Here’s my speech in the Commons yesterday, in the debate on the riots. We were on a four minute time limit, so obviously wasn’t time to cover all the bases… If I’d had more time I would have also taken some of the Tory MPs up on their ludicrous suggestions that introducing the Married Couples Tax Allowance ‘as a matter of urgency’ was the solution (£50 a year if you get married, that will stop the kids rioting…) I say kids but the other point I wanted to raise was that there seems to be a misleading emphasis on youth, by media and politicians. It was Andy Burnham and Michael Gove, the Education spokespeople, who responded to yesterday’s debate, which was opened by the Home Secretary, and Yvette Cooper as Shadow Home Secretary. The obvious inference was that this was a problem with feral youth, of school age… whereas if you look at the stats for those arrested/ charged/ convicted over recent days, that isn’t exactly born out. Sky were reporting that about 50% of those appearing before the courts in London were under 18, but in Manchester an MP told me that of the first 113 arrests, only 7 were juveniles. We’ve seen people appearing in court who are in their 20s, 30s, 40s… and they have jobs, and who knows, perhaps they even have parents who are married to each other? Anyway, here’s the speech. Comments welcome.
“Thankfully, the trouble in Bristol this week was not on the scale of that in London, Manchester and the midlands, and was not a repeat of the disturbances in Stokes Croft in Bristol, the so-called Tesco riot of a few months ago. It was for the most part an aimless copycat effort, although still very frightening for communities, who saw gangs marauding through the streets and setting fire to cars and bins. Having seen the television footage of what was happening elsewhere, the local community feared the worst, of course.
I congratulate the local police on how they kept the situation under control. That has to be the priority, to ensure that the public are kept safe and can get on with their lives. I am, however, concerned about some of the measures being proposed as ways of supposedly keeping them safe. We have heard that water cannon would be difficult to deploy, and completely ineffective where there is a swiftly moving crowd, and Sir Hugh Orde has warned against the use of plastic bullets. I am concerned that calls for such measures are distracting from what we really need: a visible, reassuring, on-street police presence, and people in charge of local policing who know what they are doing—not the shallow populism of an elected police commissioner, and not cuts to front-line police services.
The actions of the mob in London, Manchester, Bristol and elsewhere were mindless, criminal and inexcusable. Every time I see the YouTube clip of the injured Malaysian student being mugged by those purporting to help him, it seems more brutal, more depressing and more soul-destroying to think that people could act in such an inhumane way. However, the role of we politicians is not just to condemn. We will, of course, be pilloried by some if we try to understand, and if we dare to move beyond simple condemnations of thuggery and criminality, which are so easy to utter. However, it is our responsibility to try to prevent this from happening again, and not just in the short-term sense of policing our streets and keeping our communities safe. If we take that responsibility seriously, we need to have the political will and courage to persevere with policies that only reap rewards in the long term and perhaps sometimes do not reap rewards at all—policies that are resource-intensive and sometimes unpopular with voters who cannot understand why we are spending money on the “undeserving.”
I am talking about investing in people’s lives and futures. I am talking about intervention—about what some would decry as the nanny state. I am talking about schemes such as Sure Start, trying to give kids a better start in life and help their parents be better parents, and the family intervention projects, working with the most problematic “problem” families, addressing issues including alcoholism, drug addiction, mental health problems, domestic violence and criminality, and trying to break the cycle of deprivation and despair. They are about as far from a political quick win as we could get, but it is very important that we continue to take such steps. I am also thinking about schemes such as the education maintenance allowance, encouraging kids from poorer backgrounds to share the same aspirations as those with an easier start in life, and funding the work in local communities by groups such as Kids Company.
I am old enough to recall the way the inner-city riots in 1981 lit a spark in other towns, including my then home town of Luton. Indeed, I lived in Toxteth for a time as a student in the aftermath of the riots there. I saw a generation written off by a Government who did not believe in intervention and thought people should be left to fend for themselves. I urge this Government not to repeat the mistakes of the past Conservative Government, and instead to devote resources to trying to ensure that people’s lives now do not turn out the way their parents’ lives, and those of the generations before them, did.”