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17 August 2011

Lib Dems speak out against “bonkers“ reaction to riots

David Cameron could have a fight on his hands over his law and order plans.

By Samira Shackle

It looks like David Cameron could meet stiff resistance to his “zero tolerance” plans for law and order when parliament returns in September.

Liberal Democrats have expressed discomfort with the uncompromising stance that the Prime Minister has adopted in the aftermath of last week’s riots. Tory suggestions have included evicting rioters from council houses and holding a consultation on ending benefit payments to offenders.

Lady Hamwee, the Lib Dem home affairs spokeswoman in the Lords, said there should be “zero tolerance with zero tolerance”. She told the Guardian:

I am worried. I think there is something in the ‘broken windows’ theory of policing — that you can bring down crime by catching things early — but not zero tolerance.

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I also think it is very important not to make policy on the hoof. My instinct is that it would be a great pity if what [the justice secretary] Ken Clarke has been doing — finding a better way of sentencing — was to be undone. If it is, we will be taking a backward, regrettable step.

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Meanwhile, the party’s home affairs spokesman in the Commons, Tom Brake, questioned the sentences being handed out. He told Newsnight:

Clearly there are cases where offenders who have committed very serious crimes should expect very serious sentences and that is what I expect to happen. But there have been some cases where people who have committed petty offences have received sentences which, if they had committed the same offence the day before the riots, they would not have received a sentence of that nature.

This should be about restorative justice, in other words making people acknowledge the offences they have committed and preferably if the victims want it, actually sit down face to face with the victims so they can hear from the victims the impact they have had, but it should not be about retribution.

The plan to withdrawn benefits has drawn particular discomfort. At a press conference in Whitehall yesterday, Nick Clegg sought to tone down the hardline language used by the Prime Minister:

We are going to take our time to look at this. Of course you need to be proportionate, of course you need to be careful, of course you don’t want to create unintended consequences where the taxpayer ends up footing more of the bill or we create more social problems or problems of law and order.

Jenny Willots, the party’s welfare spokesman added that “what is currently being proposed is counter-productive”, saying “I feel strongly, I don’t think we can cut benefits.”

Cameron has also suggested controlling social media, for instance by barring individuals suspected of causing unrest from Facebook and Twitter. This is anathema to the party of civil liberties. Evan Harris, the vice-chair of the Liberal Democrats’ federal policy committee, has said he will table an amendment at the party’s conference asking members to vote to block the measure.

Tessa Munt, the MP for Wells, said the plans were “bonkers, bonkers, bonkers”, adding:

Frankly, this all smacks of headline grabbing by Conservatives, not calm, rational policy-making.

It’s clear that the consensus among Lib Dems is that the suggestions being thrown around smack of short-term, knee-jerk reactions. It remains to be seen whether they will translate this into real changes to tone down the policies currently on the table.