Riots report undermines the Tory diagnosis, but spreads itself too thin

communities, crime, families, young people

Author(s):  Matt Cavanagh
Published date:  28 Mar 2012
Source:  Spectator, Coffee House Blog

After last August’s riots the debate became quickly polarised. Were socio-economic factors like unemployment to blame, or was it all down to the individual choices of the rioters?

David Cameron and other Conservative ministers knew which side of this debate they wanted to be on. They had been taken by surprise by the riots, initially failing to realise how serious things were, but when they got back from their holidays they set out a clear and confident line, brushing off most questions about links to the state of the economy or youth attitudes, and condemning the riots as ‘criminality pure and simple’.

The soundbite was deliberately simplistic; Conservative ministers’ actual views were more complex. They didn’t actually dismiss all discussion of causes or social factors. They were happy to talk about those causes or factors which resonated with the Conservative theme of the ‘broken society’, and which have their effect not by making people more angry or alienated at a particular moment, but by shaping their character — turning them into bad people. So, for example, ministers were happy to talk about whether bad parenting or ‘troubled families’ were to blame for the riots, by creating a generation of ‘feral’ youth; they were less happy to talk about whether rising youth unemployment or inequality or alienation was to blame, by creating more immediate anger or alienation.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats were less decisive, or less simplistic — and, as a result, the public were less clear where these parties stood. However, they did win an important argument on the need for a broad inquiry into the riots, an idea which the Conservatives at first opposed. The result was the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel, whose final report is published today.

The report estimates that around 15,000 people actively took part in the riots, with many more standing by and watching. Most were under twenty-five. The panel also surveyed over a thousand people living in the affected areas, and found that, like Conservative ministers, these people condemn the rioters’ behaviour and think they deserve stiff punishments. Again like Conservatives, they are worried about the effects of bad parenting and family breakdown. But they are also worried about youth unemployment (83 per cent cited this as a problem in their area), and consumerism (67 per cent felt there was a problem with youth attitudes, and 85 percent felt advertising targeted young people too much).

So, in terms of the causes of the riots, the report ranges far wider than Conservative ministers are comfortable with. In addition, the one social policy which the Prime Minister specifically tied to the riots, his pledge to ‘turn round’ 120,000 ‘troubled families’, fails to get the report’s endorsement: of eighty local authorities they spoke to, only four thought there was much overlap between these families and the rioters. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a good policy: broadly speaking it is, as I argued here in December. It was just wrongly framed. This was a typical example of ministers casting around for a ‘solution’ to a crisis, and reaching for a policy which was being worked up anyway for other reasons.

This needn’t be fatal, though there is always a risk that if a government isn’t clear why it is pursuing a particular policy, it is more likely to get forgotten, or go off the rails. That risk is heightened further if the evidence base for the policy is weak. As I noted at the time, Mr Cameron’s 120,000 figure does not look robust enough to bear the weight which is being rested on it. The answer, however, is not to ditch it in favour of the similarly vague figure of 500,000 ‘forgotten families’ favoured by today’s report. What is needed is greater clarity and consistency about exactly what kinds of family this policy is trying to help, and based on that, some proper, new research on how many of these families there are, and where they live.

The charge of lacking clarity can also be levelled at the riots panel themselves. Their report has sixty-five recommendations. Many are admirable. I did not speak to the panel myself, but I have advocated many of their ideas over the years, inside and outside government: better Pupil Referral Units, youth services that are actually open at weekends and in school holidays, Neighbourhood Policing, better data sharing between different agencies working with troubled families, Restorative Justice, and so on. Many of these programmes or approaches are already happening to different degrees around the country. But what unites them is they all have far wider relevance and application than preventing a recurrence of the riots; I am not sure of the value of including them all in a report which will be seen as an answer to that narrower question.

Judging from the government’s initial response — to note the report, and comment that it is doing some of these things already — there is no chance of it being used as a detailed blueprint. It would have been better for the panel to limit themselves to fifteen or so recommendations: in particular, those that are more closely linked to the riots, plus a few wider policies which the panel judged to be the highest priority. They and their supporters could have championed this shorter list with real focus and determination.

Some of the recommendations are so widely accepted that including them in the report seems especially pointless. For example, reducing re-offending rates, improving literacy, increasing volunteering, expanding apprenticeships, and giving employees more of a stake in their business, are objectives which all the main parties share. The interesting debate is over how to achieve them. Other recommendations, like the idea that companies should stop targeting young people with marketing and advertising, and that schools need to get back into the business of instilling ‘character’, are potentially more interesting, but the report leaves the details of implementation frustratingly vague. Perhaps this is for the best: in one of the few cases where the report does makes a concrete recommendation — fining schools for poor literacy results — it looks half-baked.

Finally, with a number of recommendations, the main problem is cost. Policies like one-to-one mentoring for children who fall behind or get into trouble, or for offenders being released from prison, or for young offenders transferring into the adult justice system, are good ideas which have been around for many years — but they are inherently expensive. The report shows little appreciation of the fact that we're living through a period where money is likely to remain very tight for many years to come.

Nevertheless, one of the recommendations I do endorse is also one of the most ambitious: the job ‘promise’ for people under twenty-five who are unemployed for more than a year. This policy comes at a price, which IPPR — unlike the panel — has costed, at around £400m, and which will have to be found by reducing spending elsewhere. IPPR was advocating the idea of a job guarantee well before the riots, for much wider reasons: to stop a whole generation being scarred by long-term unemployment. But, as I argued immediately after the riots, there is no denying that youth unemployment is a reliable driver of crime and disorder. The idea of a job guarantee for young people could have a significant additional benefit if it was framed in part as a response to the riots.