Poverty isn't an excuse for the riots. It's a reason

Why we must stop ignoring the bottom five per cent in society.

"A form of civil disorder, often characterised by disorganised groups lashing out in a sudden and intense rash of violence against authority." This is the definition of a riot. It's also an acceptable definition of what the country experienced just weeks ago.

On the evening of the riots, I was reviewing the newspapers on television and the language of the media was peppered with hyperbole. "London's burning" and "Britain's on fire", newspapers and broadcasters proclaimed. Politicians and thinkers were almost sports commentator-like in their take on what was happening. Words such as "gangs", "mindless", "punishments", "water cannons", and "rubber bullets" were all used within hours of the riots. This was quickly followed by a recall of parliament, which I attended, and a statesman-like speech by the Prime Minister which was roundly applauded.

I've always believed the future is decided by the "non-discussable", yet the comments following the riots now seem to define what can be said about them. We may live in a democracy where freedom of speech is favoured but, for some reason, it's considered taboo to point out those things that haven't been said very often during the analysis and reflection on what happened. But we must, otherwise any discussion is pointless.

One of the non-discussables is that any analysis of where the rioters came from showed a direct link between them and the poorest areas in the country. These are the same areas that have seen living standards decline over the past 14 years, and which will decline further as a direct result of public spending cuts.

It's become a defence to say that poverty shouldn't be an excuse for rioting. Poverty isn't an excuse. It's a reason -- the same reason that the same social and political pundits would give to explain riots in South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

The second non-discussable relates to punishment; that jailing somehow solves anti-social behaviour and ensures public safety. What, of course, hasn't been discussed is the evidence produced by the government and by previous governments (and endorsed by Kenneth Clarke) that prison simply doesn't work. Instead, it will provide many of those convicted with a masterclass in criminal activity and become a pressure cooker for their sense of injustice and alienation. Many will come out angrier and less educated than when they went in. Take the 11-year-old boy who was given an 18-month rehabilitation order after stealing a bin from Debenhams in Romford. The child already has previous convictions and his extreme desperation is illustrated by his decision to smash the window of a moving bus so he could jump off and escape detention. I'd argue this boy doesn't just need prison. He needs a psycho-social intervention.

The other non-discussable is the context in which the riots took place. This context has been ignored by pundits and politicians, save for those who have pointed out that it's virtually impossible to ignore the example set by the wealthy, including bankers, MPs and peers. Context is important: children need role models who they can look up to and who lead by example. At the moment, this isn't always what they're getting.

There's another non-discussable. It's a convenient and comforting presumption that the riots were simply down to organised gang activity. This presumption provides us, particularly in inner cities, with a ready enemy in the form of young (and let's face it) African-Caribbean men who the authorities can be given complete licence to rout out. The flaw in this theory is that 30,000 rioters couldn't have been organised that quickly by anyone and in that many places. And while it's no doubt true that "gangs" did take advantage of the general chaos to loot, this sort of behaviour is hardly surprising and largely defines any riot. However, the evidence is that these rioters were actually people who are unlikely ever to buy or even rent a house, have a meaningful disposable income, go to college with enough money to enjoy the experience, get a university degree without leaving with crippling debts, or get a job which might lead to a career. The overwhelming problem in engaging the staggering number of Neets (Not in Education, Employment or Training) in a meaningful way is that some local authorities have simply stopped funding any kind of infrastructure for young people.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying "hug-a-hoodie", and it's not that I don't fear social disorder. But the solutions are not beyond our reach, or even beyond our time frame. We must understand that this link with poverty is unacceptable; a link which is known about, tolerated and excused. We must also realise that the job of government in protecting its citizens doesn't just begin and end with creating a police state for the few. It's clear that an appropriate punishment for many of the rioters may instead be found in restorative justice, which confronts those who have broken the law with the consequences of their actions, and educates them at the same time. Housing, health, criminal justice policy, and education are the issues of social policy surrounding the events, and there are two ways to deal with these. Either we ignore them and comfort ourselves with rhetoric and the inevitable follows: water cannons and rubber bullets, and locking down those communities which we fear, whilst making excuses for poor leadership. Or there is another way. We accept that social infrastructure is important. We stop ignoring the fact that the bottom five per cent in society have as much impact on everyone else's lives as the top five, and that the two groups are connected by the same things: criminal justice policy, education, and health.

Of course the deficit is the one thing that we have all been told cannot be changed or managed without the poor. The question in this democracy must surely be: what kind of debt in society do we want to live with, and what kind of debt-free society do we want our children to live in? I have no doubt that solutions exist which mitigate against riot by engaging young people, the poor, the middle classes and the wealthy in new and better ways of building services for the public. I'm also in no doubt that the implementation of such solutions isn't without struggle and difficult discussions. But I don't want to live in a society which comforts itself with the discussible.

Lord Victor Adebowale is chief executive of Turning Point

Getty
Show Hide image

Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.