The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog


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

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