Yesterday, the Backbench Business Committee granted me a three hour debate on the response to the riots that scarred our town and other parts of the UK in early August. You can read my full speech here but in essence my argument was that two months on we have a much clearer picture of what happened and what the appropriate lessons are for public policy.
In the immediate aftermath, there were two competing narratives of why the riots happened. The first, most bluntly articulated by the former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, was that the riots were a spontaneous reaction to Government cuts (“If you’re making massive cuts, there’s always the potential for this sort of revolt against that”, Newsnight, 8th August). The second, articulated by much of our media, was that they were the result of a feral generation of teenagers.
The evidence doesn’t support either of these narratives. Far from being spontaneous, there was a significant degree of organisation behind the riots. 19% of those arrested in London to date are known gang members. According to the Ministry of Justice, 73% of those who came before the courts before midday on 12th September had a previous caution or conviction and the average number of offences they had committed was 15. So the riots were not a political protest by people with no previous criminal record that got out of hand. And in Croydon only 15% of those arrested have been under 18, 38% have been under 21 and 7% have been over 40. So the riots were not solely, or even primarily, the work of teenagers.
Lesson one then is that we need to tackle gang culture and lesson two is that we need to reform our prison system so that it does a better job of addressing prisoners’ underlying problems - few if any educational qualifications, mental health problems, drug and/or alcohol abuse - because at the moment a high proportion of those released go out and re-offend.
The next issue relates to the police response. The Met have been honest enough to admit that with the benefit of hindsight they didn’t have enough officers on duty on the Sunday, Saturday and Monday (the figures, if you are interested, were 3,380 on Saturday, 4,275 on Sunday and 6,000 on Monday). On Tuesday, we saw a massive increase to 16,000 - and it worked. So yes the police can’t be immune from the need to save money and yes we can reduce bureaucracy so that a higher proportion of the officers we have are on visible duty but numbers matter. The Government and the Mayor need to work together to make sure we make savings without reducing frontline policing.
I have spent the last few weeks visiting schools and colleges in and around my constituency to talk to young people about what happened and what we need to do to stop it happening again. On most issues, they agree with their parents and grandparents but on one issue - attitudes to the police - they have a very different view. Many young people - particularly young black men - don’t feel the police are on their side. When they are stopped and searched, they don’t feel they are treated with respect. I am sure that many police officers feel young people don’t treat them with respect either. The Met has come a long way since I was a teenager but clearly there is more to do. We need our police force to be more representative of the people they are policing and we need young people to understand that the police are there to protect them and police officers to understand how it feels to be stopped on a regular basis.
The final lesson relates to how we punish people. According to the Ministry of Justice, those who committed offences during the riots were more likely to receive an immediate custodial sentence and to receive longer sentences than those who committed the same offences a month earlier. I support the decisions the courts have taken - I think it was important to send out a clear message that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable and that it has done a lot to restore some faith in our criminal justice system. But there is also evidence that it has helped to reduce crime. If you compare the four weeks from 17th July to 14th August with the four weeks from 15th August to 11th September, property crime in Croydon is down about 30% and violent crime about 20%. You would expect to see a significant reduction in property crime because clearly a large number of property crimes were committed on 8th August and you would expect to see some reduction in both types of crime as a result of the extra police on our streets. But the reduction in violent crime in Croydon is larger than elsewhere suggesting there is something else at work. The answer appears to be that, in the short term at least, prison works - a number of prolific offenders have been put inside and that has reduced crime. As is often the case in politics, we are being offered a false choice by those who argue the way to cut crime is to be tougher and those who argue that the answer is to reform our prisons to reduce reoffending. Why can’t we do both?