A growing number of young people in my constituency are being robbed at knifepoint and forced to hand over their mobile phones. The attacks take place as students travel to or from school, with the robbers taking photographs of their victims and threatening more serious violence if they report the crime.
Parents told me they tracked the stolen phones on location apps until they were switched off, so they knew where they had been taken. The attackers used the stolen phones to order cabs, food and in one case, alarmingly, a 10-inch hunting knife. With police numbers still down after the Conservatives’ cuts, response times were too slow to track the stolen phones and arrest the criminals. Parents’ WhatsApp groups at their children’s schools report multiple similar attacks across the area, but a repeated failure to pursue or prosecute the offenders.
It should come as no surprise, then, that according to the official police inspectorate just 6.6 per cent of robberies and 4 per cent of burglaries ever result in a prosecution.
Earlier this year, the father of a teenage rape victim contacted me for help. His daughter had waited two years for her attacker to be brought to justice, only to be told the trial was postponed for a further nine months just four days before it was due to begin. A delay of nearly three years for a girl who was raped at the age of just 13 is an eternity, and the trauma these delays have caused her is incalculable.
What is shocking is that delays of this length are now the norm not the exception for rape trials. Most rape survivors never see their attacker bought to justice at all since barely one in every 100 reported rapes ever leads to a prosecution.
This is the troubling story of criminal justice under the Conservatives: criminals let off and victims let down.
It is clear that the public feel that crime is out of control under the Conservatives, who have cut 22,000 police, closed courts, reduced the number of judges, and stood by as one in four criminal barristers quit in despair at our crumbling justice system. There is currently a record-breaking backlog of nearly 60,000 criminal court cases, and the Conservatives have lost control of our prisons so completely that a prisoner is more likely to leave jail addicted to drugs than when they went in. The government simply cannot get a grip on unacceptable reoffending rates when these failures are stoking rather than stopping crime.
It will fall to Labour to make our streets safe and secure once again. Victims will be at the heart of our approach. I know how it feels to want offenders brought to justice because I was once robbed in a dark street with a knife pressed against my throat. I wanted my attackers caught and punished. But, like every victim, I would rather not have been attacked at all.
When I was first elected as a council leader in south London, the area was in the grip of an increase in violent youth crime. Three young people were murdered within six months as gangs fought on the streets to control the drug trade. But our newly elected Labour council in Lambeth didn’t stand by.
We worked with the most affected communities and the police to draw up a new strategy that successfully cut violent crime by a third in just 18 months, setting a template that was adopted by many other councils.
We invested in better support for families struggling to prevent their children getting involved in crime; launched a helpline for parents worried that their child was being groomed by a violent gang; involved local voluntary sector and faith groups to channel support to young people who would not engage with the authorities; and set up projects that diverted them away from crime and helped them back into education or employment. This was the first ‘public health’ approach to violent crime in England, but we also got tough on enforcement – supporting the police to arrest and prosecute those whose criminal behaviour was making the law-abiding majority fearful for their safety.
I learned that while beating crime needs communities to come together to fight it, those communities need the police, the courts, and councils on their side – with the whole system focused on the needs of victims.
We know that these local successes can be reproduced at the national level. Nearly 30 years ago, Tony Blair declared that Labour would be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. The result? A Labour government that reduced crime by a third. It is time to update that approach for today’s world.
As Shadow Justice Secretary I have a simple mantra: punish, prevent, and protect. Labour will make the criminal justice system work from end-to-end to punish criminals and prevent crime, while protecting victims.
Labour will introduce neighbourhood crime prevention hubs to crack down on crime and anti-social behaviour. This will include 13,000 additional police officers visible on the streets, and places where victims can report crime directly or find support. Labour will also make prison work. Instead of the drug-fuelled colleges of crime they have become under the Tories, Labour will support prison officers to rehabilitate offenders and reduce reoffending as we create the world’s first ‘trauma-informed’ criminal justice system.
There is much we can learn from the developing science around the impact of childhood trauma on criminalisation. In so many cases, from low-level anti-social behaviour to the most serious forms of crime, you can trace an offender’s criminal behaviour back to childhood trauma that damaged their cognitive and emotional development and distorted their sense of right and wrong. Whether it is a child growing up with a drug-addicted parent, or one who witnesses violent abuse in their home, deep-rooted trauma can express itself in damaging criminal behaviour later in life. If we focus our courts and prisons on tackling that, we can break the cycle of crime for good.
Labour will bring in the victims’ law long denied by the Conservatives so that we can put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system. We will set up new victims’ panels that give communities in every neighbourhood a bigger say over how offenders pay back for the harm they have done and to make sure that community sentences handed down by the courts are carried out.
We will crack down on violent sexual assaults by introducing specialist rape courts across the country to tackle the Tory backlog of cases, and we will bring in a national domestic violence register to stop serious convicted abusers seeking out new victims to attack.
The damage the Tories have caused is immense, but they want to go even further by ripping up the fundamental rights and freedoms that protect British people from criminals or failure by the state. Dominic Raab has now spun back through the Tories’ revolving door of chaos to resume his former role as Justice Secretary. He wants to rip up the Human Rights Act that was used by rape survivors to force the police to prosecute the black cab rapist John Worboys, and by grieving relatives to expose the fatal errors that led to so many deaths at Hillsborough football stadium. Labour will oppose any renewed Tory attempt to shred these legal protections that prevent victims’ voices from being silenced.
The Conservatives have broken our criminal justice system and left people feeling unsafe. Labour is led by a former Director of Public Prosecutions who has devoted his life to delivering justice. Under Keir Starmer’s leadership, our party has a plan to take back control of our streets for the law-abiding majority and put victims at the heart of a revitalised criminal justice system. Our old slogan ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ is about to meet the future.
Image credit: The Old Bailey From St Paul’s, Des Blenkinsopp, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Old Bailey from Holborn viaduct, Acabashi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons