A Labour shadow minister has refused to say whether she stands by a claim in a party attack advert which said Rishi Sunak did not think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison.
Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell repeatedly refused to endorse the ad.
The advert, posted on Thursday, has attracted cross-party criticism.
Despite the backlash, Labour tweeted a second advert on Friday – accusing Mr Sunak of being soft on gun crime.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Ms Powell said she stood by Labour’s campaign, saying it highlighted apparent failings in the justice system.
Next to a photo and mock signature of the prime minister, the ad says: “Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t.”
The caption accompanying the campaign graphic says: “Labour is the party of law and order.”
Ms Powell said: “I stand by what this tweet and this campaign is trying to highlight.
“The graphic itself, obviously, is a skit based on his own graphics that he extensively uses,” she added, in an at times fiery exchange with BBC Breakfast’s Naga Munchetty.
“I can see it’s not to everybody’s taste and some people won’t like it.”
A number of high-profile politicians have condemned the ad – including Labour’s former deputy leader John McDonnell who urged the party to withdraw the tweet.
Former Conservative cabinet minister Rory Stewart – who served as justice minister under Theresa May’s premiership – was among those criticising the tweet, calling for “policy not polarisation”.
He said: “Is someone going to point out that this is about laws, sentencing guidelines and judicial practices? That were not and would not be different under Labour? Or talk about how even tougher sentences have overcrowded prisons?”
Senior Tory MP Tobias Ellwood described the ad as “appalling” and claimed it threatened to undermine the democratic process, adding: “We should be better than this. I’ve called it out on my own side for stooping low and do so again now.”
Scottish National Party MP John Nicolson said the post was “nauseating” and that it “cheapened and debased” politics.
We asked Labour how it came up with the figure – featured in the ad – of 4,500 adults “convicted of sexually assaulting children under 16” who served no prison time under the Conservatives.
It pointed us to Ministry of Justice statistics for England and Wales from 2010 to 2022.
If you look at adults – those over 18 – then you do get to that figure of people who were convicted but received a community sentence or a suspended sentence, rather than being sent to prison.
It’s worth noting the figure covers both sexual assault of a child and sexual activity with a child – Labour’s ad says the figure relates to sexual assault only, though its press release does mention both categories.
Sentencing Guidelines for courts in England and Wales do also allow for community sentences – as an alternative to prison – in cases of sexual activity with a child over 13.
The guidelines say: “Community orders can fulfil all of the purposes of sentencing. In particular, they can have the effect of restricting the offender’s liberty while providing punishment in the community [and] rehabilitation for the offender”.
Hours after Ms Powell said she stood by the ad, Labour issued the second advert attacking Mr Sunak with a similar theme.
The ad asked: “Do you think an adult convicted of possessing a gun with intent to harm should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t.”
It said 937 adults had been convicted of possession of a firearm with intent to harm but served no prison time, citing Ministry of Justice data.
Crime is traditionally safer ground for the Conservatives, but Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer believes the issue can be a vote winner for his party.
Although it is not something councils are directly responsible for, crime has become a key talking point in the run-up to the local elections next month.
In the cut-and-thrust of campaigns, parties often make spurious claims about their opponents.
However, Sir Keir has been careful to cultivate the perception that his party is the “grown-up in the room”.
With that in mind, many Labour supporters believe these adverts could do more harm than good.