Christian Guy is Director of Policy for the Centre for Social Justice.
The ability of the British people to move on and to rebuild distinguishes our country from countless others. How quickly our determination in the face of adversity rises, and how effectively we recover in the wake of destruction.
Such resilience was evident again last summer, as Britain stared down the rioters, looters and vandals who turned parts of London and our cities into no-go areas. Before the police gained control, it was ordinary citizens who took a stand. As each morning came and the cowards went home, it was people of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs who came together to clean up and help those who had lost so much. This was, and is, what citizenship looks like.
But in our ability to regroup and rebuild, there is one thing we have to be careful to avoid: the tendency to forget. Seven months on it is easy to forget the sense of siege on the streets last August, the riot vans, the shops and businesses ablaze, our boarded up high streets and offices closing early.
That is why yesterday’s report from the Riots Communities and Victims Panel should act as another reminder to Government that although public order is restored, the threat is far from removed. In general the Panel’s report contains helpful diagnosis and several valuable, if sometimes vague, recommendations for the political classes. It is refreshing to read calls for a focus on the 500,000 ‘forgotten families’, often chaotic and dysfunctional, that we so often encounter at the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), and it is about time that others in the policy field recognised how absent fathers damage children. It is right that the Panel called for action in our schools to ensure those graduating the system are literate, numerate and ready for the real world. Given the links between rioters and educational exclusion (a third of those rioting were excluded the previous year and a similar number persistently absent from school) we should hit schools that wash their hands of challenging pupils without consideration of their welfare. And our undemanding, revolving door criminal justice system was again the subject of criticism. There can be no doubt that the re-offending crisis which endangers our communities played its part in fuelling last summer’s disturbances – many involved had no fear of a criminal record because theirs is already a tome.
But the Panel was spectacularly wrong about one thing: it naively dismissed Britain’s inner-city gang culture as virtually irrelevant to the riots. Those who make such a case usually cite figures which show that 20 per cent of those arrested in London were gang members, reducing to 10 per cent nationally. Now I could be over-reacting but far from screaming irrelevance, those numbers seem very significant indeed. One in five was gang-involved in London, and one in ten across other cities. That should ring out as a clear warning shot to us all.
And we must keep in mind that these figures represent only a snapshot of last summer because most people involved have never been tracked down. It is estimated that as many as 15,000 people took part in the riots, but only 5,000 have been arrested and 2,000 appeared in court. We should remember that most gang members are in fact far too wily to get caught – they get away with this kind of criminal activity every day.
That’s not all. Even the Panel acknowledged the correlation between rioting and high gang activity areas. Through an alliance of 300 charities the CSJ co-ordinates – many of whom are working with gang members – we have heard about the spontaneous mid-riot truces between warring gangs who united to attack police efforts. We have seen the sophisticated methods streets gangs have devised to stay ahead of law enforcement – methods which had officers chasing shadows again last August. So whilst nobody is arguing that gangs and gangs alone led the disorder, we should be quick to see their handprint on the chaos which unfolded. It is peculiar that the Panel fell silent about this.
Before the riots and since, the CSJ has long-argued that economic recovery and social recovery must go hand-in-hand. There is good reason to be hopeful that some Ministers in Government grasp this. With great purpose but without much fanfare, Iain Duncan Smith published his Social Justice Strategy earlier this month. It offered commitments to transform lives and build a ladder out for those trapped in ghettos of dependency – much of it was informed by work published at the CSJ. For all the post-riots debate about responsibility, branding and materialism, it is the Social Justice Strategy which should now become the centrepiece programme for the Coalition.
For without a reversal of the social breakdown and anarchy that characterises too much of life in our most deprived communities, we will continue to see generation after generation cut adrift. For as long as children start out in abusive and fractured families, as long as they plod along from their failing school to a life dependent on welfare, and as long as drug abuse and gangs pave their streets with tragic belonging, such rioting will pose an annual threat to our society and our economy. Regroup and rebuild by all means, but we cannot afford to forget.