardly surprising that Women in Prison and 70 signatories, all leading experts in this field, have written a letter to the government headed “Stop the 500”. The same cash would go a long way in supporting services in the community, like women’s centres, refuges, rehabilitation, addiction services, specialist social workers, hostels and the like.

None of the Tories’ proposed initiatives addresses young offenders – how they come to be in the criminal justice system and what should be done about them. The vast majority of those who become involved in crime, do so at a young age driven by a complex range of factors – deprivation, school exclusion, racism, family conflict, childhoods in care or marked by trauma and much more.

The numbers of children arrested, entering the criminal justice system and sentenced to custody has significantly declined in the past decade. But in 2019 there were still 860 children in custody in the UK, nearly one fifth of the entire European child prisoner population (4,873), and the highest proportionately. The average in the EU is 174 and in many Scandinavian countries the number is fewer than 20. The position of black children is particularly bad in this country, four times more likely to be arrested than white ones. In the past decade, the proportion of children arrested who are black has risen from 18% to 31%, those held on remand rising from 38% to 57% and in custody rising from 28% to 49%.

Tory policy is a programme of repression against young people, targeted overwhelmingly at those who are black and from ethnic minority backgrounds. We are coming out of a pandemic that has hit youth particularly hard – in education, in the job market, in their mental health, in their natural need to socialise and associate with each other. The neoliberal economy exacerbates factors that undermine their self-worth, their aspirations and their sense of a viable future through job precarity, a housing crisis, family stress and cuts in youth services. They desperately need a better ‘offer’ from society.

The Tories are selling dysfunctional counter-productive short-term repression as ‘levelling up’. It’s a substitute for much needed long-term investment and socio-economic change.

It is hardly surprising that from a range of quarters there are predictions of an imminent upsurge in street violence. David Lammy MP, referencing events in his Tottenham constituency in 2011 that started with the police shooting of Mark Duggan and led to riots in cities across the country, wrote: “I say this with deep regret: by failing to implement the measures designed to tackle society’s dissatisfaction, alienation and fragmentation, Johnson risks letting a spark set fire to the fuel all over again.”

A string of gimmicks has been thrown in, producing the intended Daily Mail headline, “Priti – I’ll make yobs clean the streets”. Rehabilitation is skimmed over. And the probation service is barely mentioned. It has now been re-nationalised after a disastrous Tory privatisation and a decade of savage cuts that have left a shell of a service that is increasingly oriented towards punishment, and with high staff turnover.

The predictable chest-beating commitment to supporting victims is only so much lip-service. It has been the relentless claim of every single government since 2001 when New Labour’s “Justice for All” White Paper promised to “rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of the victims”. This was code for a slew of attacks on defendants’ rights in court and young people’s rights on the street, that has fuelled prison growth and a racist and repressive policing that has continued unabated ever since.

Unaddressed now, as then, is the simple fact that the young people from ethnic minority backgrounds who are increasingly the target of these measures are themselves the ones most likely to be victims. Conversely, those with the greatest fear of crime, like older people, are often the least likely to be its victims. The Manichean division of society into a law-abiding majority faced with communities of bad people putting them in fear is woefully off the mark.  

Labour should be well placed to frontally attack the appalling Tory record on this issue, take apart this latest derided package and present a radical alternative based on a wide range of evidence, expertise and lived experience. But historically, the Party has been on the back foot on the issue.

The Party leadership has a choice – either submit to the agenda put forward that working class communities want more ‘law and order’ or boldly challenge it. Changing the national discourse has been done before – on big ticket issues that appeared to be natural home territory for the Tories, like war and austerity.

Tony Blair tried the submission route with his “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” stance in which only the first three words were applicable. The result? The loss of five million votes in the decade following the 2001 White Paper. We now desperately need to break with that approach.

There is no real choice. Any criticism of stop and search and prison building would be met by the quick riposte that there was a steady rise in stop and search under the New Labour years, up to the 1.2 million peak in 2009-10 that helped trigger the 2011 riots. Labour also presided over a peak in s.60 use, the prison population and the numbers of children in custody.

Which way will the Party jump? Johnson is probably banking on either a fudge or the opening up a ‘culture war’ within Labour’s ranks if the leadership swings to the right on the issue. With the possibility of trouble on the streets, time is not on Starmer’s side.

Piers Mostyn is a member of Hornsey & Wood Green CLP and a criminal defence barrister at Garden Court Chambers.

Image: “Boris Johnson North Yorkshire Police visit” by UK Prime Minister is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/49707497@N06/50170143172

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts