Opinion: Riots, prisons and us

The speeches this week by David Cameron and Ed Milliband made for a very interesting bit of bed-time reading. For me, both the Prime Minister and the Labour leader were pretty wide of the mark. Ed, as he often does came across as being reactionary. Too scared to be seen to defend looters and join the dots toward massive social injustice but too hidebound by his party to talk about throwing away the key, he was left very much floundering somewhere in the ether; neither talking about the roots of the problem (possibly because they lie a little close to home) nor the solutions. David Cameron was on more comfortable ground altogether, though still not quite hitting the nail on the head for those of us who don’t read the Daily Express. Somewhere aside from the heavy rhetoric of the past few days it has become clear that actually, a more thoughtful, just and – dare I say it – liberal approach is very much needed.

Whilst our policy of restorative justice isn’t the most shiny, vote-winning thing to ever have been conceived, it was considered and thought through for times like these. My partner always says that the difference between a Tory and a Liberal is that a Tory sees a problem, gets angry and takes action and a Liberal sees a problem, gets angry then thinks it through – restorative justice is exactly this. Rather than saying they should all be rounded up and put in front of a firing squad, restorative justice suggests that actually looters (why we’re still calling them looters instead of just thieves is still beyond me) shouldn’t be shoved into already overcrowded and ineffective prisons but should be put straight back into the communities they’ve done their best to destroy, to look their victims in the eye and to help make things right. Whilst the first reaction on seeing the vile and upsetting images from across the country would be to lash out at them – to evict or to imprison – taking a longer view, helping to rehabilitate as well as rebuild can surely be the only way forward.

The Daily Telegraph’s praise of Nick Clegg and this particular policy is a very clear sign that this is a place where we can quite clearly make ground. In this case, our policy isn’t about the difference between right and left but right and wrong. Forcing the offenders to pay-back, not through docked benefits or a custodial sentence but through their hard work and time will help rebuild the communities and lives torn to pieces by last week’s events. Similarly, it would also go some way toward integrating these young people into the law-abiding and fair-minded society to which they’ve shown such flagrant disregard. Regardless of spin, rhetoric or political persuasion, that has to be a good thing.

Cllr Sam Phripp is the youngest councillor ever elected to Mendip District Council

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  • Daniel Henry 17th Aug '11 - 3:02pm

    Yes, this is definitely an area where we can push for liberalism within government.

  • There are probably quite a few rioters/looters for whom restorative justice would be ideal. I’m thinking of those who mindlessly got swept up in it all. It would be much better for them to face the people they’ve done wrong and realise what they’ve done to them, rather than sitting in a prison cell for a couple of weeks feeling sorry for themselves.

  • Hi Sam
    This is absolutely my point. What struck me about the coverage was that it seemed that there were so many people who did get swept up in the moment. It’s not a psychology that I like, but it is one that I can understand. In that sense, for those ‘less serious’ offenders, a stint painting walls and making things right would probably do the world of good.

  • David Edwards 17th Aug '11 - 3:24pm

    “Regardless of spin, rhetoric or political persuasion, that has to be a good thing.” summarises an excellent piece and shows how the LibDems can put some clear water thinking between themselves and the Tories and Labour.

    The violent expression of anger by disaffected youth is nothing new, the actuality varies and the very thin blue line is tested each time. Imho the police around the country have come out of this very well – the life before property approach that came by happenstance (that night, all the senior Avon & Somerset officers were away at a conference about urban policing) from the St Paul’s riots in 1980 was applied successfully in 2011 and let us hope that long views continue to be applied.

    I think that the knee-jerk reactions of the right are as predictable as they are risible and need to be countered by all right-thinking people. Difficult to predict the outcome of the latest hacking revelations but, riots notwithstanding, Cameron’s position is not all that secure so he might call an election sooner rather than later in which case the LibDems will need to be able to present themselves as distinct from the Tories.


    p.s. time to lose the youngest bit?

  • Keith Browning 17th Aug '11 - 4:06pm

    The vengance of Cameron and his judicial mates, which is already being metered out on the rioters and those associated with them, is exactly what happened to the Great Train Robbers in 1964. They were given sentences out of line with their crime and it was always thought this was because the ‘Ruling Class’ wanted to reassert its authority after the humiliations and ridicule of the Profumo Affair.

    I think we are about to see the rioters being made to pay for the ‘Ruling Class’ having been caught with its hand in the till during the expenses scandal and the Hackgate/Murdoch affair.

  • The Tory party appears to be having a psychotic episode at the moment. Hopefully they’ll calm down in a few days and an effective and proportionate response to the riots can be fashioned.

  • @Keith Browning:
    I think we are about to see the rioters being made to pay for the ‘Ruling Class’ having been caught with its hand in the till during the expenses scandal and the Hackgate/Murdoch affair.

    I agree. It is striking how Cameron is talking tough on justice when it comes to the stupidity and criminality of the rioters. Now compare that with how he talks when it is MPs, bankers and the media who are engaged in stupidity and criminality. These people are given “second chances” by Cameron and even given government jobs! He hangs out with them at Christmas! Most MPs got a slap on the wrist for the mass fraud they committed and I bet if there are any convictions from the hacking scandal, sentences then will be light as well.

    Personally I feel that the bankers causing mass unemployment, having to be bailed out by the taxpayer and then asking the same taxpayer to suffer more cuts is far more criminal and damaging to society than 90% of the looters were. But they will never have to face up to what they’ve done: nobody has been jailed, let alone arrested, in the UK for this.

    The message from successive governments is clear: crash the economy, cause mass unemployment and you get bailed out and a bigger bonus to boot! Steal millions from taxpayers to fund your own lifestyle and make a killing on the property market and you simply have to repay the money and say “sorry.” Steal a £3.50 bottle of water or a packet of chewing gum? That’s 6 months in the nick, citizen.

    Remember when we in the West used to criticise the old USSR for their arbitrary sentencing, mass corruption, and heavy-handed policing? Good thing the USSR is no longer around, as we’d look a bit hypocritical.

  • A common theme among the looters was that they believed (and voiced their belief) that they weren’t going to get anything worse than community service if they were caught. For these people it’s vital we establish the idea that if they don’t abide by the law then they will be punished, and it will be a punishment they consider “unfair”.

    As well as prison, their needs to be restorative justice, the first stage of which is for looters to be lead through the streets they vandalised in front of the communities they terrorised as a way of humbling them. As they looted they would have had a feeling of power as innocent people hid indoors, and the police kept their distance, and they took what they wanted. Showing them how outnumbered and despised they really are by the law abiding majority will hammer home the message that what they did was unacceptable.

    Only once looters have been punished and humbled can they be rehabilitated. It’s only once people are looking for an alternative that they’ll take an alternative offered to them.

  • It appears that the sentences imposed on many offenders have been exceedingly harsh compared with the norm. If it begins to appear that the sentences are unfair it is possible that sympathy for the looters will increase, indeed that happened in the Great Train Robbery case, the robbers were perceived as modern day Robin Hoods whilst the poor old Train driver who had been hit over the head was forgotten. Tough sentences I support but not excessive sentences for minor offences. That is Lib Dem policy, rehabilitation not vengeance.

  • I think there is a case to be argued that taking from a shop that is open to the world, and is considerably wrecked should be subject to a less stringent sentence than burglary. Certainly no different from shoplifting for similar items.

    Remembering the looting from the MSC Napoli in Devon a couple of years ago, I think many of the looters got away without any custodial sentence – not sure about the ones who nicked the BMW motor bikes.

    If you think Simon M (as you imply) that sentences should be harsher in this situation, you are coming uncomfortably close to saying anyone found near a riot should be charged and sentenced. Don’t think that’s very liberal.

    Nathan, in those terms, I am sure our (and every other) society has always been “sick”. Outbreaks of rioting occur at intervals, and esp in times of economic pressure.

  • jenny barnes 17th Aug '11 - 9:10pm

    The riots weren’t political. Politics is one of two ways of reconciling the irreconcilable; the other is violence. If all sides agree that a political solution beats violence, even if not getting everything they want, that’s politics. Seems to me for many of the rioters politics offers no chance that their needs are even on the agenda, let alone likely to be met. It’s a civil war. You could call them the rebels, like in Libya, except they’re not so well organised.

  • @ Simon McGrath
    To think that stealing a pair of shoes from a shop in normal times is the same as stealing during a riot is absurd.

    This is a similar argument put forward by members of the judiciary and politicians who say that the circumstances are different hence more severe sentences should be meted out to the latter. Sorry, but I just don’t get that. Indeed, if anything, might not the former deserve more severe pubishment in many cases because they’re actions are pre-meditated.

    Why do those stealing in riot situations need to be deterrred more than others committing theft?

    Maybe I’m just being thick. Can you explain?

  • @jenny barnes
    Seems to me for many of the rioters politics offers no chance that their needs are even on the agenda, let alone likely to be met.

    I have some sympathy with this. Politicians make a big fuss at election and other time about engaging more young people in politics and getting them to vote…then it all goes quiet…

  • Simon McGrath 17th Aug '11 - 9:17pm

    @John G – can you really not understand why everything possible has to be done to stop people stealing in riots?

  • Simon McGrath 17th Aug '11 - 9:21pm

    @tim13 – “I think there is a case to be argued that taking from a shop that is open to the world, and is considerably wrecked should be subject to a less stringent sentence than burglary. Certainly no different from shoplifting for similar items.”

    Just realised you must be a troll trying to get people to argue with you.

  • Daniel Henry 18th Aug '11 - 12:08am

    @ Simon
    Agreed that riots need to be deterred but OTT penalties aren’t necessary for that. Harsh sentences would only be a deterrent if people we acting rationally with expectations that they’d get caught. I suspect that the majority haven’t been caught and it’s generally considered that only those unlucky enough to get caught that faced consequences. From what I’ve learned in psychology, it’s not the severity of the punishment that makes for an effective deterrent, it’s the certainty of it, I.e. they don’t think they have a chance if getting away with it. Making overly severe punishments impedes because it makes people more likely to sympathyse with the perpetrator rather than cooperate with the authorities to get them convicted.

    Besides, restorative justice isn’t necesasarily a soft option. Done properly it should be enough to make them take responsiblity for their actions.

  • Simon McGrath – I don’t think there’s much point in trying to deter people from black swan events like last weeks riots with unusually severe sentences. When the courts start putting people in prison for 6 months just for stealing a bottle of water we become just as irrational and unthinking of the consequences of our actions as many of the rioters were.

    There’s a very humorous article by Bagehot on the Economist: http://www.economist.com/blogs/bagehot/2011/08/civil-disorder-and-looting-hits-britain-0

    I can never understand why liberalism gets blamed for the destruction of traditional values when liberalism was the dominant political philosophy for a few hundred years untill the last century. Perhaps the likes of Melanie Philips skipped British history at school or something.

  • The reason the riot broke out is straightforward and needs repeating: It was an anti-police riot that occurred as a result of a section of the community not believing the Met’s explanation for the death of an individual. Given the behaviour of the Met in relation to the deaths of Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson then the response was rational even if the violent method of the response was unwelcome.

    It is also worth repeating what a riot actually is: A riot occurrs when law and order breaks down and people (opportunistic repeat criminals combined with those that carried along with the crowd) think that they can get away with their crimes. Daniel Henry nails it. The reason people riot is because they think they can get away with it (once law and order breaks down). It is the perception of the rioter in thinking they will/won’t get caught that determines if a riot situation develops, not the punishment.

    The idea that the punishment should be more severe in the case of a riot is barking mad and completely illiberal. If anything, given the psychology of crowds, a riot should be a mitigating factor in sentancing, not an aggravating factor. Giving out harsher punishments for rioters, compared to other criminals, will fuel the sense of injustice and help sow the seeds of more civil unrest.

    The best way to make sure a future riots aren’t as contagious is to ensure the conviction rate from last week is a high as possible and to ensure that the police learn from these riots how to secure more convictions by catching more lawbreakers and collecting more evidence (tackling the underlying resentment of authority by cracking down on MPs/bankers/rogue judges would also help as would tackling the inequality of opportunity across our society).

    The best way to prevent such a riot from breaking out is to solve the problem the Met/IPCC has with telling the truth when they cock something up.

  • Stuart Mitchell 18th Aug '11 - 8:50am

    I don’t think there has to be a choice here between prison/punishment and rehabilitation/restorative justice. There is a place for both, and certainly in the case of the kind of rioting/looting we saw last week it would seem to me to be appropriate for many of the culprits to experience a stay in prison (to teach them a proverbial lesson) followed by some payback within the community.

    The big problem I have generally with the liberal approach to justice is that, rather like George Osborne’s fiscal policy, there is simply no Plan B. Liberals never seem to want to acknowledge that there are large numbers of criminals for whom restorative justice would have no effect whatsoever, because they actually like what they do and have no moral qualms about doing it. Liberals seem to have no answer to the question of what we do with people like that.

    We heard reports from the riots that some looters were mocking their victims for being afraid of them. It sems to me that bringing such criminals face to face with their victims again is very unlikely to make much difference to the attitudes of the criminals, and could well end up being another deeply traumatic experience for the victims.

  • @Simon McGrath
    Can you really not understand why everything possible has to be done to stop people stealing in riots?

    No, I can’t. Why not advocate the death penalty then? And why should not “everything possible” be done to deter other crime?

  • Simon
    Yes, of course, the sort of mayhem we saw needs to be deterred, BUT, an overly and undiscriminatingly harsh set of sentences are likely to merely intensify the feeling that some groups of people have been “left out”, and will increase the chances of more serious “political” rioting. Is that really what we want, when this country and the world face a series of near intractable problems. We all need to work together where possible, and everyone needs to exercise restraint, because (remember) “We’re all in this together”.

  • @Simon McGrath
    “Just realised you must be a troll trying to get people to argue with you.”

    Someone has a different opinion to you (that was expressed dispassionately and articulately), so they must be a “troll”. Wow.

    Who are you to say someone else is a ‘troll’ ? – where did you derive the authority to make this pronouncement? Are you in charge? – heaven help us if you are.

  • @Simon McGrath
    “Can’t see the logic of this at all. If anyone will feel left out is will be the overheleming majority of young people in poor areas who didnt and will see those who chose to do so getting off with token punishments.”

    Nobody has advocated token punishments. The evidence is that harsher punishments do not work as a deterrant, whereas a higher rate of conviction will. Therefore, the huge sum of taxpayer’s money involved in sending someone to prison for six months (for stealing a £3.50 bottle of water) would be better spent on police time that would result in the conviction of further offenders. It is more effective to spend the same amount of money on the conviction of several criminals (who would then be given proportionate sentences such as community service, etc) than spending the same amount of money keeping one person in prison for six months (whilst the offenders aren’t brought to justice because of a lack of resources). Sending someone to prison for six months for such a petty crime is a gross waste of taxpayer’s’ money, as well as being completely illiberal and counter-productive.

  • Some of the sentences handed out post-riots are totally unjustified. Four years for creating a Facebook group is beyond ridiculous, asis 18 months for the theft of a couple of quids’ worth of bottled water. All these punishments will do is destroy the future careers and life chances of people who could otherwise have been productive members of society. Now we will have to spend tens of thousands a year locking them up.

    As for the argument that heavier sentences are justified because other people were rioting- that is a fundamentally illiberal point of view. One person’s sentence should never be affected by the actions of other people. Sentencing decisions must be made based on the actions of the defendant and the facts of his particular offence. How can it be right for the actions of other people- over which these defendants had no control- to affect their sentencing? Effectively the extra months on the sentences mean that they are being punished for the crimes of others. That is wrong and no liberal should support it.

  • Tim13- very level headed and sensible analysis.

  • Keith Browning 18th Aug '11 - 3:21pm

    It reminds me of a story from the 18th century. A man was sentenced to death by hanging for ‘borrowing’ a horse for a short while. He asked the magistrate why a horse was worth more than a man’s life.

    The Judge told him he wasn’t going to be hung for taking the horse but was being hung to ‘stop other people taking horses’.

  • I dispute your description of Ed Milliband’s reaction to the riots. I watched his question and answer session with local residents of Tottenham and others on the BBC news channel. His position, consistently, was that the riots had many complex causes and that the last thing that was needed was a knee jerk response. Hardly reactionary.

    The riots have caused the coalition to row back from all the soft law and order policies which they were espousing just weeks ago. In this situation Ed’s promotion of a cool and rational approach is what is required. Articles such as yours assist such a debate.

  • Keith B The French in 1789 had a phrase for it : “Pour encourager les autres”.
    My French twinner asked me a week or two ago (BEFORE the mayhem) “When will the English Revolution be?

  • Simon
    “Token punishments”. Now you’re moving the goalposts to try to win this argument. Nowhere did I argue for “token punishments” – I said they should be similar to punishments for similar offences. Iacknowledged that it could be argued that punishments should be lower than comparable, but I did not say they actually should be. You will find a carefully argued piece in today’s Grauniad G2 which makes a much better case than I do on this. Looking at the overall weight of opinion on here (and I know this is a liberal site), I’d say that your views are somewhat outgunned here, and I know if one person is against a hundred, they should still make their case. Funnily enough, I can see your logic, but I don’t think it is an especially liberal mode of thought, and could easily become repressive.

    Where people would be shocked, is if the fire raisers, the people who have led to death and serious injury, and armed violent burglars, were to get off lightly. Yes, some of these would have been “swept along”, but whoever they are, they will need to understand that they have done serious wrong.

  • @Sam Phripp

    “The article was very much based on his speech, which in my opinion focussed much more on bashing the PM (something I’m not altogether against) and not enough on what seems to me the glaringly obvious, that part of the problem, which has led to such unrest is the massive and growing gap between rich and poor – something which Labour made worse.”

    Labour did not make the massive gap between rich and poor worse. The thirteen years during which Labour was in power saw high rates of growth and a sympathetic environment for business which consequently made the rich richer. On the contrary, Labour not only maintained the real value of benefits for the poor and disadvantaged, it also increased them and brought in many additional benefits too (EMA for example). Labour also created thousands of jobs in the public sector. That is why, although there remained an equality gap, at no time during the period when Labour was in office did we ever see the terrifying, massive public disorder that we saw recently on the Tory Led coalition’s watch. Even when opposition to the Iraq war was at its height we never saw anything like the scale of disorder that we saw this summer, just one year into this coalition government. In May 2010 the Liberal Democrats colluded with the Tories, under the pretext of deficit reduction, to make a savage and unjustified assault upon the living standards of the poor, the dispossessed and the disadvantaged. The coalition compounded this by sending out signals that it believed that prison didn’t work; that custodial sentences were unnecessary; that dangerous convicted criminals could have their prison sentences halved by pleading guilty; that CCTV cameras and speed cameras were unnecessary and did nothing to reduce crime; that the holding of DNA by the police was wrong. The Coalition also abolished ASBOS and is still, despite the riots, continuing with a programme of cutting thousands and thousands of police officers. Such policies gave a green light to the criminal element which always follows in the wake of protest and thrives on disorder. The criminals assumed that they were unlikely to be caught and that even if they were they’d only get community punishments. Now the government has turned through 180 degrees and is appeasing those sections of the mob that are demanding that people be hung for stealing a sheep. It is the Coalition who are proving to be the real reactionaries. It is the incompetent and venal policies of the Liberal Democrats and the Tories which have made the gap between rich and poor far, far worse than under Labour and account for some of the many causes of the riots. Your article above suggests that you are a thoughtful and reasonable man. When are you and your fellow Liberal Democrats going to admit your culpability in all this and accept that you have cut too far and too fast?

  • A regular refrain on this Forum over the last year has been that Labour are beyond the pale due to their illiberal and authoritarian attitudes, especially on criminal justice issues – compared with the coalition’s more enlightened approach.

    Now that the main coalition party are taking some heavily authoritarian stances of their own, I hope the LibDems will be equally as robust in challenging their coalition partners. Many conservative commentators are saying that these riots represent an opportunity to take a much more right-wing approach, with repeal of the Human Rights Act being a constant demand. Now is the time for Clagg and co to dig in, even though it will attract vitriol from much of the press.

  • Daniel Henry 19th Aug '11 - 2:32pm

    Clegg and some of our other MPs have been making some good noises about restorative justice so there’s hope.

    What we need to do now is raise an emergency motion at conference that clarifies and details the liberal response to the riots.

    I think the people would really appreciate a rational response to this situation and I think it’s the perfect opportunity to distinguish us from the Tories.

    PS. From what I’ve seen of Ed Miliband he’s come across as calm and measured which is a decent improvement on Labour’s usual reactionism, but so far he’s yet to set out a positive alternative vision. That leaves us an opportunity to take the lead on this issue.

  • @Mack
    This is pretty frustrating. I don’t think the riots were outwardly political. I don’t think it was a mass demonstration on the ills of society and what the coalition is or is not doing. What I do think is that it was born of a ‘perfect storm’ (for want of a better term) where current social turmoil (I agree, I actually think govt is cutting too fast, and I do worry what will happen if it all falls flat on its face) mixed with what has been smouldering under the surface for many years. A massive group of young people who don’t feel any responsibility, who have little respect for their parents authority and who see stealing as an option when joined by others. Those people weren’t born of the coalition, they didn’t suddenly become active on May 5th, they’ve been around and raised under a Labour govt. That isn’t damning. Labour did brilliant things to help with deprivation from SureStart to trust funds, but still, the gap between have and have not go bigger. Labour have as much responsibility for this as anyone else – the tories and the LibDems included.

  • @ Sam Phripp

    Thank you for having the honesty to agree that the Coalition is cutting too far and too fast which,of course, was the position of the Liberal Democrats during the General Election and was jettisoned once they embarked on their unedifying power bargaining.

    “Those people weren’t born of the coalition, they didn’t suddenly become active on May 5th, they’ve been around and raised under a Labour govt.”

    Strange then, these people didn’t riot in twenty six areas of London and in towns and cities across the country during Labour’s period of government, isn’t it?

    You are right, Labour did an enormous amount but not enough. I think that Labour should have used its massive majorities to revoke the right to buy and build thousands more council homes which would have given many young people the opportunity to have their own living space. The fact that many young people are forced to continue living with their parents into their thirties and often in overcrowded conditions because they can’t afford housing or no council housing is available creates enormous social tension and surely was a factor in the riots. Yes, I regret that there are many things that Labour did not do during its time in power, including retaking the utility companies and the railways back into public ownership. However, to suggest that the riots were carried out by children created by Labour is ludicrous. For the first two years of Blair’s first government Labour implemented Tory spending policies. And the majority of the rioters and looters weren’t children thirteen years and under. In fact, the age range of those involved was vast. Indeed, Cameron has put the blame squarely on bad or non-existent parenting but the parents of the so called “Blair’s children” were themselves raised during the locust years of Thatcher and Major who were Tories! Politicians must take responsibility for the consequences of their actions but such retrospective attribution of blanket blame to a specific prime minister does not illuminate and gets us nowhere. That is why we need the wide ranging enquiry that Ed Milliband has called for.

    You say that you don’t think that the riots were “outwardly political”. That would seem to be true in the sense of, say, the Grosvenor Square riots, which were caused by a specific political grievance against the United States. However, it would be a terrible mistake for the coalition to assume that it is only the articulate, politically motivated intelligentsia united around an agenda who riot politically. Politicians who make bad choices can produce hunger, deprivation, descrimination, and discontent for many. If people’s reaction in response to hardships created for them by politicians is to riot then surely they are rioting politically, even though, they may not consciously be aware that their actions are “political”?

    Finally, I agree with you that Community Payback might be appropriate as punishment for some of the rioters. But certainly not for those who appeared in the video released today by Birmingham Police showing rioters shooting at the police during the disorder in that City. Many of those who took part in the riots were quite obviously violent and viscious criminals who deserve to be locked away for a very long time.

  • @MacK
    I don’t fully agree with the way you’ve edited my comment – but fair enough.
    And of course, if someone has shot at a police officer I wouldn’t say that their punishment should be painting a burnt out shop and skipping off home. I’m a liberal – not an idiot!
    Your argument about similar riots not happening under Labour is pretty wide of the mark. No, they didn’t riot under Labour. If you look upon these riots as the gift of a pressure cooker type situation, then this is a social problem that dates back to Thatcher. I do think perhaps that people felt less agrieved because they did have ill-targetted and ill thought through perks like EMA to keep them buttered up. Of course, if kids need support they should get it, through a variety of streams, but things like EMA didn’t help anyone long-term.

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