Setting out his nine principles of policing that underpinned the creation of the Metropolitan force in 1829, the home secretary Sir Robert Peel wrote that ‘the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them’. But those wise words are lost on today’s busy politicians who seem to measure their effectiveness by how many new burdens they impose on the justice system.
In a culture where headline-grabbing gestures count for more than genuine accomplishments, the knee-jerk response to almost every major new criminal incident is to demand a change in the law. Priti Patel, the inheritor of Sir Robert’s mantle as home secretary, is the prime exemplar. She cannot witness a crisis without reaching for the statute book. When the shrill protestors of Extinction Rebellion caused mayhem in London and at two newspaper printworks last week, she announced that she would look ‘at every opportunity available, including primary legislation’ to deal with environmental extremism. Her office revealed that among the options were amendments to the Public Order Act and a designation of XR as an ‘organised crime’ gang.
This is typical of her style. Following police constable Andrew Harper’s brutal murder in Berkshire last August, Patel has indicated her support for the campaign by his widow Lissie to introduce mandatory life sentences for killers of police officers and other emergency workers. As well as ‘Harper’s Law’, the Home Secretary backs ‘Martyn’s Law’. Named in memory of Martyn Hett, one of the Manchester bombing victims, this would mandate big public venues to introduce airport-style security checks. After the first Black Lives Matter protest in London, where an attempt was made to start a fire at the Cenotaph, she joined calls for a new law which would introduce ten-year jail terms for vandals of war memorials. Predictably, her solution to the mounting incidence of Channel crossings by illegal migrants is a ‘fair borders Bill’ to revamp the asylum process, while this week she also declared her backing for a statutory police covenant to provide more protection for officers.
Individually, each of these plans might be worthy enough, but together they reveal a mindset that sees legislation as a panacea. It is a process where the law is treated as an instrument of propaganda to give the illusion of toughness. There is also an emptiness about this strategy, in that none of the much-trumpeted proposals are really necessary. The police and courts already have the powers they need to tackle current criminality. That reality was made clear during XR’s attempt to shut down a major part of the newspaper industry by blockading a printworks at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire. When the police, after hours of hesitation, finally went on the offensive, they arrested almost 80 protestors for crimes such as aggravated trespass and blocking a public highway.
Similarly, the courts can already hand out life terms to killers of police officers, emergency workers or anyone else, just as the 1971 Criminal Damage Act specifically allows a maximum ten-year jail sentence to any criminal convicted of damaging property. In the same vein, people-smuggling and illegal immigration are serious offences.
Legal change is an end in itself, a substitute for taking real action. Indeed, Westminster has suffered from this kind of pointless legislative incontinence for too long. Parliamentary records over the past 20 years show no fewer than 273 pieces of legislation with ‘Criminal Justice’ in their titles. Among them were five major Criminal Justice Acts. This parliamentary restlessness was accompanied by huge expansion in bureaucracy. Over these two decades, the new bodies established have included the National Crime Agency, 40 Police and Crime Commissioners, the Sentencing Council, the Supreme Court, the College of Policing, the London Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, the Victims’ Commissioner, the Border Force and the Independent Office for Police Conduct.
But all this officialdom and legislative activism have not made the country feel safer. Just the opposite is true: endless new laws and quangos are a sign of weakness rather than strength. The problem with our justice system is not the lack of powers but the lack of moral authority and political will. When Margaret Thatcher was confronted in the mid-1980s with the twin challenges of the miners’ strike and the printworkers’ dispute at Wapping, she did not prattle about the need to change the law so she could act. She fearlessly galvanised the police into upholding the existing law.
Today, that spirit is missing, which is precisely why ministers hide behind the smokescreen of law-making while real law-breakers act with impunity. Incredibly, only around 7 per cent of all crimes in England and Wales lead to a suspect being charged. Just 5 per cent of thefts lead to prosecution, a figure that plummets to 1.4 per cent for rapes. Soft drugs have effectively been decriminalised by police inaction. In some parts of Britain, 70 per cent of people caught with cannabis are let off with informal ‘community resolutions’.
Patel talks of the need for new immigration laws but the Home Office does not bother to use its current powers, with her department admitting that the number of deportations of illegal migrants is ‘at its lowest since records began’ in 2004. Despite tough legislation imposing supposedly mandatory sentences for habitual burglars and knife possessors, a large proportion of such repeat offenders still evade jail. In fact a study by the think tank Civitas found that half of all criminals with between 11 and 14 convictions avoided prison, while just a third found guilty of violence ended up behind bars.
There is a parallel here with the 18th century, when concern about rising crime and disorder led to the creation of an excessive penal code. At its peak, the ‘Bloody Code’ had 225 offences that carried the death penalty, such as pickpocketing, wrecking a fishpond and blackening one’s face at night. Yet in the absence of any agencies of enforcement, these laws were applied inconsistently and haphazardly. Moreover, there was widespread repulsion among both juries and magistrates at the system’s harshness, with the consequence that suspects were frequently let off or had their sentences downgraded.
Faith in justice was thereby undermined. The law fell into disrepute. All that changed in the 19th century with the construction of austere but humane prisons and the establishment of police constabularies throughout the country, following Sir Robert Peel’s lead. Tellingly, by 1861 the number of capital offences was reduced to just five.
The Victorians regarded their shrunken penal code as a badge of honour and a reflection of progress. Our politicians should strive for the same rather than indulge in legislative posturing.
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