Calling all cliches: Specific criminal offences

‘Almost one million burglaries have gone unsolved in the last five years,’ it was revealed last month. Put another way, fewer than one in five such offences is ever resolved. [i]

The temptation is to blame government cuts to police funding. But this isn’t a new situation. In the twelve years after Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979, spending on the police rose by 87 per cent in real terms, and there were 27,000 more police officers. Yet the Metropolitan Police were still solving just 12 per cent of crimes committed on their patch, and half the forces in the country had a clear-up rate below 20 per cent.

It was around this time, in the early 1990s, that politicians discovered a new approach to dealing with the public’s concerns over crime rates: promise to make more things illegal.

Credit for this development goes to Labour’s home affairs spokesperson Tony Blair, as he tried to outdo home secretary Michael Howard in being tough on crime. But of course there’s not much an opposition politician can actually do, and it’s hard to get media attention. So Blair began calling for the creation of a new ‘specific criminal offence’ in response to whatever story was dominating the news.

He wasn’t breaking entirely new ground, of course. There have long been knee-jerk reactions to moral panics in the media, from the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 back to the Protection of Children Act 1978 and beyond. What Blair added was to see this as a campaigning tactic.

Given those clear-up rates for existing crime, it wasn’t clear how adding more offences was going to make much difference. But then this was aimed more at front-pages than actual coppering. It sent signals, gave the impression of being tough, and that was enough.

Here’s Blair in 1993: ‘We should make racially motivated violence a specific criminal offence carrying the most severe penalties under the law.’ [ii] This was following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, when the police had proved incapable of doing their existing job without prejudice and corruption; there was no obvious logic in giving them the additional responsibility of leading the struggle against racism.

Blair’s approach got headlines, though, so Michael Howard followed suit. Though he rejected that particular idea, he did pledge ‘to make it a specific criminal offence to carry a knife or other offensive weapons on school premises’. [iii] And he promised: ‘A tough new law which will make stalking a specific criminal offence.’ [iv]

As leader of the opposition, Blair continued to fight the good fight, calling for more and more things to be criminalised. When in need of attention, he’d propose that ‘a new criminal offence will be created to catch solitary thugs who shout racist taunts [at football matches]’, [v] or he’d suggest ‘a new criminal offence of unneighbourly behaviour’. [vi]

At some point he apparently came to believe what he was saying and, when elected, he put this approach to lawlessness into practice. In its first term, the Blair government created new criminal offences at a rate of around two per week; then the pace quickened, and by 2006 the average had risen to a new offence for every single day in office.

Even so, it wasn’t immediately apparent that the country felt a safer place as a result. In a 2006 Ipsos-Mori survey, only 25 per cent of people said they had confidence in the government ‘cracking down on crime and violence’. And that distrust may have been justified: since Labour’s election victory in 1997, homicides had risen by 20 per cent and the number of crimes involving firearms by 60 per cent.

As with so many other things, David Cameron followed Blair’s lead, both in opposition and government. As prime minister, he showed that he cared about our concerns:

  • ‘David Cameron announced that stalking is to become a specific criminal offence’ [vii]
  • ‘he ordered the Home Office to look into whether forcing someone to marry should be made a specific criminal offence’ [viii]
  • ‘David Cameron may make domestic abuse a specific criminal offence’ [ix]

Meanwhile, Labour hadn’t changed tack, so that defence spokesperson Jim Murphy argued for it to be ‘a specific criminal offence to attack a member of the British Armed Forces,’ [x] and Ed Miliband wanted to ‘make it a specific criminal offence for firms to exploit workers’. [xi] Not to be outdone, the Liberal Democrats were promising ‘to make homophobic chanting at football grounds a specific criminal offence’.[xii]

The problem with this pursuit of new crimes is that while some of the proposals have been good and sensible, and while the law obviously needs to adjust to technological and social changes, the appetite for specific criminal offences seems to be insatiable. These are some as-yet unrealised demands from the last 18 months or so:

‘Campaigners are calling for public sexual harassment to be made a specific criminal offence.’ [xiii]

‘Threatening to share sexual images of others should be made a specific criminal offence, campaigners have urged.’ [xiv]

‘In my opinion, the proposed Online Harms Bill does not go far enough in making online abuse a specific online offence.’ – Katie Price [xv]

‘Bobby [Norris] launched his End The Trend 2 Troll campaign to make online homophobia a specific criminal offence after being the victim of online abuse himself.’ [xvi]

‘Assaulting shopworkers should be a specific criminal offence.’ – Philip Davies MP [xvii]

‘Somerset County Council … supports a petition to Parliament to make it a specific criminal offence to assault highway workers.’ [xviii]

‘Support was growing for a law to make vandalism of war memorials a specific criminal offence.’ [xix]

‘Labour MP Toby Perkins … called for legislation to make it a specific criminal offence to demand cash to vacate an unauthorised encampment.’ [xx]

‘I’ve been calling on the government to make dog theft a specific criminal offence.’ – Tim Farron MP [xxi]

‘A campaign for Finn’s Law … is driving a new Bill which aims to make attacking a service animal a specific criminal offence.’ [xxii]

‘…a petition to make the feeding of livestock by members of the public a specific criminal offence…’ [xxiii]

‘[Jim Allister] has proposed a Bill which … would also create a specific criminal offence for a minister or special adviser to communicate confidential government information to a third party.’ [xxiv]

It all feels so pointless, government by gesture. If the police can’t solve burglaries – a task they’ve had nearly 200 years to get the hang of – it’s hard to see how they’re going to cope with the increased workload of endless new crimes. But maybe here’s something they can sink their teeth into, taken from the Daily Mirror a few weeks back:

‘Lying by politicians should be made a specific criminal offence, say voters. Exclusive: Electors overwhelmingly backed creating a new crime of politicians telling porkies.’ [xxv]

[i] Telegraph website 2 May 2021

[ii] Times 1 October 1993

[iii] Lancashire County Publications 14 May 1996

[iv] Lancashire County Publications 8 July 1996

[v] News of the World 29 March 1998

[vi] Independent on Sunday 18 June 1995

[vii] UK Government News 19 April 2012

[viii] Express 7 June 2012

[ix] International Business Times 26 July 2014

[x] Daily Telegraph 26 September 2013

[xi] Guardian 23 October 2014

[xii] Independent 24 April 2015

[xiii] Daily Express 13 March 2021

[xiv] Independent 7 July 2020

[xv] Independent 17 March 2021

[xvi] Echo (Basildon) 4 November 2019

[xvii] Bradford Telegraph and Argus 19 March 2021

[xviii] Bridgwater Mercury 11 November 2020

[xix] Times 15 June 2020

[xx] Lancashire Telegraph 24 May 2019

[xxi] Politics Home 29 April 2021

[xxii] Comet 14 March 2019

[xxiii] Westmoreland Gazette 11 February 2021

[xxiv] Press Association 20 January 2020

[xxv] Daily Mirror 5 April 2021

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