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Former Prisons Chief Says MPs Are Politicising "Tough On Crime" Rhetoric In Local Elections

The Conservatives and Labour are both campaigning for the public to trust them to tackle crime (Alamy)

5 min read

The “tough on crime” rhetoric being pursued by the Conservatives and Labour in their local election campaigns is “political on both sides”, according to the former director of women at HM Prison and Probation Service.

Both major parties are promising to be tough on crime and antisocial behaviour in the run-up to the England local elections on 4 May.

However, experts in prison reform and criminal justice have warned that the issue of crime is becoming over-politicised as both parties focus on tougher punishment to avoid appearing lenient, while prisons struggle to cope with violence, overcrowding and high rates of mental health problems and suicide. 

MPs, councillors and party activists are campaigning across England ahead of polling day, after both the Conservatives and Labour recently announced a string of measures to tackle various aspects of crime.

Labour also has plans around rehabilitative justice, though this is not a prominent feature in the party's local election campaigning. The party is carrying out a review into how to deliver the “world’s first trauma-informed criminal justice system” which would tackle “deep-rooted” trauma that often leads to violent and serious crimes. 

Pia Sinha, the new CEO of the Prison Reform Trust, welcomed Labour’s pledge, but said that despite this, in the “current climate” it was “difficult” for the Conservatives and Labour to sound different from one another on the issue of crime. 

Sinha joined the prison service in 1999 as a higher psychologist and was a governor for multiple prisons before becoming director of women at HM Prison and Probation Service in 2021.

“I do think that this is political from both sides,” she told PoliticsHome

“I think it's really difficult in the current climate to have a liberal approach to crime and punishment.

“Having soundbites that say that you are lenient on crime currently, I don't think that'll give you much capital. So it is difficult for both sides to sound different from each other around the issue of crime.”

Crime is currently the sixth most important issue to the public according to a poll by Opinium, behind health, the economy, energy, immigration and housing. The poll found that 20 per cent of voters have confidence in the current government to successfully tackle and reduce crime, while 30 per cent would trust a Labour government led by Keir Starmer

 A Conservative spokesperson said: "The difference is clear – we believe in putting criminals behind bars and Labour do not.

"While we are toughening sentences for the worst offenders, increasing funding for our police, and removing foreign national rapists and murderers from our streets, Labour vote against it.

"Labour are too weak to be tough on crime – only the Conservatives can keep our communities safe."

In an effort to restore public trust, at the end of March the Conservative government introduced an ‘Anti-social Behaviour Action Plan’ which includes offenders being required to carry out immediate repair work to damaged spaces, a pilot of ‘hotspot’ policing in areas prone to higher rates of crime, and a ban on ‘laughing gas’ nitrous oxide. 

The Home Secretary and Prime Minister have also announced policies aimed at tackling grooming gangs, including tougher sentences and a legal duty for carers to report child sexual abuse if they become aware of it. 

Launching Labour’s local election campaign in Swindon, leader Keir Starmer asked his audience: “Do you think Britain deserves better than crime soaring, antisocial behaviour going up yet neighbourhood policing going down?”

Urging voters to support Labour in the local elections, he argued that crime has been going “virtually unpunished” over the last 13 years under a Conservative government. 

Starmer has declared that Labour is “the party of law and order” and in March outlined plans to halve violent crime, introduce Respect Orders to punish antisocial behaviour and enforce fixed penalty charges for fly-tipping.

Speaking at the Institute for Government in February, Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper evoked the language of former prime minister Tony Blair by promising to be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime” – then, last week, Bath Local Conservatives used the same line in an attempt to gain local votes. 

As Labour frontbenchers visit residents on the doorsteps this week to support their party’s local campaigns, the Labour Party tweeted a poster promising 13,000 extra neighbourhood police and Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs). Last week, the Local Conservatives group in Blackpool South tweeted a graphic of a similar design to promote how the Conservatives want to “stamp out” antisocial behaviour with hotspot policing. 

Labour is hoping to make significant gains in local council seats across England this May, ahead of the next general election, which has to be held by the end of 2024. 

With almost 5,000 Conservative councillors defending their seats, the decision by nine out of 10 local authorities in England to increase council tax in April is also likely to be a top issue for voters, as well as spending cuts to public services and long NHS waiting lists for treatment.

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