Police accuse UK ministers of using officers as ‘public relations pawns’

UK crime updates

A group representing police officers attacked the UK government on Tuesday for using its members as “public relations pawns”, while the prime minister faced criticism for proposing that some offenders be put in “chain gangs”.

The backlash came after Boris Johnson and home secretary Priti Patel visited Surrey Police to publicise a package of contentious anti-crime measures.

Mel Warnes, chair of Surrey Police Federation, criticised the visit in light of the announcement last week that police officers would be among groups hit by the pay freeze for public-sector workers.

“The government has given us meaningless platitudes and empty words for too long and [with] . . . nothing in return,” said Warnes. “Our colleagues should not be used as public relations pawns by politicians.”

“Hard-working Surrey police officers” should not be used to show that everything was “rosy with the government”, she added.

The Beating Crime Plan features a range of measures, including proposals for people convicted of burglary and theft to wear position-monitoring tags to ensure they are not reoffending. Another would oblige those convicted of drinking-related offences to wear tags monitoring their sweat for alcohol.

However, attention on Tuesday focused on an idea to increase the visibility of people undertaking unpaid community work as punishment. Johnson referred to such initiatives, which successive governments have stepped up, as “chain gangs”.

“If you are guilty of antisocial behaviour and you are sentenced to unpaid work, as many people are, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be out there in one of those fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs visibly paying your debt to society,” said Johnson. “So you are going to be seeing more of that as well.”

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Liberty, the civil liberties group, criticised the remarks.

“Talk of chain gangs shows this plan has nothing to do with making communities safer,” Liberty wrote on its Twitter account. “It’s designed to create more stigma and division — a short-term stunt that will cause long-term generational harm.”

The criticism comes after the officers’ national body, the Police Federation of England and Wales, last week announced it no longer had confidence in the home secretary.

John Apter, federation chair, on Tuesday wrote to the prime minister and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, to say the pay announcement had been merely the “final straw” in a series of problems that had led the federation to lose confidence in the government.

“Police officers are sick of gimmicks, sick of underfunding, sick of mixed messaging putting police at risk, sick of government contempt for police,” Apter wrote. “It’s time for a total reset of police-government relations.”

Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland will on Wednesday set out plans to tackle the “drivers of crime”. The measures will offer “temporary, basic accommodation”, expected to be hostels, to prison-leavers who would otherwise be homeless.

He also promised to hold a summit in October with employers to encourage them to take on those just out of prison who were “determined to leave crime behind”.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, a criminal justice pressure group, said temporary hostel places would not resolve prisoners’ long-term housing problems.

While the package will include funding to help ex-offenders find long-term accommodation, Crook pointed out that ministers were planning to offer only £13m, to be split between more than 140 councils in England and Wales.

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“That’s not going to solve anybody’s problems,” she said.

She added that previous governments had also held summits to encourage employers to hire ex-prisoners, without success. Initiatives were likely to fail, she said, as long as many prisoners were spending 23 hours a day locked in their cells — providing a poor preparation for working life.

Johnson and his ministers have embarked on a week of announcements of anti-crime measures following a decline in their party’s opinion poll lead.

The Conservatives have long been regarded as more trustworthy than the opposition Labour on fighting crime. However, critics say many of the announcements so far are thin or repeats of previously tried measures.

Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s shadow home secretary, called them “rehashed policies” that would not make streets safer. “The Conservatives are all talk and no action when it comes to tackling crime,” he said.



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