The Government says it is keen to promote enterprise, but helping criminals to profit from their activities is probably not what ministers had in mind when they promised to support British business.
Take just one example from the crazy world of criminal justice: a shoplifter makes off with £200 worth of stolen goods, but is caught by the police. Rather than being taken to court, he is handed an £80 fixed penalty ticket. Having paid the fine, the shoplifter sells his booty in the local pub car park for £150, making a £70 profit. Easy work, if you can get it.
An exaggeration, you might argue. Not so, according to the Police Federation of England and Wales which yesterday hit out at the inappropriateness of fixed penalty tickets, which a spokesman said were being “dished out like confetti”. It is claimed the system, introduced initially to deal with very low-level crime such as dog fouling, is increasingly being used to deal with more serious offenders simply because police forces are under pressure to meet targets to hand out a certain number of tickets.
The trend is also worrying the Magistrates’ Association, whose members experience the effect of crime at the sharp end. A comment by its chairman to the effect that “anyone who has broken the law so as to merit a punishment should be dealt with in court” might be regarded as an unexceptional observation, but there is no doubt that enthusiasm for on-the-spot fines is allowing criminals to escape with ludicrously low levels of fines.
And when perpetrators of crime do get hauled before the courts and sent to prison, do not expect them to serve their full sentence. The Ministry of Justice has admitted that more than 31,500 criminals were freed early in the first year of an emergency scheme designed to ease overcrowding in jails. Among those allowed home early were 6,000 violent offenders, 2,900 burglars and eight sex offenders, one of whom went on to allegedly commit a rape shortly after being released.
Statistically, Britain sends more people to prison than most other Western nations – a record that successive Governments have seen nothing to be concerned about. Indeed, it is a rare Home Secretary that does not boast about getting tough with criminals.
Strip away the veneer, however, and a very different picture emerges. Is it any wonder that most people do not believe crime is falling?