Creating new crimes: the trivialisation of legislation?

Saturday 13 October, 14:0015:30, Cinema 3Law and Order

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Despite the sclerosis that Brexit has allegedly created in getting on with the job of government, there seems to be no slowdown in the creation of new laws to tackle perceived social ills. For example, there are proposed new laws to ban or regulate smacking, nuisance calls, corrosive substances, drones and laser pointers. Michael Gove has been particularly prolific at Defra, with the latest legislative innovations being crackdowns on electric-shock training collars for dogs and ‘cruel’ puppy farms.

Another example is the review which is to take place into whether misogynistic conduct should be treated as a hate crime, following Labour MP Stella Creasy’s call to change the law. The review was itself announced during a debate on the Voyeurism Bill, which proposed to criminalise ‘upskirting’ – the taking of unsolicited pictures under someone’s clothing. Nor it it just in Westminster that this expansion of legal controls is taking place. Councils’ use of public spaces protection orders (PSPOs) is making previously legal, if sometimes anti-social, behaviour subject to criminal proceedings, like rough sleeping, busking and dog-walking in parks.

Yet this proliferation of new offences sits alongside recent figures showing that more traditional crimes are being policed less than ever. Police forces are closing investigations without identifying a suspect in 80 per cent of household burglaries, 75 per cent of reported vehicle thefts and more than 50 per cent of shoplifting cases. The Guardian reports that the Metropolitan Police are more frequently dropping investigations into serious crimes such as sexual offences, violent attacks and arson within hours of them being reported. The UK’s largest force ‘screened out’ 34,164 crimes on the day they were reported in 2017, compared to 13,019 the year before, blaming increased demand and reduced officer numbers.

But the failure of the authorities to investigate serious crimes properly – like the activities of rape gangs in the north of England – while devoting resources to scouring Twitter for offensive words, leafleting about ‘hate crimes’ and dispersing and arresting the homeless, suggests that law enforcement has become politicised. As the old refrain goes, shouldn’t the police be out there catching real criminals? Is the law being misused?

Tellingly, Ms Creasy praised the government’s misogyny law review as sending a hugely positive signal: ‘We have just sent a message to every young woman in this country that we are on their side.’ But is ‘sending a message’ really the proper role for legislation? And what are the consequences? For example, in England and Wales, 71 per cent of prison inmates are serving time for non-violent offences, with 47 per cent of prisoners serving sentences of less than six months. Will new laws mean even more people being incarcerated for relatively trivial crimes?

What is the proper role of the law today? Are we creating too many new laws? With limited police resources, are such laws even enforceable? Are we devoting too many resources to politically fashionable laws at the expense of tackling traditional crime – and traditional freedoms?