It is time for Labour to show it is the party of law and order again
Royal Courts of Justice, London | PA Images
Systemic failings by the Tories have left our justice system critically weakened. We need emergency action to rebuild services and renew public faith in law and order
At last year’s Conservative party conference, home secretary Priti Patel said: “To the criminals, I simply say this: we are coming after you.” In fact, the opposite is true. Tories say they care about law and order, but their decade of cuts, court closures, privatisation and incompetent management have left our entire justice system on the brink.
Pre-pandemic figures show the lowest charging rate for crimes reported in England and Wales since records began. Between 2010 and 2019, investment in justice was cut by 24% in real terms. Prisons, left with “dangerously high levels of violence and self-harm,” are not working. More than six out of every 10 offenders who serve less than 12 months in prison end up committing another crime on release.
This year the government was forced to U-turn on Chris Grayling’s failed privatisation of the probation service, after private providers missed targets and incurred £467m in extra costs to the taxpayer.
The most recent figures show 46,467 serious criminal cases are outstanding in crown courts in England and Wales. Ever since I became the shadow justice secretary, Labour has been pushing the government to quickly introduce temporary courts to hold socially distanced trials in a way that is safe. But the government dithered and allowed the backlog to grow by more than 7,000 in just five months. The pandemic has made the backlog worse, but the crisis in our courts far predates coronavirus.
Labour’s first priority over the next 12 months is to continue to provide constructive opposition to help the courts, prisons, probation and legal services survive this crisis. We desperately want the government to get the wheels of justice turning again. As we do so, we intend to reclaim the Labour’s status as the party of law and order.
I never thought I would see Conservative MPs, including the lord chancellor, vote for the government to break the law
In government, Labour spent a larger proportion of the country’s GDP on law and order than any that preceded it and of any other government in the OECD. This resulted in crime falling more under the last Labour government than at any other 13-year period in the century before it. We should be proud of this record – it shows our determination to ensure a fair, tough and effective justice system.
Labour’s defence of law and order is vital at a time when the government is increasingly lawless. I’ve always had differences of opinion with politicians on the other side of the aisle, but I never thought I would see Conservative MPs, including the lord chancellor, vote for the government to break the law. This was not a one-off. It forms part of No 10’s broader agenda to remove the checks and balances on which our democracy is built.
At this time of national crisis, the Ministry of Justice should be using all its resources to respond more effectively to the pandemic than it did during the first wave. Instead, its first priority in the coming months is to launch an attack on judicial review, the mechanism by which members of the public can challenge the government when it breaks the law. Labour will oppose this because neutering judicial review would cause permanent damage, leaving the current as well as future governments free from challenge in the courts.
Its second priority, according to reports in The Daily Telegraph, is to opt out of the human rights laws the UK helped to create. We will do all we can to prevent this from happening, because rolling back on human rights would make life less secure for the British public and further damage our country’s reputation on the world stage.
Support for law and order means two things. First it requires accepting that no one – including Boris Johnson, his government or Dominic Cummings – is above the law.
Second, it means properly supporting the courts, prisons, probation and publicly funded professions on which the justice system depends. The government is doing neither. Labour will stand up for law and order by doing both.
David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham and shadow justice secretary