Boris Johnson stands accused of making “political capital out of tragedy” for his “crass” use of the London Bridge terror attack to push for tougher sentences.
The prime minister faces claims he has ignored pleas from victim Jack Merritt’s father, who on Saturday paid tribute to his “beautiful, talented boy” and asked politicians not to use the “terrible, isolated incident” to justify more “draconian” measures.
Cambridge graduate Jack, 25, was fatally stabbed by convicted terrorist Usman Khan while working as a co-coordinator for a conference on prisoner rehabilitation hosted by the Learning Together scheme at Fishmongers’ Hall near London Bridge. Cambridge student Saskia Jones, 23, was also killed.
David Merritt said his son died “doing what he loved”, but appealed for his death not to be used to justify introducing “even more draconian sentences” on offenders.
A family statement said: “We know Jack would not want this terrible, isolated incident to be used as a pretext by the government for introducing even more draconian sentences on prisoners, or for detaining people in prison for longer than necessary.”
By that time, the prime minister had already written an article setting out a new tougher stance in The Mail on Sunday newspaper, under the headline: “Give me a majority and I’ll keep you safe from terror”. Britain goes to the polls in less than two weeks.
David Merritt accused the Mail of using he son’s death to promote “vile propaganda”.
Speaking during the ITV debate on Sunday night, Labour shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon laid into the Tory leader, saying: “I’m uncomfortable with the way the discussion from the Conservatives moved straight from a tragedy to reheating prepackaged political lines, smearing the Labour Party.”
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon also criticised the swift move.
She said: “I don’t think we do any service to victims or to the wider public to rush to those conclusions, or to have knee-jerk reactions, and I frankly don’t think Boris Johnson has done any service to victims in the crass way he has sought to politicise this issue during an election campaign.”
Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson, meanwhile, called for the PM to listen to Jack’s family.
She said: “I think we also need to listen very carefully to the loved ones, because there are families who are grieving and mourning, and the father of Jack Merritt, I think, was very powerful in what he said, which was that his son wouldn’t have wanted this to be used as a pretence for some kind of a draconian change in the law, and I think we need to listen to those loved ones too.”
On Sunday morning, Johnson used his appearance on BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show to announce the Ministry of Justice is to review the licence conditions of every convicted terrorist released from prison, which the prime minister said is “probably about 74” people.
Johnson told Andrew Marr that the other individuals were now “being properly invigilated to make sure there is no threat” and called the convicted terrorist’s release from prison “repulsive”.
When the BBC faced criticism for giving Johnson the platform to “make political gain from people’s death in a terror incident”, Jack Merritt’s father David replied: “Thank you.”
In the Mail column and on The Marr Show, Johnson had sought to blame Labour for the early release of Khan. On TV, he claimed Khan was on the streets because of a past Labour “leftie government”, despite the Conservatives being in power and presiding over the Ministry of Justice for almost a decade.
He said: “His release was necessary under the law because of the automatic early release scheme under which he was sentenced, that was the reality, and that was brought in by Labour with the support of Jeremy Corbyn and the rest of the Labour Party.”
Asked why this has not happened under the last years of Conservative government, he added: “I’m a new prime minister, we take a different approach.”
Johnson was criticised for confusing Labour’s automatic early release with the end of indeterminate sentences introduced by the Tory-led coalition.
Khan was handed imprisonment for public protection (IPP) in 2012.
This meant he could be be held in prison indefinitely, with no minimum term, until a parole board agreed he was no longer a threat to the public.
IPPs, introduced by Labour, were scrapped by the Coalition in 2012, though not retrospectively. However, Khan appealed and in 2013, the court of appeal revised Khan’s sentence to a term of 16 years, and told him he would have to spend a minimum of eight years behind bars.
Separately, the early release scheme brought in by Labour in 2008 allows a parole board to consider a prisoner for release once they have served a portion of their sentence.
But the Parole Board put out a statement which suggested there had been an error in interpreting Khan’s sentence or the law, and saying its staff had no involvement in Khan’s release.
In a series of messages responding over the weekend to the political furore around the attack, David Merritt wrote on Twitter that his son was “a beautiful spirit who always took the side of the underdog”.
“We don’t need knee-jerk reactions,” he added.
“It’s not lenient policies that are to blame, it’s the destruction of the probation service that is supposed to monitor and supervise prisoners after release, & rehabilitation services.
“Since 2010 these service(s) have been cut to the bone. We are all less safe as a result.”
Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said convicted terrorists should “not necessarily” serve their full prison sentence while shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti claimed it was “unedifying” to talk about “throwing away the keys”.
The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, criticised the two main parties for seeking to use the incident as a “political football”.
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Ed Davey told Sky’s Sophy Ridge: “We shouldn’t be making in the middle of our election political capital out of a tragedy and he’s doing that and he’s doing that in a way which is misleading people about what the law actually says.”