Rishi Sunak Labour advert: what has Keir Starmer said about Twitter child sex offenders post - row explained

The party’s Rishi Sunak poster, which claims the Prime Minister believes child sex abusers should not go to prison, has been criticised by politicians from all parties

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Sir Keir Starmer has refused to apologise for a Labour attack advert that claimed Rishi Sunak does not want child sex abusers to go to prison.

Writing in the Daily Mail on Monday (10 April), the Leader of the Opposition sought to justify his party’s controversial campaign poster. Starmer claimed the Tories are “insulated” from the impacts of crime, while he knew “exactly who suffers when government goes soft on crime”.

Labour’s advert has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum. Former Home Secretary David Blunkett described it as “personal abuse” and accused his party of taking politics into the “gutter”. Labour frontbenchers, including shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell, have refused to explicitly back the poster. Meanwhile, Conservative sources have suggested they will be drawing attention to Starmer’s record as Director of Public Prosecutions.

Further attack ads are expected from Labour this week, with the focus set to shift to the Conservative Party’s governance of the UK economy. It comes as campaigning ratchets up ahead of the local elections in England on 4 May.

What does the Labour attack ad say?

Published on Twitter on Thursday (6 April), Labour’s attack ad has a picture of Rishi Sunak and reads: “Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t.” Below the PM’s signature, a separate block of text contains Labour’s analysis of Ministry of Justice data covering the years between 2010 and 2022. It says: “4,500 adults convicted of sexually assaulting children under-16 served no prison time”.

The BBC has found the claim is accurate, with around 4,500 adults being convicted of sexual assault of or sexual activity with children in England and Wales over this period, but receiving a community sentence or a suspended sentence instead of being sent to prison. The advert remains live on Labour’s Twitter page.

What has Keir Starmer said about Labour ad?

In a Daily Mail column, Sir Keir has said he makes “absolutely zero apologies” for the attack advert released by his party.

While admitting it was “blunt”, Starmer wrote: “I stand by every word Labour has said on the subject, no matter how squeamish it might make some feel. When 4,500 child abusers avoid prison, people don’t want more excuses from politicians – they want answers.” He added that he would refuse “to just stand by or avoid calling this what it is”.

He went on to criticise a “path of decline” that he said the economy, NHS and criminal justice system have been placed on in the last decade under the Conservatives. He argued that rapists, burglars and thieves are not being prosecuted, while fly-tippers are turning areas into “junk yards”.

“Rishi Sunak and successive Tory governments have let criminals get away with it because they don’t get it,” he wrote. “They have never lived in those neighbourhoods, they don’t understand people’s lives, they have never walked in those shoes. I have.”

Describing Labour as the “party of law and order”, he recommitted to boosting police funding, dealing with the backlog in UK courts, halving violence against women and girls, and implementing a “zero tolerance” approach to criminals.

What has the reaction been?

Starmer’s comments come after several days of criticism of Labour’s campaign poster. While most of the criticism centres on the personal nature of the attack, with the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak clearly singled out, it has also been pointed out that there are some factual inaccuracies implied by the advert.

For one, judges and magistrates - not politicians - are responsible for handing out sentences. Also, Sunak did not enter Parliament until 2015, with some arguing he cannot be held responsible for any Tory failures before this time.

Sir Keir Starmer has been heavily criticised for Labour’s attack ad (image: Getty Images)Sir Keir Starmer has been heavily criticised for Labour’s attack ad (image: Getty Images)
Sir Keir Starmer has been heavily criticised for Labour’s attack ad (image: Getty Images)

But shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry suggested on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday (10 April) that she believed the ad’s criticism of Sunak is “based on clear and objective facts”.

She also argued Sunak was in a position to sort out the issues with the UK’s criminal justice system. She said when he became PM in October 2022, “what he needed to do was to seriously address the backlog problem in the courts” which makes it “quite difficult to get cases … all the way to court”, as well as tackling “unduly lenient sentences” and overcrowding in prisons.

Responding to Starmer and his allies doubling down on the attack ad, former Labour shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said: “Nobody in Labour is squeamish about talking about crime and the failure of Conservative governments to ensure people’s safety but, if it’s to be a serious debate, personal smears and Daily Mail style distortions shouldn’t distract from stating the hard facts.”

Conservative peer Baroness Sayeeda Warsi has also criticised the campaign, saying the Labour advert marked the latest “appalling fight into the gutter” with “dog whistle [being] met by dog whistle” in frontline politics. She referred to Suella Braverman’s comments from early April where the Home Secretary claimed Labour-run local authority areas were failing to stop child grooming gangs over fear they would be deemed “racist”.

Despite Baroness Warsi’s pleas for the UK’s leading parties to “stop playing politics” with victims, it appears her party is set to launch fresh attacks on Keir Starmer’s record as Director for Public Prosecutions (DPP). The Tories drew criticism during Boris Johnson’s time as PM for airing a conspiracy theory that Starmer had failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile while in the role.

A Conservative source quoted by the BBC claimed Sir Keir had failed to prosecute some of the “worst people in Britain” during his tenure as DPP, and implied the party was just getting started on attacking his record. Starmer served in the post between 2008 and 2013.