Two weeks after a wave of riots shocked the nation a debate is raging about what caused them and what we do about them. Thousands of people have been arrested and the courts are handing down tough prison sentences. They are right to do that because the looters are not just being punished for the goods they stole but for the widespread fear and panic they helped create as part of a lawless mob.
So what lay behind the riots? Was it a sudden outbreak of lawlessness that inexplicably gripped thousands of people over a few nights in August? Was it, as the Prime Minister says, a sign of the moral decline of the nation?
Reducing this to a simple matter of morality misses the point. I do not for one second excuse the behaviour of the looters, but there is a problem that’s been festering in parts of urban Britain for decades that successive governments have failed to address and the current government is making worse. That is a sense of disaffection from mainstream society felt by too many young people in our poorest communities.
Lambeth is like many other urban areas across Britain. On our poorest social housing estates, the majority of children are born into a household on benefits; three in five adults of working age have no job; one in every two children lives in a single parent household; and there is a much higher proportion of dysfunctional families than in the population as a whole. With some of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe, many teenagers are having children of their own with little experience of good parenting to draw on and no stable relationship to rely on for support. Many young people do not know adults with steady jobs and many have no experience of a stable home life with clear boundaries set for their behaviour. They feel they have no legitimate way of accessing the affluent lifestyle they see beyond the boundaries of the estate where they live, and the only people they know making plenty of money are in gangs dealing drugs. Children learn the lessons they see around them, and the lesson some children are learning is that mainstream society has little to offer them.
Many of these young people have adopted the ‘gangsta’ culture imported from cities in the United States and fed to them through films, videos and music. They seem blind to the fact that, unlike impoverished American communities, they have access to free world-class healthcare, free and generally good state schools, a relatively generous benefits system, better social housing, a more supportive criminal justice system, a much less violent community in which to live, and for young Londoners even free public transport. But disaffection is not just about the reality of their situation, it is about how they perceive their lives compared to what they see in other communities around them. They need to be made to understand the value of what is available to them, and withdrawing elements of it from serious law-breakers is one part of doing that.
Most of the rioters came from poor, urban areas. They got involved not because of any lack of morality in society in general, but because the higher levels of poverty and social exclusion in the communities where they live have led to them becoming alienated from society. It’s a fact seen across the world that poor people are more likely to be involved in this kind of disorder than the better off. There’s a reason the riots hit Tottenham and Brixton but not Windsor and Reigate. Of course there are exceptions. The cases of well paid professionals who got involved are there for all to see, and the vast majority of poor people are decent and law-abiding. But that does not detract from the fact that the majority of looters came from poor urban backgrounds, and this was a factor in what happened.
It’s important we identify the right causes if we want to find solutions that work. There’s not been much finger-pointing at the way the Government’s targeted their cuts because no one wants to be accused of excusing the looters’ criminal behaviour. But understanding the problem is not the same as excusing it. The places that were hardest hit by rioting are all inner-city areas that have been singled out by the Government for a disproportionate share of funding cuts. Lambeth is losing nearly one third of our total available budget, while wealthier areas like Surrey, Richmond and Berkshire are losing almost nothing.
The problems that led to the rioting date back many years before the current Government was elected, but cutting funding for poorer areas on the scale the Government has chosen makes it much harder to maintain programmes that tackle gang membership, reduce teenage pregnancy, get people back to work and fund positive activities for young people living in crowded estates. On top of that, the Government is making direct cuts that fall most heavily on these same communities. The slashing of the Education Maintenance Allowance affects poor young people who otherwise can’t afford to stay on in education. The Government’s 23% cuts in youth offending services earlier this year closed many early intervention services that prevent young people from offending because the Government insists that the reduced budget must be spent instead on services that shepherd young offenders through the court system. We’d do better to stop them getting there in the first place. Poorer people on estates, if they work at all, are more likely to be in low-paid or casual jobs at greater risk of redundancy because of cut-backs. Youth unemployment is soaring. This Government did not cause the problem, but they are piling the misery on our poorest communities and should not be surprised when signs of disaffection become visible.
Violent youth gangs are a grim feature in many of London’s poorest communities. On some social housing estates in south London a majority of young people are gang members, not because they necessarily want to be but because they are coerced into joining by peer pressure including threats of violence if they refuse. Once involved, they are pressured into adopting the gang’s norms of behaviour, including taking part in violent assaults often involving knives or guns, drug dealing, and sexualised behaviour including rape. Many parents are at their wits’ end with worry, feeling unsupported and unable to prevent their children sliding into criminality that wrecks their lives as well as the community they are part of. Government threats to evict parents such as these, people who have done nothing wrong themselves, would only make matters worse. The problem with gangs is not new – Lambeth published a ground-breaking report on the matter in 2008 and followed it up with a big increase in funding for services designed to break the cycle of gang violence. But Government funding cuts that disproportionately target poorer areas like ours mean we now have fewer resources to carry out this work.
So what is needed to put things right? Above all, we need a national assault on poverty of every kind – not just financial poverty, but poverty of aspiration and poverty of opportunity. To be effective, this must be delivered locally, estate by estate, family by family, with the full engagement of the local community so it’s not seen as yet another top-down strategy imposed from the outside. This is what Lambeth is already doing with our limited resources, and it is why local government must be central to any solution: it is councils that have the detailed information about local communities, existing relationships with community leaders, and knowledge of local voluntary and community organisations that will be key to meeting the different needs of each community. These interventions will include help for parents who are struggling to bring up their children, support for community leaders to impose moral pressure on young people at risk of joining gangs, more positive activities for young people to keep them busy and develop new interests, after-school classes and homework clubs to improve learning, financial support to keep young people in education and higher education, training for jobs, peer mentoring, activities designed to expose young people to the opportunities available to them in one of the world’s greatest cities.
Doing this effectively will cost money, and that could come from a reversal of the Government’s decision to hit poorer areas with the biggest cuts and sharing the burden fairly instead. Not doing it will cost even more because society will have to pay the price of failure – including more people living on benefits rather than in work, more people in jail rather than contributing to society, and higher levels of crime to tackle and clear up after. Responsibility is a two-way street: we want people to feel more responsible to society, but we also need them to feel they are a full part of that society.
Whenever a social problem suddenly explodes there’s an urge to simplify the causes then promote simplistic solutions that miss the point. The rioting was inexcusable and lawless, but on its own inflicting tougher punishments on law-breakers from poor backgrounds doesn’t help them learn that society has something positive to offer them. It’s more likely to entrench them in the belief that society is against them, leading to further disaffected behaviour. Evicting parents who are already struggling to bring up their children makes their task even harder and, as a consequence, their children are more likely to become repeat offenders. We must retain a sense of proportion in our response. The causes behind the riots are many and complex, but we must identify those causes honestly if we are going to solve the problems that saw Britain’s cities explode on those dreadful few nights in August.