The UK General Election, set for Thursday 12th December, presents an opportunity for all parties to improve social justice. Focusing on the manifesto commitments towards criminal justice, Justice Studio sets out the main parties’ approaches to young people, human rights law, policing, gender-based violence, legal aid, the courts, prisons and terrorism.
At the age of 10, children are legally responsible for crimes they commit, whilst being deemed too irresponsible to vote. None of the parties tackle our criminally low age of responsibility, however, both the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats want to extend the right to vote to 16 and 17 year olds.
In terms of disrupting the path of young people towards crime, Labour and the Conservatives focus on youth services, with Labour stating that they would ‘rebuild our youth services and guarantee young people’s access to youth workers.’ The Conservatives would invest £500m in new youth clubs and services and promote the National Citizen Service in schools to bring communities together. The Greens would also ‘invest in youth services and centres’, helping turn at-risk children away from crime. This is especially important for the Greens in ending knife crime. The Liberal Democrats’ ‘public health approach’ to youth violence would provide a £500m ringfenced youth services fund to local authorities to reinvest in youth services, as well as embedding ‘trauma-informed Youth Intervention Specialists in all Major Trauma Centres.’
With regards to school exclusions, the Conservatives take a punitive approach, wanting to expand the practice, backing heads to use exclusions and helping teachers to tackle bullying, whilst the Lib Dems pledge to reverse the damage of exclusions to young people, giving local authorities the responsibility for exclusions. The Greens promise to create ‘a fully inclusive education system’.
Labour commits to invest in a youth justice system where young people are diverted from crime through co-operation between schools, local, health and other authorities. They also commit to tackling the disproportionate levels of BAME children in custody. The Greens similarly pledge a cross-government strategy to tackle ethnic inequalities, ranging from school exclusions through to biased treatment in the criminal justice system. The Conservatives reiterate their plan for trialling Secure Schools for existing offenders. They also pledge to ‘establish Violence Reduction Units to prevent serious crime, requiring co-operation between schools, police, councils and health authorities. The Brexit party pledge to ‘abolish distortive targets’ and introduce sentence ‘ranges’ for young offenders to encourage rehabilitation.
County Lines is only addressed specifically by the Brexit party and the Conservatives. The Conservatives would strengthen the National Crime Agency to tackle county lines gangs, child sexual abuse and ‘eradicate human trafficking and modern slavery’.
Sentencing and Human Rights
Many of the parties want to introduce new sentencing policies; either creating more sentences or less. Both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives promise to introduce stronger penalties for animal cruelty offences. For the Lib Dems, that means increasing maximum sentencing from six months to five years and properly funding the National Wildlife Crime Unit. In order to address homelessness, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats pledge to scrap the Vagrancy Act so that rough sleeping is no longer criminalised.
On drugs policy, the Greens stand out with a radical decriminalisation agenda, to ‘end the war on drugs’. They want to repeal the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, pardon and expunge the criminal records of those previously convicted for possession and small-scale supply of drugs, and create an ‘evidence-based, legalised, regulated system of drug control.’ They would have an Advisory Council for Drug Safety and promise that the production, import and supply of all drugs will be regulated according to the specific risks they pose to individuals, society and the environment.
The Human Rights Act is mentioned by most of the main parties, except the Brexit party. The Conservatives state that they will ‘update the Human Rights Act to ensure proper balance between individual rights, national security and effective government’. Labour will ‘retain and promote’ it, and the Lib Dems pledge to ‘defend the Human Rights Act, resist any attempt to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights and oppose any laws that unnecessarily erode civil liberties.’ The Greens will similarly retain the act as well as reaffirming the UK’s commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights. They also pledge to introduce a ‘Digital Bill of Rights’ and a new law on ‘Universal Jurisdiction’, to make it easier to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Policing is a high profile topic and as such all national parties have addressed it to some degree in their manifestoes. The Conservatives have been headlining with an increase in uniformed officers by 20,000 since Boris Johnson was selected as leader, and this is included in the manifesto. Labour has committed to recruit 2,000 more officers than the Conservatives, bringing total police numbers to 1,000 above the level at which it stood in 2010. The Brexit party also promises an unspecified increase in police numbers. The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto sets out an investment of an extra £1billion in community policing and emphasises that stopping Brexit will mean continued transnational police and security co-operation via agencies like Europol and the European Arrest Warrant. The Greens would create a new role: ‘community liaison and equality officers’.
The Lib Dems, Labour and Conservative manifestoes all touch on cybercrime, technology and new threats. The Conservatives pledge to create a new cyber crime police force and to enable the police to make use of biometrics, artificial intelligence, and DNA. The Lib Dems promise a new Online Crime Agency and Labour say they will review the role of the National Cyber Security Centre to examine expanding its remit, and strengthen the ability of the NCA to deal with economic and cybercrime.
Mental health features prominently throughout the Liberal Democrat manifesto. They pledge to end the use of police cells in cases of mental health crises, and to establish mental health liaison teams in all hospitals. They also set a one hour target of handing over mental health crisis cases from the police to public health officials.
None of the manifestos are especially strong on police accountability. The Liberal Democrats even propose the abolition of democratically elected Police and Crime Commissioners. There is also a degree of different parties appealing to supposed core constituencies: the Conservatives mention rural crime, the Brexit Party talks about cracking down on illegal immigration and both Labour and the Liberal Democrats mention stop and search.
Gender Based Violence
All of the main parties, with the exception of the Brexit Party, make pledges to tackle gender based violence. The Greens are the most comprehensive on this. They would develop and implement ‘a UK-wide strategy to tackle gender-based violence, including domestic violence, rape and sexual abuse, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and trafficking’. The Conservatives and Labour take a more enforcement approach. The Conservatives pledge to ‘fight crimes against women’ and to increase ‘community support for victims of rape and sexual abuse’. Labour will ensure better police training on domestic abuse and offences arising from coercive control, as well as establishing an independent review ‘into shamefully low rape prosecution rates,’ and promise a Commissioner for Violence against Women and Girls.
The Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Greens want to roll back the effects of Conservative austerity cuts to survivor centres and support. The Lib Dems would expand the number of refugees and rape crisis centres ‘to meet demand’, giving local authorities the duty and funding to provide accommodation and support for survivors, and establish a national rape crisis helpline. Labour promises to reverse cuts to legal aid so survivors aren’t forced to represent themselves against their abusers in court. The Greens would similarly ‘roll back the cuts to support centres and refuges, and increase funding to provide more safe and secure accommodation for women and their children. They would ensure Rape Crisis Centre services receive ‘sustainable funding’ so that all survivors ‘receive proper support’. This would include increasing and ringfencing the Rape Support Fund and ensuring funds are provided via the Victim Surcharge.
Most of the parties had policies related to the Domestic Abuse Bill. The Conservatives pledge to pass the bill, Labour pledge to reintroduce it, whilst the Greens pledge to introduce a new bill, which ‘enables prosecution of economic abuse.’ The Liberal Democrats would ‘legislate for a statutory definition of domestic abuse that includes its effects on children.’
On other issues, only the Liberal Democrats set out their commitment towards ratifying and bringing in to law the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention on violence against women (2011). The Greens want to make misogyny a hate crime and ensure that this recognises the groups of women who are most at risk.’
Eighty per cent of the population was eligible for legal aid when it was first introduced 70 years ago; only an estimated 20 per cent are today. The legal aid budget stood at £2.2bn before the coalition government introduced the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) act in 2012, intended to reduce spending by £350m while reducing the scope of civil legal aid cases.
Labour devotes the most attention to the issue of all the main national parties. It would reverse LASPO cuts, restoring all early legal aid advice for housing, social security, and family cases. The party would also restore legal aid to immigration cases, though in October the government brought legal aid back into scope for separated migrant children. Labour would also consult on the civil legal aid means-test levels and act on the criminal legal aid review. The manifesto commits to ensuring legal aid for inquests into deaths in state custody and the preparation of judicial review cases.
While not as far-reaching as Labour, the Liberal Democrats would establish a ‘new right’ to affordable, reasonable legal assistance, pumping £500m into the legal aid system. The legal aid budget currently stands at £1.6bn, roughly £950m less in real terms than its 2010 levels.
As mentioned, the Greens also commit to reversing cuts to legal aid to protect survivors of gender-based violence from having to represent themselves against their abusers in court. Some 18 per cent of all cases in 2016 were self-represented, compared to just two per cent in 2010.
The Conservatives make general pledges to look at ‘broader aspects’ of the constitution, which includes access to justice for ordinary people, though they fail to outline any formal commitments.
Courts & Judges
Attempts to legislate about the court system itself may be perceived as an effort to curb its independence and upset the democratic balance. In a democracy, an independent judiciary ensures that there are proper checks and balances and that the executive does not exceed its remit when implementing the law as set by the legislature. Nevertheless, all of the main parties, with the exception of the Green Party, make pledges on the courts system.
The Liberal Democrats say that they would like to improve diversity among judges as well as other professions within the justice system, such as police and prison officers, by adopting ambitious diversity targets with regular reporting to parliament. Labour, too, say they would like to see a more ‘representative’ judiciary, whilst upholding its independence.
In contrast to the other parties, the Brexit Party appears unconcerned about the principle of ensuring that judges remain independent of politicians. They propose ‘reforming’ the Supreme Court so that judges who play a role in politics (which is not well defined in the party’s manifesto) are subject to political scrutiny. They would like to ensure political balance among the justices by broadening participation in the Selection Commission or conducting interviews by Parliamentary Committee, essentially leading to a US-style system of party political judge appointments. The Conservatives, meanwhile, promise to make judicial review available to protect against an overbearing state, while ensuring it is not abused to conduct politics by other means.
On courts, Labour pledge to end the programme of court closures and to review the funding of the Crown Prosecution Service. They also promise to keep employment tribunals free, extend their powers, and to introduce new Labour Courts with a stronger role for people with industrial experience on panels. The Conservatives promise and provide costings for a pilot of integrated domestic abuse courts that address criminal and family matters as part of the same process.
Prisons fluctuate between being a critical political issue and being largely ignored. The hyper-incarceration crisis set in motion during the Blair years is continuing, albeit to a lesser degree than when the incarceration rate reached its peak in 2012. Prison occupancy is currently running at 111%, with overcrowding significantly worse than that in some facilities. With this in mind, the Conservative pledge to create 10,000 more prison places may appear sensible, but this seems to be an admission of defeat with regard to ensuring that more people do not re-offend and continue to return to prison.
The Conservatives also propose to create a ‘prisoner education service’ focused on work-based training and skills and to improve employment opportunities for former offenders, including a job coach in each prison. In stark contrast they also pledge to maintain the ban on prisoners being able to vote: arguably preventing prisoners from engaging in civic life seems counterintuitive to encouraging them to participate in rehabilitative activities and taking civic duties such as voting seriously.
On prisons, the Lib Dems echo the focus on improving mental health seen elsewhere in their manifesto. They pledge to treat mental health problems with the same urgency as physical health and to ensure the continuity of treatment between prisons and the community. They, too, mention rehabilitation, pledge to recruit 2,000 more prison officers and to improve the provision of training, education and work opportunities.
Labour’s stance reflects the party’s current broader view of the workforce and the economy. Similarly to their police officer pledge, they plan to restore total prison officer numbers to 2010 levels and to phase out lone working which they view as being dangerous to staff. Furthermore, they pledge to bring PFI prisons back under state control and promise that there will be no new private prisons. They also promise to tackle the prison maintenance backlog and develop a long-term estate strategy, reflecting a degree of technical understanding of the challenges of outdated buildings and infrastructure.
The Greens plan to halve the prison population and to ‘expand’ restorative justice. They will enhance the rehabilitation services on offer to long-term prisoners and commission rehabilitation services that have a track record of success. They will furthermore support the development of specialist women’s centres in order to reduce the female prison population. The Brexit Party’s manifesto has nothing to say on the subject generally.
Extremism and Terrorism
The threat of extremism has gained renewed attention in the wake of the recent London Bridge attack, prompting the Conservatives to announce a new policy to enforce minimum sentences of 14 years for serious terror offences.
The government’s hallmark anti-radicalisation programme, Prevent, has come under intense criticism for its impacts on the Muslim community. Labour, which introduced the strategy in 2003, has said it would review and consider replacing Prevent with alternative safeguarding programmes to protect the most vulnerable. The Greens would replace Prevent with ‘community cohesive policing’ to engage BME communities.
There is a balance to be struck between security and civil liberties. Labour would ensure security powers are exercised proportionately. Both the Lib Dems and Conservatives would provide funding and protection to places of worship. The Conservatives would also improve safety at public venues, while the Lib Dems would limit the use of technology in intrusive domestic surveillance.
The Conservatives would invest in the security services to give them the necessary powers and tools to combat new threats. Immigration controls would prevent entry for serious foreign national offenders and ensure those already here are deported. The Brexit Party’s ‘clean-break-Brexit’ would allow the UK to control its own borders and national security.
Labour would ensure closer counter-terrorism coordination between the police and security services, combining international intelligence with ‘neighbourhood expertise.’ The party also promises to strengthen scrutiny and accountability, while constraining the Prime Minister’s power to suppress the publication of committee reports. The Greens would replace the Home Office with Ministries of Sanctuary and of the Interior to oversee domestic security and protect human rights.
The Conservative manifesto reiterates the party’s commitment to existing multilateral power bases in the UN and Five Eyes and would champion collective security by exceeding NATO spending targets. Labour would respect international law to counteract global threats and agree a new UK-EU Security Treaty. The Lib Dems would defend against nationalism and isolationism through the UN and NATO while strengthening existing EU crime-fighting tools.
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