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The Labour party is indulging in “cheap politics” by accusing the Conservatives repeatedly of being soft on crime, the head of a leading prison reform charity has claimed.
Andrea Coomber QC, the chief executive of the Howard League, said the opposition is trying to outflank Boris Johnson’s government on law and order instead of developing evidence-based policies to solve a crisis within the criminal justice system.
“We don’t yet know what the opposition’s policies on prisons or criminal justice are, but the mood music is all ‘tough on crime’, not caring about the criminals or addressing the victims of crimes. That does not necessarily provide the opposition that the government needs,” she said in an interview with the Guardian.
“I think the new shadow lord chancellor, Steve Reed, has certainly been very vocal in his commitment to being tough on criminals, but we don’t know what that means. At the moment, it’s just tweets and comments to the media. It is not policy.
“You don’t know what the policy could be. The policy could be fantastically progressive, but it’s hard to imagine how that would be consistent with this sort of messaging,” she said.
Labour hit back at Coomber’s criticism, pointing out that the party had pledged to introduce “victim payback boards” in a drive to restore public confidence in community sentences for anti-social behaviour.
Under Keir Starmer, Labour has sought to exploit the government’s perceived weaknesses on law and order, particularly in light of the prime minister’s fine for breaking Covid regulations.
In February, Starmer accused the Tories of being soft on crime. In the same month, Reed suggested in an interview with the Mirror that Labour had cared more for criminals than victims under Starmer’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, and said he would look at “naming and shaming” people who buy recreational drugs.
During the campaigns for this month’s local elections, crime was one of two main lines of attack employed by the party, with Starmer claiming that faith in the criminal justice system had been “devastatingly undermined” under Johnson by cuts to policing and falling crime-detection rates.
Coomber, a human rights barrister, called for both parties to stop falling back on building more prisons and imposing harsher penalties, and instead examine the government’s research showing that community sentences and keeping people out of prison provide better outcomes for society.
“Both major parties are trying to outflank the other on law and order. That is pretty cheap politics,” she said.
“We already have the second biggest prison population outside Scotland in Europe. And while Scotland is questioning prison as the answer, we [England and Wales] have announced another 20,000 people are going into prison. We are piling people into it. The direction of travel is very concerning. It was already a system on the brink of collapse, and that was before Covid.”
The Ministry of Justice’s own prison population projections estimate that there will be 98,500 people in prison by March 2026. The prison population in England and Wales was 79,580 in November last year. The projected rise in numbers is largely a result of the planned recruitment of an extra 23,400 police officers, it says.
A Labour spokesperson said: “As a former DPP [director of public prosecutions], for Keir Starmer tackling crime and putting victims first is a personal mission. With his leadership, Labour has put security at the heart of its contract with the British people.
“That’s why in government we would create new police hubs and neighbourhood crime prevention teams across the country to tackle crime and establish new community and victim payback boards to restore confidence in community sentences and reduce reoffending at source.
“This soft-on-crime Conservative government has an abysmal 12-year record which is letting criminals off and letting victims down.”