Since the riots we have seen extreme views from right and left of the commentary spectrum but somehow they don’t meet in the middle. Dreadful events which took place. Families, organisations and businesses suffered enormously with desperately sad outcomes. While politicians led by Boris Johnson flew home hoping to give the appearance of taking charge, it was the police who did a superb job, co-ordinating nationally to bring the situation under control. Calls were made to censor or even shut down social media but then ignored the positives – lifesaving messages to ensure help was delivered to people at risk, and indeed the grand clean up mobilised by twitter. Comments in some papers seem to want a stronger response to the riots than we currently have to terrorist risks.
What isn’t being said so clearly is that while we must set clear boundaries for behaviour we must also engage young people and not estrange them. Tough sentencing can act as a deterrent, but lengthy prison sentences in severely overcrowded conditions do not improve character, and may well turn one stupid act into a cycle of violence. The imprisonment of a mother for receiving a pair of stolen shorts was ’ bonkers’ in the words of Tessa Munt MP.
It is important to note some other contextual aspects of this month’s events. Nationally around 20% of adults between 16 and 24 are unemployed, with London already hitting 22%. Apprenticeships are well and good, but too many are insubstantial, and indeed many of the non-graduate jobs created are very short term. Around 200,000 students with grades which would have earned a university place two years ago are now without plans for their future. The Education Maintenance Allowance which automatically targeted less well-off families has been scrapped and Connexions has disappeared. We continue to worry about young people, gun and knife crime but youth service provision is disappearing like snow in summer. Let’s also not forget that ageing demographic of this country relies on younger adults working for their own benefit and that of the community.
We support an independent inquiry into the riots. It is vital that the longer term response is framed in the context of knowledge and deeper understanding rather than knee jerk reaction. We need to learn much more about the triggers, we need to understand more about what worked and what didn’t.
Lib Dems are rightly in the forefront of some of the stronger initiatives developed in the wake of the events. The ‘riot payback scheme’ announced by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is spot on in the use of restorative justice to make offenders clean up and make good the damage caused to their local communities. Not a soft option at all for offenders if administered properly. And at last victims will be offered the chance to be able to tell offenders just what the impact of their mindless action really was. Excellent Lib Dem policy in action.
However there is a sharp context to the response to the Toxteth riots in Liverpool and to today’s events. It is not traditionally a role which SLF takes, but we note that for once Margaret Thatcher did the right thing in encouraging the work of Michael Heseltine in rebuilding communities including of course financial support.
Our young adults need above all hope. We need to do much more to ensure that apprenticeships are of a high standard, will provide genuine training and skills development. We need to take a hard look at the job creation schemes currently operating to target work opportunities of 12 months or more as indeed the old YTS scheme did. Giving someone a short term job only strengthens the feeling that they are disposable. We need to change our ideas quickly and recognise that there is so much talent in our young people which could be nurtured and developed. If we want to apply sanctions in the wake of appalling behaviour, we surely must also provide practical encouragement.