Taking crime seriously

AngelaSmith.jpgAngela Smith on our concerns with, and challenges to the Coalition’s latest Home Office Bill

Laws are only as good as their enforcement. So as Peers start consideration today of the Serious Crime Bill we will not only be looking at the adequacy and appropriateness of the government’s proposals but also considering the determination and resources needed to implement them. Nothing brings a law into disrepute more quickly than erratic or non-enforcement.

The lack of prosecutions on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a serious problem. The new Bill brings in measures seeking to address this; and when in London alone 4000 women and girls have been treated for FGM since 2009, it is clear that the law and its enforcement needs strengthening.

A large part of the Bill deals with organised and serious crime and its proceeds, where there are lessons to be learned from the past. In the sleazy corrupt criminal prohibition era, Al Capone and his crime empire were responsible not just for bootlegging but prostitution, smuggling, murder and dirty politics. Voters and politicians alike were threatened, bought and feared for their lives. Despite the best efforts of Elliot Ness and his Untouchables, Capone was never brought to justice for his worst crimes; but for tax evasion, for which he went to prison while his empire was dismantled.  

The activities of serious and organised crime gangs today are more modern but equally evil and exploit the weak, poor and vulnerable. Drug trafficking, people trafficking for slavery and prostitution, organised illegal immigration, extreme and violent pornography – the human misery caused by such gangs is almost limitless and defies our imagination.

When tackling all of this through confiscating their ill-gotten gains, it is clear that the law is not working well. Criminals get to keep £99.74 in every £100 and the investigation, prosecution and enforcement costs 76p in every pound collected. Moreover, the amounts collected have fallen, with Restraint Orders – which freeze assets so they can’t be hidden abroad – falling by 27% since 2010.

Many criminal gangs include corrupt and complicit professionals for their expertise and skills. Obviously, we will want to ensure that those who are genuinely and innocently caught up in illegal activity are protected. But the law should be able to reach all of those involved in and benefitting from such criminal activity, even if their specific role may appear legitimate.

The House of Lords has in the past year seen several debates on the Coalition’s flawed policy of opting out of all EU Police and Criminal Justice measures without a guarantee of opting back in again. Whether we’re examining laws on drugs, cyber-crime or trafficking, international and European-wide co-operation is absolutely essential. In some areas at least, Ministers now recognise that such crimes know no boundaries and new measures on cyber-crime recognise that extra territorial jurisdiction is essential.  

The measures on tackling the evil of drug crime seem woefully inadequate. We are all well aware of the impact of drugs and the criminal industry behind their sale. The government’s proposals are limited. We agree with measures to address ‘cutting agents’. Adulterating a hard drug, such as cocaine, with a significantly cheaper compound, increases profit but also dangers for the drug user. Why however, are there no measures to tackle ‘legal highs’?  So many young people are conned into believing something is safe as the law hasn’t caught up with that particular compound. Some have paid with their lives.

We must do whatever we can to protect children and young people from harm – of any kind. Alongside measures to better address on-line abuse, the Bill seeks to make it explicit that under the Children and Young Persons Act of 1933 emotional cruelty that is likely to cause psychological harm is an offence. Earlier this year, Labour was successful in persuading the government to support new measures to help the police and local authorities tackle child grooming. We now have another opportunity to strengthen the law. 

Taken in the round, the challenge of this Bill is to match effective legislation to effective enforcement. Our approach will be to do what we can to ensure that the Bill is robust on both.

Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is a Shadow Home Office Minister in the Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon

Published 16th June 2014

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