The attacks on individuals and property and the looting and thieving from shops as well as the burning of commercial premises and people’s homes is a national disgrace and should be condemned unreservedly.
Whatever happened over the shooting in Tottenham can in no way be offered as a justification or excuse for the wanton destruction and looting which has taken place in areas and cities far removed from Tottenham. The family of Mark Duggan who was shot dead have totally disassociated themselves from the acts of violence and looting.
The first and only priority was, rightly, for the forces of law and order to reclaim control of the streets of our cities so as to allow ordinary citizens to feel safe and for shops and businesses to re-open. Those individuals who have been involved in the wanton acts of violence, looting and arson are being brought before the Courts and I welcome the speed with which this is being done.
Once people can feel safe to go about their everyday lives there are wider questions which need to be addressed. The events surrounding the shooting of Mark Duggan are rightly being investigated by the IPPC and questions need to be asked about whether his family were given appropriate information and counselling after the incident. Questions also need to be asked as to why it is that we have individuals and groups in our society who are so alienated that they think nothing about engaging in opportunistic crimes such as looting and destroying their own communities.
We also need to consider how we can break-up the ‘gang culture’ which has grown up in a number of our cities and which acts as a magnet - particularly for disaffected young people. These and many other questions need to be asked - will be asked - and need to be discussed and debated over the coming months once normality has returned to the streets of our cities.
I commend the bravery of the Police in confronting the rioters and the spontaneous efforts by thousands of ordinary citizens in Birmingham and throughout the country who set about clearing and cleaning up their neighbourhoods which had been attacked.
I welcomed the commitment given by the Prime Minister that all necessary resources will be made available to the Police in order to reclaim the streets of our cities but his Government also needs to look again at their policy of cuts in Police numbers which are bound mean that there are less Police, PCSOs and Special Constables on our streets in future. Taking Police Officers from behind desks to put on the streets is all very well but somebody has got to prepare the charge sheets and paperwork for the Courts otherwise the Courts will dismiss the cases and criminals will walk free.
Furthermore what happened last week cannot be divorced from what is happening throughout society at the moment. Every section of our society – except those who are extremely wealthy – are facing increasing financial pressures caused by the financial crisis which began in 2007 when the Government had to bail out Northern Rock and accelerated in 2008 when Lehman Brothers went bust. The crisis was not caused by ordinary people. It was not caused by nurses or teachers; public sector workers; people working in the private sector; small businessmen; students or retired people. It was caused by the greed, selfishness and irresponsibility of a small group in the financial sector but everybody is now paying the price. The squeeze and drop in living standards for ordinary people is the severest since the 1930s.
Nothing that I have said should be interpreted as any form of justification, excuse or apology for the despicable acts that we have witnessed over the last week but there is an old saying - ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’. Most, but not all, of the individuals involved in the in the acts of criminality have been young people. With youth unemployment, including graduates, standing at 20%; cut-backs taking place in a whole range of support services; the Future Jobs Fund and Education Maintenance Allowance abolished; youth centres and leisure facilities being closed or their usage restricted and recreation grounds and parks having their maintenance reduced it is self apparent that there are going to be a lot of young people, many of them very impressionable, hanging around on our streets with very little to do and no money in their pockets. It was like a tinderbox waiting to be set alight.
There are two more points I would wish to make.
Last week the Prime Minister said that he wouldn’t allow Human Rights Legislation to interfere with seeking out the perpetrators of these acts of criminality. This might have superficial attractions and is certainly a popular ‘sound-bite’ but we need to be careful. If we are saying that we are standing up for the rule of law and that it must be upheld in a democratic and civilised society then we have to stand by the rule of law as it is - even if it can be an impediment to swift action. Certainly all the individuals involved in these acts of criminality need to be arrested and brought before the Courts but we need to do this within the law and if changes need to be made in our Human Rights Legislation, or our relationship with the European Convention on Human Rights, then these changes need to be made for the right reasons and not as a kneejerk response to these acts of criminality for which the Police have plenty of existing powers to arrest, detain and charge the people involved.
The last point I would make is that the disturbances and destruction have not just resulted in property and possessions being lost but have also resulted in three tragic fatalities in Birmingham and one in London. The three young boys who were tragically killed in Dudley Road were doing nothing more than trying to defend, with others, their properties. Similar groups of people and shopkeepers have joined together in many other towns and cities. These are not vigilante groups. They are just groups of ordinary innocent people whose lives and livelihoods are suddenly under threat and if the Police were too stretched to respond to their calls for help then, so far as I am concerned, they were perfectly entitled to join with others in protecting their own property and possessions. The three young people were killed as part of the madness that descended on Birmingham on Tuesday night and our thoughts and condolences have to be with their families of these three young men. The dignified and measured comments of the father on one of the victims was incredibly moving and clearly shows that even at a time of despair goodness and dignity can prevail.
We owe it to those who lost their lives to make sure that everything is done to prevent similar occurrences happening again.