The twin pillars of a liberal society are the rule of law and respect for human rights

Ming Campbell discusses crime with a local police officer (photo: RIXphotos.com)

May 29th, 2006: Ming Campbell met local police officers and made the following speech about crime:

Today I want to talk about a priority for my leadership of the Liberal Democrats:

The fight against crime.

Crime is a liberal issue.

The twin pillars of a liberal society are the rule of law and respect for human rights.

The rule of law provides rights, protections and privileges but it imposes obligations and responsibilities too.

Being assaulted, being burgled, being robbed is a violation of the liberty and freedom of the victim.

Those who break their obligations and infringe the rights of others must face the consequences.

For four years of my professional life I prosecuted serious crimes like murder, rape and armed robbery. I have seen for myself the devastating effect on individuals that exposure to criminal behaviour can bring.

Crime is a liberal issue too because the victims of crime are often the poorest, the most vulnerable and the least influential in our society. Those who are least able to protect themselves and their property are the most at risk.

A party which is serious about social justice, cannot fail to be serious about preventing crime and enforcing the rules.

I am determined that the Liberal Democrats under my leadership will stand for equality before the law and equality of responsibility under the law.

The Prime Minister admitted last week that public confidence in the Criminal Justice system is low. He could hardly do otherwise.

A criminal justice system that was once the envy of the world is in decline.

A prison system which can’t even work out how many foreign nationals it has under lock and key, let alone deport them at the end of their sentence.

A parole system which loses track of convicted murderers and rapists.

An immigration system which does not deport people who overstay their visas.

A probation system which fails to prevent crimes by those under its supervision.

Nine years of posturing, of photo-opportunities and of so-called initiatives have done nothing to tackle these shortcomings.

This government has papered over the cracks in its failing administration by bombarding the country with new laws to create the illusion of an efficient and responsive Home Office.

Labour is bankrupt, barren and banal.

Bankrupt of ideas, barren of vision and banal of language.

Labour has put more people in prison but then let more of them out not because they deserve early release but because of overcrowding.

This is not being tough on crime. This is mismanagement and inadequacy.

Urgent times call for urgent measures:

We need to reform early release for serious offenders so that those who should be in jail stay in jail. The government’s recent changes to automatic release for serious criminals need to be reversed.

In the light of recent horrific crimes committed by offenders under probation supervision, we must now look seriously at creating a violent offenders register like the sexual offences register, for all serious violent offenders.

Penalties should go beyond custody. People like Ian Huntley should not have the vote. If you are guilty of a serious breach of the law, you forfeit the right to elect those who make the law.

Undesirable criminals from abroad who have been recommended for deportation should be transferred to serve time in their home country or deported as soon as their sentence ends. If they cannot be deported due to threats to their life, we need to introduce new measures to restrict their freedom of movement and association.

And prison must be made to work. For some it will be simply detention to protect the public. But for the illiterate and inadequate it should be an opportunity for education and rehabilitation with early release conditional on progress and achievement.

Support for victims

The first duty of the state is to protect its citizens.

But Labour is failing in its duty.

Around 11 million crimes were committed last year according to the British Crime Survey – and that’s only part of the picture.

A Home Office study in 2003 suggested that a more accurate estimate would be 65 million.

According to Home Office estimates, only three percent of crimes against individuals or their property – including burglary, robbery, vandalism – result in a caution or conviction.

That means the overwhelming majority of crime goes unpunished and the overwhelming majority of victims go overlooked.

Consideration for victims is too haphazard.

It is characterised by a lack of information and unacceptable delays in compensation.

Hundreds of victims of the July 7th bombings are still waiting for compensation.

The annual total of compensation for victims from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme has fallen since 1997. And the government plans to cut compensation for more than half of those who currently receive it.

We need comprehensive support systems for victims from the time a crime is committed until after sentence is passed.

Safer communities

In recent years, Labour has tried to measure its performance on anti-social behaviour according to how many ASBOs have been issued.

But surely the measure of an effective strategy for crime prevention is not having to issue them?

I want to be clear: I support the discriminating use of ASBOs in tackling crime and discouraging anti social behaviour.

Liberal Democrats in local government have used ASBOs to good effect.

But they are only part of the solution.

Too many orders are made in inappropriate cases. Too many are breached.

The better Liberal Democrat approach is to use ‘ASBO plus’. This means ASBOs come with a package of measures to persuade the offender to mend his or her ways, and to supervise progress.

This is just one example of how Lib Dem councils all over the UK have been quietly and effectively pioneering new ways of working with the police and the community to cut crime.

Community justice

Liberal Democrat Somerset is breaking new ground with a Community Justice Panel that deals with minor offenders.

Those arrested for minor crimes like graffiti, vandalism or being drunk and disorderly are referred to a panel of local people who draw up a package of reparation for the offender to carry out.

Vandals in Chard and Illminster now have to pay to repair their damage out of their own pockets.

The scheme gives the public an unprecedented say in the way that local problems are dealt with, as well as offering offenders a way to pay back for the harm they have done to the community.

And of the 50 individuals who have been through the scheme, only 2 have so far re-offended.

In Liberal Democrat controlled Sutton, the council has set up the Safer Sutton Partnership Service bringing together police and council community safety staff in one agency.

Look also at Liberal Democrat Liverpool, where the council has pioneered ‘alleygating’.

They’ve installed gates at the ends of the back alleys that run between rows of terraces.

It’s simple, but ingenious.

It has played a major part in reducing domestic burglary by 24% in two years.

Neighbours are watching out for one another.

Labour speaks about the role of communities in tackling crime while systematically dismantling all the tools that communities have to run their own affairs.

Our alternative is simple.

Our reforms are about giving power back to local people – Labour’s reforms are about taking it away.

Better policing

That’s why we’re opposing Labour’s enforced mergers of regional police forces.

You can’t deliver neighbourhood policing from a regional control centre.

Under Labour’s plans, local people will have even less of a say in how their streets are policed.

In place of 43 local forces with strong community ties and links to local councils, we will see a handful of regional forces accountable to Whitehall.

The government may have to cut police numbers by up to 25,000 to pay for the mergers and other reforms. The Association of Chief Police Officers warned that such a cut would ‘destroy’ neighbourhood policing in a report.

The good work of the police is increasingly going to be undermined on another front. Under new legislation, those sentenced after April 2005 will be eligible for automatic early release after 50% of their sentence. So a rapist sentenced to 15 years will only serve 7 and a half.

Sentencing

We need clarity in punishment. And that means clarity in sentencing.

High profile cases of prisoners committing crime on parole, such as the murder of Naomi Bryant, are a tragedy.

Sentencing is losing credibility. We need a coherent and transparent sentencing system and better supervision of criminals on parole.

Liberal Democrats opposed the government’s to automatically move to release serious offenders after they have served 50% of their sentence.

Early release in the final stages of a sentence is a prerequisite for successful resettlement, and for preventing further crime. But automatic early release after 50% removes the discretion of parole boards where there is a threat to the public.

Parole should not be an automatic right, parole should be earned.

Those sentenced to long terms in prison for serious criminals should expect to serve the majority of their sentence.

Better supervision

This government has overburdened the probation service, and is now threatening to sell it off.

Under Labour now, 10,000 probation offices are charged with supervising 250,000 serious offenders. One officer on average supervising 25 criminals. No wonder mistakes are made.

The Probation Service is under-resourced and demoralised.

This is a core public service – privatising it will not make it more effective or more accountable.

My proposal for a violent offenders register, similar to the sexual offenders register, merits serious consideration.

It would assist the job of keeping track of the most serious criminals and improve public safety.

Prison

The prison population stood at 61,000 when Labour came to power. By the beginning of this year it had risen to more than 75,000.

The long-term solution is not to build more prisons, but to reduce re-offending.

Current re-offending rates are the real measure of Labour’s failure.

Over half of all people sent to prison are released and convicted again within two years.

Almost three quarters of 18-21 year olds taken into detention are reconvicted in that time.

The Adult Learning Directorate last year described prison education as “dispiritingly weak”. Money spent on rehabilitation is money saved on keeping people locked up. We would reallocate resources to boost provision, and offer prisoners a choice: prove your worth or lose your chance of parole.

We should be providing job training that leads to real jobs on the outside.

Re-offending rates for former prison inmates trained and employed by National grid Transco in association with the Prince’s Trust run at only 7%. There is no reason why the same scheme, with the support of other companies, could not be extended across the country.

I touched earlier on the issue of prisoners and the right to vote.

In my view, people convicted of serious violent or sexual offences should not have the right to vote while in prison.

Such offences should include terrorism, murder, manslaughter and rape.

Liberalism

Respect for the rule of law and respect for human rights are not inconsistent. Indeed they are one and the same.

Labour’s attack on its own Human Rights Act is a diversion to mask its own failures.

The fiasco at the Home Office of foreign prisoners released without being considered for deportation has brought a major problem to light. What to do with criminals who can’t be deported because a court has ruled that they may face torture or death if they return?

Britain has a proud history of standing up to torture and the death penalty. We cannot compromise on that.

Any government which countenances the idea that Britain should be willing to deport people to face torture or death should be ashamed of itself.

There is an alternative.

Where a dangerous individual cannot be deported due to threats to their life, we should look at legislation to impose restrictions on their residence in the UK.

At the very least, a court order could be issued to restrict an individual’s movements and contacts with others. Breach of those rules would mean a return to prison.

A new Home Office

Part of the former Home Secretary’s excuse for the maladministration that led to the continuing release of prisoners without deportation was that his department was too big. He was right. And now Dr. Reid has admitted that the Home Office is not fit for purpose.

No attempt is being made to track down visa overstayers and deport them, the government doesn’t know how many foreign prisoners are in the system, and serious offenders are being released without adequate supervision.

The Home Office should be broken up. A new Ministry of Justice, with a cabinet minister, would be able to manage the courts, sentencing policy, and law reform much more effectively. Asylum decisions should be taken by an independent agency, as in Canada and other functions of the Home Office left to a separate ministry.

The way forward

The measures I have outlined today are immediate steps.

They can be taken now.

But over the long term, if we are serious about fighting crime, serious about tackling social justice, and serious about building social mobility, we need a comprehensive approach to the rebuilding and regeneration of communities as a whole.

The best weapon in the fight against crime is the vigilance of the public and their determination not to allow their communities to be scarred by crime.

But they need central and local government encouragement and support.

That is why today I am announcing two linked policy groups which will draw on best practice in Liberal Democrat controlled Councils and beyond to look at new ways to tackle crime and how community justice can work across the country.

First a taskforce on ‘Crime in the Community’ will establish how we can tie policing, probation, and justice into the community, and give local people more of a say.

Second a Commission on ‘Community Regeneration’ will look at how to enable communities to innovate, plan and create new environments for local people that minimise the opportunities for criminals and maximise the benefits for local people.

Conclusion

Today my message is simple.

Crime is a liberal issue.

Britain is an instinctively liberal country. We believe in personal freedom and individual liberty. But we also believe that everyone should play by the rules and by the same rules.

The rules need to be clearer and sharper. But most important of all, they must be effectively applied.

And that is Labour’s failure.

Since 1997 there have been 36 separate law and order Bills and over 1000 new criminal offences created.

To what effect?

We now have a record prison population and record rates of re-offending.

A Liberal Democrat criminal justice system would:

  • Uphold the rule of law.
  • Respect human rights.
  • Recognise the victim.
  • Punish the criminal.
  • Strengthen communities.

and restore public confidence.

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