A PUBLIC split has opened up in Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet over a controversial Labour attack advert saying Rishi Sunak doesn’t think child abusers should go to prison.

Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell today refused to endorse the campaign ad, which her party released on social media yesterday, four weeks out from local elections in England.

"I can see it's not to everybody's taste and some people won't like it,” she admitted.

However she said she supported the message it was “trying to highlight”.

Next to the Prime Minister’s photograph and a mock signature, the ad says: "Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn't."

It goes on: “Under the Tories, 4500 adults convicted of sexually assaulting children under 16 served no prison time. Labour will lock up dangerous child abusers.”

Labour tweeted the image with the message: “Labour is the party of law and order”.

READ MORE: Humza Yousaf faces demands for answers as SNP auditors quit

It was swiftly condemned, including from within Labour’s own ranks.

Critics pointed out that no Prime Minister is responsible for sentencing individual criminals - that is the responsibility of judges and magistrates south of the border.

In addition, Labour’s figures cover the period since 2010, and Mr Sunak only entered parliament in 2015, and did not become PM until October. 

Tory deputy chairman Lee Anderson accused Labour of a “vile and desperate” campaign, while the SNP MP John Nicolson called it “cheapened and debased” politics.

Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell also urged his party to withdraw the ad, saying it was “not the sort of politics a Labour Party, confident of its own values and preparing to govern, should be engaged in. We, the Labour Party, are better than this.”

Ms Powell insisted it was part of the “cut and thrust” of political debate which sought to highlight the Tories’ record on law and order, but refused to repeat it.

Appearing on BBC Breakfast, she suggested it was a “skit” based on Mr Sunak’s own signature-laden promotional material as she declined to say she stood by the tweet.

She said: “What I stand by is what that graphic is trying to show, which is that the Prime Minister of our country is responsible for the criminal justice system of our country and currently that criminal justice system is not working.”

Asked again whether she stood by the message, she said: “I stand by what this tweet and this campaign is trying to highlight.”

She added: “The graphic itself, obviously, is a skit based on his own graphics that he extensively uses.”

In response to Mr McDonnell’s criticism, she added: “I can see that it’s not to everybody’s taste, absolutely, and that some people won’t like it. Clearly, John McDonnell is one of those.

“But that is the cut and thrust nature of politics. I didn’t design the graphic, it’s not my graphic.”

Ms Powell also told Sky News: “We do have serious criminals now in this country almost routinely getting more lenient custodial sentences than they would otherwise do because the system is creaking at the knees.”

READ MORE: Scottish independence - Humza Yousaf says 'realistic' within five years

She said it wasn’t down to sentencing guidelines but “capacity in the system” to implement the guidelines” with a “huge backlog” in court cases and pressure on prison places.

Asked if the Twitter post should be removed, she told Times Radio: “I don’t think it should be deleted.”

Law and order is a key issue for both Labour and the Tories ahead of May’s local elections in England, with the Tories talking tough on grooming gangs and illegal asylum seekers.

The Tories tried to flip the attack on its head by highlighting Sir Keir's time as director of public prosecutions from 2008 to 2013.

A Tory source said: “Labour HQ have highlighted Sir Keir’s appalling record at keeping children safe.

"During Sir Keir’s controversial tenure as director of public prosecutions, less than 30 per cent of child pornographers saw the inside of a prison cell.

"It’s no wonder only 12% of his staff thought he was any good and criminals want a Labour government.”