State of the Nation: from riots to policing cuts, the coalition has a criminal record

The coalition got off to a rocky start on crime with the 2011 riots. Lewis Whyld/PA

Welcome to our State of the Nation series, which looks at the coalition government’s progress over the past five years, across a range of key policy areas.

The coalition government saw crime and disorder placed firmly on its agenda almost immediately after taking office. The summer of 2011 brought violent riots across the country following a police shooting and, arguably, the UK is still dealing with the consequences.

But even while the courts were still handing down some of the toughest ever “riot” related sentences, the political focus was shifting to budget cuts. The final years of this coalition government are witnessing some dramatic shifts in the way policing, justice and offender management are delivered in the UK.

To understand how the coalition has approached crime and justice, it is worth looking back at previous Conservative governments.

Despite a reputation for tough, confrontational politics, the Thatcher governments were rather less innovative in rolling out punitive new criminal justice policies than is sometimes assumed. In fact, it seems as though the iron fist was only brought to law and order later. And when a tougher stance was taken, it was to deal with the disorderly consequences of Thatcherism. The whirlwinds caused by rising inequality, benefit cuts, social division, mass unemployment, sink estates, homelessness, and hollowed out inner cities meant that crime rose significantly in the decade after 1979.

One important contrast between the Thatcher era and the coalition government’s tenure is that recorded crime appears to have been consistently falling since the mid-1990s – although the prison population hit record levels of 85,000 in 2010 and was predicted to continue to rise.

On a more positive note, the onset of austerity in 2008-2009 seems to have coincided with the beginning of a sustained fall in the youth custody population, a decline which has continued.

Unfortunately, even such apparently solid figures conceal profound uncertainties. There remains, for example, widespread public and political scepticism about the reliability of the falling crime figures. Concerns have been raised that between 20-25% of reported violent and sexual crimes have gone unrecorded by police.

More generally, the shape of the crime problem is changing fast. Offences using the internet are growing at exponential rates scarcely captured by British crime recording.

Thin blue budget line

There are many parallels to be drawn between the riots of the Thatcher years and the 2011 London riots, not least in the rhetoric deployed by both governments about “mindless violence”, the tough sentences handed down to convicted rioters and declarations of support for robust policing.

But there are subtle differences too. In the wake of the 2011 riots, senior politicians advocated even more robust policing tactics than police managers considered appropriate. And, unusually for a minister keen to get tough on crime, the home secretary, Theresa May, was already on a collision course with police forces over plans to cut 20% from their budget.

Theresa May has not had the best relationship with the police. Paul Rogers/The Times/PA

All over the UK, police forces are getting by with less. For many this has meant arguing for greater civic responsibility. Local people are being urged to be more vigilant and invest more in their own security because a police officer may no longer always be a simple phone call away. Others are experimenting with advice lines and other ways to ration demand for police intervention.

The government’s community trigger initiative was intended to empower local people to demand action on the routine aggressive, intimidating or destructive behaviour that damaged their quality of life.

It will be interesting to see how this develops. Community is a much-abused concept in crime prevention – will the most dysfunctional communities even get to pull their triggers?

Morale

Austerity politics has clearly affected crime trends and public disorder. It has shaped police priorities and is now, arguably, affecting police morale. The Police Federation’s demand for tasers to be issued to all officers is a direct response to police “morale” issues and the perceived risks associated with the shift to single-crewing of police patrol cars.

As police attempt new ways to manage demands upon their services, and distance themselves from their wider social service functions they refer to putting solutions to social problems back where they “belong”. Unfortunately, mental health services, housing, family and children’s services and probation budgets are equally stretched just as the public are invited to demand more effective responses for the daily nuisances and disorders they experience.

Although the rhetoric speaks of choice, responsibility and community empowerment, this sounds less like the joined-up thinking and multi-agency provision that promised so much in the 1990s and more like silos and patchwork. A postcode lottery of frayed safety nets inevitably leaves the most intractable and routine problems of crime and disorder to fall upon the most vulnerable victims. Austerity generates inequality in safety and security just as much as it does in other areas of social provision.

Legal aid and probation

Further evidence of how the austerity agenda affected other areas of the criminal justice system might be gleaned from the proposed changes to legal aid and probation.

Since 2010 the coalition had been set on introducing price-competitive tendering for legal aid services but it faced opposition from the legal professions. In 2013 it proposed tighter restrictions and lower entitlement thresholds for legal aid so that people with disposable household incomes of more than £37,500 could not get support. Again came a tirade of opposition. It was claimed that standards would be sacrificed and that people accused of crimes would face limited choices when seeking representation.

Lawyers took to the streets in 2014 to protest against legal aid cuts. Sean Dempsey/PA

Although much was made, earlier in the coalition government, of the “rehabilitation revolution”, probation and community justice also faced change. In 2013 the government legislated to ensure that “a punitive element” be incorporated in all community penalties. An ambitious proposal to transform probation by the establishment of an offender management marketplace funded on a “payment by results” basis was announced. A rump probation service would continue to manage the most dangerous offenders but private agencies could deliver offender management and electronic monitoring services for the others.

Transforming rehabilitation has taken second place to the creation of a corrections market in the UK. This has drawn many existing third sector agencies, including charities hitherto running support services for ex-offenders, into new partnerships with big private firms such as G4S and Serco, inevitably giving their service provisions a more custodial or disciplinary emphasis.

Job done?

Unlike the Thatcher administration, which acquired a tough reputation more for its disciplinarian law-and-order rhetoric than for its criminal justice innovations, the coalition government has already made significant radical changes that have affected the quality of criminal justice. Its austerity agenda risks transforming a more proactive and joined-up criminal justice system into a patchwork of selective services.

Austerity has unpicked some central assumptions about the relationships between community, police, correctional and support services while exposing the most vulnerable communities to greater risk and greater costs. All this with a side serving of rhetoric about choice, active citizenship and responsibility.

The combination of re-prioritising, risk delegation, growing inequality and market based criminal justice solutions creates a perfect storm for the rebalancing of the burdens of crime and disorder onto those least able to cope.

Evidence-led policy making also seems to have fallen by the wayside over the past five years when it comes to crime and punishment. Austerity has facilitated a new politics of civic retrenchment and the coalition government has exploited it to the full.

In so many ways, voices on the right have prepared the ground for a redistribution of criminalisation and victimisation with endless tirades against the poor, the unemployed, benefit claimants, immigrants and asylum seekers and, not least, working class youth.

And because the 2015 election campaign is largely being conducted as a battle for the “squeezed middle”, it seems unlikely to raise more fundamental questions about criminal and social justice that have been rather neglected over the past five years.