by Emma Hardy MP
As your MP, I wanted to explain why I have voted against the Crime Bill at Second Reading.
A bill can contain a lot of different parts and it is not possible for MPs to pick and choose the bits they like and just vote for those. So it is important for me to begin by saying that there is a lot in this Bill that I support. Some of the best parts come from campaigns by Labour MPs. Stephanie Peacock has campaigned for years on tougher sentences for dangerous driving. Chris Bryant and Holly Lynch have been working for years on ‘Protect the protectors,’ which is designed to strengthen protection for our Emergency Service workers and police officers and the prosecution of those who attack them. John Spellar has worked on improving the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) scheme. Sarah Champion on greater protections against sexual abuse by people in positions of trust. All are parts of the Bill I would gladly vote for, if we were allowed to pick and choose. At Second Reading we cannot add Amendments. These add to or change parts of the Bill, so my choice is to take it or leave it.
So, what is it that has led to me voting against the Bill as a whole?
This is a HUGE piece of legislation that contains really big changes that will affect the lives of all of us. It is being pushed through in just two days. I believe fundamental changes to police powers should only take place after a conversation with the general public and wider consultation with experts to make sure that there are no unintended consequences. This hasn’t happened and the government are rushing it through so Ministers can avoid answering the awkward questions.
There’s so much missing
Because it is rushed, because this government haven’t consulted widely, there is much that is needed but missing from this Bill. For example, for some time I have been supporting the work of USDAW in asking for protection in law for retail staff. Only last September I raised directly with the Lord Chancellor the increased abuse shop workers were facing during the pandemic.
My own constituents have told me they have been spat at, sworn at, had things thrown at them and knives pulled. Many have developed anxiety and depression as a result. It’s unacceptable. The Lord Chancellor replied to me that “It is incumbent on all of us to make sure that sentencing guidelines properly reflect the role that they play…if there is more that we can do to draw the courts’ attention to the particular importance of shopworkers, we should do so.” Yet six months later there is nothing in this Bill for them.
The biggest thing missing in the 300 pages of this Bill is the word “women.” Every day women are harassed on the street. If the government was serious about tackling the culture of violence towards women, it could start by making street harassment a crime. But this Bill doesn’t. And it doesn’t increase minimum sentences for rapists and stalkers. And it doesn’t seek to fast-track rape or serious sexual assault cases. There is nothing to increase protection for women in any way proposed in this Bill.
It’s got the wrong priorities
What it does propose a 10 year maximum sentence for damaging a statue, an issue that would have been on no-one’s mind a year ago, but this government see it as more deserving of their time and support than, for example, protecting half the population as they go about their business on the nation’s streets.
It also ignores the truth that ‘Justice delayed is Justice denied’ and buries its head in the sand over the fact that the Crown Court backlog is now at an all-time record high of more than 56,000 cases. Victims of crime are being asked to wait up to four years to get to court.
In that time witnesses memories fade, the burdens on victims and the relatives of victims goes unrelieved, and many victims and witnesses simply give up entirely – forfeiting the justice they deserve for the need to get on with the rest of their life. Covid has brought things to crisis but this started over ten years ago with the austerity cuts.
Since 2010 over half of magistrates courts in England and Wales have been axed. In the same period eight Crown Court centres have been closed and the remainder now sit for 27,000 fewer days than in 2016.
The promise of increased sentences means nothing if the perpetrators are never convicted.
This Bill does nothing to address the fact criminals are literally getting away with it due to successive cuts to our justice system.
I support Free Speech
Finally, there are aspects to the Bill I find deeply worrying for the future of our democracy – particularly Clauses 54 to 60. I cannot comprehend how, in February, the government can claim they are so concerned about free speech that they will introduce duties on universities “to stamp out unlawful ‘silencing’ on campuses” and then, in March, introduce a Bill that effectively removes the right to protest. Freedom to protest is a key part of free speech and it is a key part of some of the most important episodes of British history. The government is starting to look as if it supports only the “right kind” of free speech. Freedom for newspaper columnists and outspoken TV presenters whose voices get heard by virtue of their position, but jail for the members of the public whose only platform is organised peaceful protest.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t agree with every protest I see. And yes, some are really annoying, and some are really noisy. The coach industry’s noisy, inconvenient “honk for hope” protest outside Parliament brought the issue to my attention and I am proud of the work I have done since in their support.
However, there are many other protests outside Parliament that are just as noisy and just as annoying whose aims I do not agree with but I cannot, I will not, accept that their protest should be criminalised as this Bill proposes.
There have been people protesting outside Parliament for centuries – what makes this government believe they no longer have to listen to the people they represent? That people bringing their grievances to Parliament are, in fact, criminals? It is crucial that everyone understands that when the people you disagree with lose the right to protest, everyone loses it. You can’t pick and choose. I will never support the silencing of the British people in this manner.
So, what happens next?
Labour are not in government and the Conservatives have the majority to push this Bill through Parliament regardless of my vote against. The Bill will then be heard in the Lords. Then it comes back to Parliament for something called ‘Committee Stage’ and this is where Labour will be adding amendments to try and improve the Bill. If you share my concerns, then now is the time to speak out.