TOUGH on crime, tough on the causes of crime was the old Blairite mantra — one that typically tried to ride two horses.
The proposition was that New Labour was progressive, trying to root out the social evils that lead to offending, but wasn’t soft on criminals.
In Scotland, Alex Salmond attempted to re-position the Nationalists as the party of law and order, aiming (but failing) to steal the Tories’ clothing.
Mind you, it wasn’t easy with a justice minister, Kenny MacAskill, who said the idea that policing was about protecting folk from bad guys was an ‘anachronism’.
Since then, the SNP has tried to pull off an audacious con trick by telling us all the time that Scotland is getting safer, and that it’s all down to, who else, the SNP.
There’s something a bit Blairite about its approach — talking tough while pursuing policies that always seem to prioritise the needs of criminals over those of their victims.
But look at the net result of all of this rhetorical manoeuvring: rape reports are up by more than a third in a year, sex crime is at a six-year high, and violent crimes have increased by nearly 13 per cent.
Detection rates — measuring the proportion of cases where police were able to send a report to prosecutors — fell for rape and indeed for violence.
Only about 56 per cent of alleged rapes are ‘cleared up’ and for violence the detection rate fell from 76 per cent to 67 per cent.
So there are more of those bad guys around, or at least alleged bad guys, but fewer of them are being brought to justice, and a lot of crime, as much as 60 per cent according to the government’s own research, isn’t reported to police anyway.
If you try to get through to police on the ‘non-emergency’ phoneline, 101, you might have to hang around for an hour, and many just give up — something the chief constable voiced his ‘regret’ about the other day.
Former Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf, now moved to the health brief, was fond of saying that most people don’t ‘experience’ crime.
But how accurate was that assessment, given that so much crime doesn’t even get officially recorded?
The justice department is under new management, but Keith Brown, Mr Yousaf’s successor, is about as low-profile as it gets.
He made a couple of cryptic references to the need for ‘radical’ reform then disappeared off the radar, and now his silence verges on the monastic.
It’s not as if there isn’t anything to talk about — you’d think an explosion in sex crime might be worth a mention, and the Rangers fiasco is the biggest crisis to hit the justice system in years, possibly ever.
Message discipline has kicked in — the official narrative is that crime isn’t much of a problem, but once you accept that hypothesis, there are bound to be many unpalatable consequences.
As we reveal today, prosecutors are privately concerned that the demand for criminal justice services is unlikely to fall ‘significantly’ over the next five to ten years.
With unusual candour, they say (in the minutes of a Crown Office executive board meeting) that there’s ‘absolutely no sign’ of a sustained reduction in serious crime.
The reasoning for these admissions is clear: they don’t want any fiscal belt-tightening to slash their headcount because they expect to be kept busy for years to come.
How does that square with the blind optimism (or wilful deception) from the top of government that the tide is turning against criminals?
It doesn’t, of course, and meanwhile Covid has provided convenient cover for an escalation of the soft-touch strategies that have defined the last 14 years of SNP rule.
We reported yesterday that criminals ordered to carry out unpaid community work have had almost 30 years’ worth of their sentences written off.
Some 262,153 hours of Community Payback Orders (CPOs) have been wiped out following the decision by ministers to slash the ‘unpaid work’ element.
Bear in mind that these orders were often a sham in the first place — in some cases they’ve involved nothing more arduous than a spot of knitting.
Covid safety was cited as the reason for this extraordinary largesse, and it was also the motivation for letting out hundreds of prisoners during the first lockdown.
The fact that many of them went on to commit an appalling catalogue of crimes is one that ministers would prefer not to talk about, particularly Mr Yousaf, who authorised the mass early release.
They might well argue that hindsight is a wonderful thing — but was it really so tricky to predict that freeing a large number of criminals would lead to a surge in reoffending?
The bedrock of the SNP’s justice policy is the assertion that jail isn’t a great place for crooks, as rehabilitation is patchy or non-existent.
But there’s never been any serious attempt at remedying that deficiency, so that prisons were an effective deterrent, and worked harder to get their occupants off drugs.
The failure of prisons was the excuse for ramping up community sentencing — but as we know it’s a disaster.
Yet together with electronic tagging it’s been used as a way of ‘diverting’ criminals from prisons, which in any event increasingly resemble holiday camps, with state-of-the-art gyms, and in one notorious example at an open jail, fly-fishing sessions for inmates.
Jail as a recreational opportunity is the kind of twisted concept beloved of the misguided idealists in senior civil service jobs, as is the notion of ‘trauma-informed policing’.
This is the idea that police should be nicer to criminals, and make sure they don’t upset them too much, otherwise they might commit more crime.
Calum Steele of the Scottish Police Federation, whose members have to pretend to think this is fantastically innovative, recently pointed out that Scotland’s shameful drug death rate was partly fuelled by soft-touch justice.
In the days when drug-dealers were carted off to jail, there weren’t as many addicts dying from overdoses.
Trauma-informed policing frowns on knocking down the doors to dealers’ homes in dawn raids — unless it’s really necessary.
Well, we wouldn’t want to inconvenience gangsters who have grown rich beyond their wildest dreams as drug deaths soar to unprecedented levels.
It’s no surprise that a Scottish Government quango has admitted there is a ‘clear and evolving problem’ with Serious and Organised Crime groups being handed lucrative public sector contracts.
In 2018, it emerged that scores of gangsters were freed early wearing electronic tags under a scheme known as Home Detention Curfew — or more accurately ‘armchair custody’.
That sends a stark signal to criminal networks — and there are nearly 100 of them in Scotland: they can carry on more or less as normal, without having to worry about their members being locked up for too long.
Ministers can serve up all the half-baked soundbites they want, but the truth couldn’t be clearer: in soft-touch Scotland, the spin continues — while crime is spiralling out of control.
- This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on August 31,2021.
- Follow me on Twitter: @GrahamGGrant