Talk to anyone in the Westminster bubble and speculation on when a general election will happen always seems to figure in the conversation. While it seems unlikely that Boris Johnson will get his way and go to the country before Christmas, the defections and suspensions of mainly Conservative MPs, due to Brexit machinations, has made an election likely sooner rather than later. At the party conferences, the main political parties set out very different priorities for justice policy with an eye on the coming battle for votes.
In his first speech
to the Tory faithful as lord chancellor and justice secretary, Robert Buckland made no mention of legal aid or wider access to justice issues. The justice secretary’s oration was made on a live feed from London, where he was attending the opening ceremony for the legal year (the conference took place in Manchester). His main message was a return to harsher sentencing for criminals.
In a bit of party-political knockabout, he accused Labour of being ‘[s]oft on crime and soft on the causes of crime’. Buckland argued that prior to the last Labour government, it used to be a ‘tougher system’ and pledged that ‘for the most serious violent and sexual offenders’ the government would ensure they serve two-thirds of their sentences in prison, instead of being released at the halfway point, which had been introduced by Labour.
Buckland also announced the use of sobriety tags for criminals and reiterated pledges previously made by the government to recruit 20,000 new police officers and to expand the number of prison places by 10,000. His speech was clearly written to accord with the messaging in home secretary Priti Patel’s speech
, delivered on the same day, in which she claimed the Conservatives are ‘the party of law and order … once again’.
In contrast, shadow lord chancellor and justice secretary Richard Burgon’s speech
to the Labour party conference in Brighton concentrated on policy announcements around legal aid and access to justice (see October 2019 Legal Action
6). These included pledges to reverse ‘Conservative cuts to legal aid-funded early legal help’ and a £20m fund to ‘create a golden era of Law Centres’.
Burgon attacked the government’s record on cuts to the Ministry of Justice, arguing that it had slashed its budget almost more than any other government department. He was scathing of the government’s announcement of 10,000 new prison places, describing it as one of the ‘most recycled Tory promises ever’ as it had been ‘[p]romised by five different justice secretaries and in every year since 2015’.
According to Burgon, one of the consequences of the spending cuts was that more prisons were in crisis with ‘[r]ecord levels of violence’ in the system. He pledged to increase staffing levels to create ‘safer prisons focused on rehabilitation’, which would reduce reoffending and the number of victims of crime. The shadow justice secretary also promised investment in problem-solving courts to tackle ‘the root causes of offending’, and to fully return the probation system to the public sector, as well as committing £20m ‘to plug the shameful gap in the government’s female offender strategy’.
While the Liberal Democrats made no major justice policy announcements at their conference in September, they had debated access to justice at their spring conference
. Their policy platform is close to Labour’s, as one of their main planks is to restore legal aid for early advice. They are also committed to a ‘new right to affordable, reasonable legal assistance with a new, independent Justice Commission to monitor and enforce it’. This seems similar to Labour’s policy, which Burgon discussed in his speech, ‘to give every citizen a constitutional “right to justice”’.
The Conservatives seem to be setting out a right-wing populist stall around law and order, but according to the experts, Buckland’s pronouncements on sentencing don’t stand up to a reality check. According to LAG author and Bhatt Murphy partner Simon Creighton, the justice secretary is trying to ‘profit from a lack of understanding of what is already a very complicated sentencing regime’. Creighton pointed out that the courts already routinely extend sentences when they have ‘concerns about the risk in the future a criminal might pose to the public’. Writing in the Guardian
, the author known as the Secret Barrister argued that the measure would only affect a ‘tiny percentage of defendants’.1‘The Tories’ tough talk on crime is shameless and cynical’, Guardian, 2 October 2019.
If a general election is called in the coming weeks, what seems apparent from the speeches at the two main party conferences is that the electorate will have a choice between starkly contrasting visions on justice policy. Hopefully, debate around these in the election campaign will not be completely drowned out by the fall-out from Brexit and other policy concerns, such as spending on the NHS and the housing crisis.
While it is unlikely to be passed by the Commons, measures announced in the Queen’s speech
, which was presented on 14 October 2019, confirm the Conservatives’ law and order pitch to the electorate. The bills outlined include:
•Sentencing Bill: longer sentences for violent and sex offenders.
•Foreign National Offenders Bill: increased sentences for criminals who breach deportation orders from the UK.
•Extradition (Provisional Arrest) Bill: measures to replace current extradition arrangements with EU countries. It will allow police to detain suspects pending deportation.
•Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill: denial of parole for murderers who do not disclose the location of their victims’ bodies.