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Wednesday, Oct 04, 2023

From crime to the courts: the biggest issues the UK’s new PM will face

From crime to the courts: the biggest issues the UK’s new PM will face

Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak will have to deal with 20-year high in recorded crime and barristers’ indefinite strike this autumn

With a new prime minister taking over next week, we look at some of the biggest issues the UK government will face this autumn.

Crime and policing

Confidence in the police in England and Wales has been shaken by a series of scandals, recorded crime rising to a 20-year high and the proportion of offences leading to court action hitting a new low. In 2021-22, only 5.6% of offences led to a suspect being summonsed or charged, compared with 16% in 2014-15.

Offences at record highs include rape, up to 70,330 in 2021-22, all sexual offences (194,683) and stalking and harassment offences (722,574), despite the government’s tackling violence against women and girls strategy and apology to survivors in its rape review. The charge rate for rape was at a record low of 1.3%.

Meanwhile, the Met, the UK’s biggest police force, has been rocked by a series of shameful episodes that have prompted accusations of institutional misogyny, racism and homophobia. These include the kidnapping, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer, and officers sharing messages about hitting and raping women, the deaths of black babies and the Holocaust. There was also the revelation that officers took photos of murdered Black sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, while relatives of the victims of the serial killer Stephen Port believe police wrote them off as “gay druggies”.

As the most high-profile force, the Met’s failings contaminate perceptions of policing more widely, but it is not alone in its failings. In January alone, serving or former officers with the Northumberland, Greater Manchester, North Yorkshire and Surrey forces admitted or were convicted of offences relating to inappropriate relationships with women.

In June, it emerged that six forces, a record high, had been judged as failing so badly that they needed special help. When the Met became the latest force to be placed in special measures, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, blamed “12 years of massive cuts”, leading to the loss of 21,000 officers, many of them in London.

The government is planning to recruit 23,400 new officers, but they will be less experienced and the net increase will be lower as some existing officers leave. Rank and file officers are upset over pay, with the federation representing Met officers – the biggest branch of the Police Federation – saying police pay had fallen 20% behind inflation and describing a £1,900 consolidated pay award as “derisory”.

Meanwhile, there are warnings the cost of living crisis will lead to crime increasing further.

Polling for the government shows a high fear of crime and low levels of confidence that much will be done about it. But despite this, and Labour landing blows on law and order after Partygate, it has not featured prominently in a leadership contest dominated by tax policy.

Unsurprisingly, both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have talked tough on crime. They have proposed the creation of new crimes, including offences specifically intended to protect women, but they have not addressed how they will ensure charging rates – for offences against women and generally – will increase.

Truss has said she will bring back national crime targets, committing to a 20% reduction in murders, other violence and burglaries within two years if she becomes prime minister. But targets are unpopular with some senior officers who believe they can skew priorities, creating perverse incentives. Again, the detail of how they will be achieved is absent.

Meanwhile, crime prevention is being hampered by bottlenecks at every stage of the criminal justice system. In May, a report about the impact of Covid said that prisoners were still spending 22.5 hours a day in their cells while thousands of hours of unpaid work or “community payback” sentences were going uncompleted in the probation service. Earlier this year, a minister admitted there was a “huge problem” to overcome in the recruitment and retention of prison staff after the government reduced the headcount. Such problems hinder rehabilitation and attempts to get stubbornly high re-offending rates down.

Courts and lawyers

The new prime minister will take office on the same day criminal barristers in England and Wales begin an indefinite strike over levels of legal aid funding, which have already driven many out of the profession. Combined with court closures and long-term cuts to court staff numbers and to the Crown Prosecution Service, justice has slowed to a crawl for many people.

The backlog of cases in the crown courts, where the most serious offences are prosecuted, stands close to 60,000 in England and Wales. That figure includes thousands relating to violent crime and sexual offences and has changed little in the past year. The government has forecast the figure will fall to 53,000 by March 2025, but that was before barristers – many of whom also sit as part-time judges – announced they would go on strike.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has blamed Covid and – more recently – industrial action for the backlog. While Covid undoubtedly contributed, the backlog already stood at just over 41,000 on 31 March 2020, according to Criminal Bar Association (CBA) analysis – an increase of 23% on 12 months earlier. The National Audit Office said the increase was partly because the MoJ allocated an insufficient number of court sitting days. The cap on sitting days has since been lifted but it still relies on barristers, judges, courtrooms and court staff being available.

Official figures show that 567 court cases were adjourned at short notice last year, before industrial action began, because prosecution or defence barristers failed to attend or were engaged in another case.

While the barristers’ action, which began with more limited steps in April, will affect the backlog, the CBA says it is the only way to secure sustainable funding for a criminal justice system at risk of collapse. Last year, a parliamentary committee said the legal aid budget had been slashed by almost 40% in less than a decade, while funding for courts and tribunals had fallen by 21% in real terms. The CBA says criminal barristers have seen their real earnings fall by 28% since 2006, putting into context its current demand for a 25% rise in legal aid fees in context.

Given the size of the backlog and the fact they are paid at the conclusion of trials, it may be years before barristers see the MoJ’s proposed 15% pay increase for new cases from September – and all at a time when inflation is soaring.

The CBA has been angered by secretary of state for justice Dominic Raab’s refusal to meet it to discuss its demands. He was on holiday on Monday when the the indefinite walkout was announced, and responded through a column in the Daily Mail accusing the CBA of holding justice “to ransom”.

While Raab has announced flagship government reforms, such as the victims bill and section 28 which allows survivors of rape and modern-day slavery to give pre-recorded video evidence outside a live trial, barristers warn they are meaningless without a functioning justice system.

The recruitment of thousands more police officers will lead to more cases – the prison population is projected to increase from about 80,000 to 98,500 by 2026 – but, again, barristers question how the courts will cope. In the meantime, the backlog has led to an increase, at significant expense, in the number of remand prisoners who are most vulnerable to suicide and thousands of whom will go on to be acquitted or not sent to jail. Privately, judges suggest that custody time limits – temporarily increased during Covid – may have to be extended again.

The CBA says the 2,400 or so criminal barristers number a quarter fewer than five years ago, with many juniors earning less than the hourly minimum wage after expenses. The victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, Vera Baird QC, said one in eight criminal barristers have quit in the last year alone, while criminal solicitors are also leaving in droves, according to the Law Society.

Raab, who is highly unlikely to be justice secretary under a new Tory leader, has accused the CBA of letting victims down. But Baird urged the government to “get back round the table”, describing the indefinite walkout as merely “the latest symptom of a criminal justice system that is severely and recklessly underfunded”.

Her comments were echoed by Claire Waxman, London’s victims’ commissioner, who said: “For over a decade, this government has failed to fund our criminal justice system properly, which is why the system has now reached breaking point and effectively ground to a halt.

“The impact this broken system is having on victims and those seeking justice is truly stark. I have seen first-hand the desperation of victims who have told me how delays in our justice system, with some vulnerable victims waiting four, even five, years for their case to be heard, has led them to depression and even suicidal thoughts.”

With Liz Truss the frontrunner to be the next prime minister, having campaigned on a platform of immediate tax cuts, the prospects of under-funding being addressed appear remote. The fact she previously held the role of justice secretary offers few grounds for optimism either. In an interview published on Monday, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, a distinguished former Conservative lord chancellor, commenting on her time in the post, said: “I don’t know that Liz Truss had any idea of how legal aid was done.”


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