It bears repeating that this month’s riots were the worst breakdown of public order in the United Kingdom – and we are still one country: take note, BBC – for thirty years.
Those of us not caught up in them can scarcely imagine the terror of law-abiding citizens who found their persons, businesses and homes at the mercy of criminals. I have been surprised by the number of commentators who have tried to find some justification for the actions of the rioters. This was a criminal riot by the criminally minded. Many people – many more people – living in exactly the same circumstances chose not to riot and many of them suffered from the actions of the rioters; as the acting Met Commissioner Tim Godwin put it to the Home Affairs Select Committee – thousands rioted, but millions did not.
The immediate priority must be to take whatever steps we can to minimise the risk of further riots taking place in the days or weeks to come. We can infer that the rioters have no regard to what happens to others as a result of their actions, but I believe they do care about what may happen to them; they need to know that any type of participation in a riot will leave them facing detection and a prison sentence.
The police are doing a good job in bringing so many rioters before the courts – 2,700 arrests as I write this – and the courts are showing signs of responding through their propensity to deal with offenders by way of custody.
All of this may sound harsh but it is necessary. I am sad to see so many people go to prison, especially as there seems to have been two broad categories of rioters – weak minded, opportunistic, impressionable people who perhaps got carried away, and more serious, more sinister rioters who took a more professional and calculated approach and who may have played a part in the planning and orchestration of the rioting. Both categories should face prison sentences but if the courts are able to determine that rioters fall into the latter category, they should face especially long sentences, as should particularly violent rioters and arsonists (longer still).
Should convicted rioters face other sanctions? One of the heartening reactions to the riots has been that of the public in seeking to convey their disgust and disapproval of the rioters, and the media has helped in this. The idea of shame seems to be undergoing rehabilitation. This is a sanction in itself. Many members of the public have channelled this sense of disapproval into the E-Petition asking that Parliament should debate taking benefits away from rioters. We need a full debate on this – one important consideration is that rioters serving prison sentences do not generally receive benefits anyway. However, I have been surprised by the response of those who have sought to rule this out without any debate, as if the receipt of benefits was a human right or withdrawal of benefit was an impossible and unthinkable step. Receipt of some of the benefits in question is not and should not be unconditional. There are circumstances in which benefits can currently be withdrawn; the benefits sanctions regime has been tightened progressively over the years, and the current Welfare Reform Bill proposes sanctions of up to three years loss of benefits for failing to satisfy work search requirements, as well as strengthening the sanctions regime for those found to be committing benefit fraud. Should rioters also lose benefits? I approach this question with a belief that loss of benefits for a significant period might be a deterrent to some rioters, irrespective of whatever other punishments the courts may rightly impose. If we want to minimise the risk of further riots, we want to ram home the message to potential rioters that the consequences of rioting could be disastrous for them in many different ways in their own lives. I suspect that law-abiding recipients of benefits – the vast majority – would be amongst those who would welcome such a message being sent out.
Recent events do not weaken the case for the reforms being brought forward by the government to mend our broken society. These reforms are vital to the future of our country and David Cameron is right to re-state the importance of them. The problems being addressed by these reforms are deep seated and great perseverance over a long period will be needed. In the more immediate future we must take every possible step to minimise the risk of any further breakdown in law and order.