British society is not "sick"

19 August 2011

Earlier this month, a spate of terrifying violence and disorder erupted onto our streets. Communities were terrorised, individuals attacked and city centres trashed. Horrendous images on our TV screens of burning buildings and mindless looting created a climate of fear in which people were scared to leave their homes - and in which public trust in the capacity of our police force to respond effectively was shaken.

The Green Party unequivocally condemns the violence and vandalism which has left indelible scars on families, businesses and urban environments across England. We express sincere condolences for those who lost loved ones in the chaos. And we feel admiration for those who took part in the peaceful defence of their neighbourhoods, as well as those came out onto the streets for the clean-up effort.

In the weeks since, the sheer number of column inches devoted to attempts to understand why the riots and looting took place - and how we might be able to prevent such devastation in future - illustrates the huge complexity of this issue. The honest truth is that there are no easy answers.

As a political party, we believe it is crucially important for the fabric of UK society that the Government and the police strike a balance between keeping our streets safe - protecting people from harm and defending communities against destruction - and upholding the hard won civil liberties of our citizens. And we want to keep things in perspective. We do not believe, as Mr Cameron does, that British society is ‘sick'.

Underpinning any analysis should be a recognition of the deep inequality which lies at the heart of British society. So too should we understand the consequences of a consumer culture which promotes endless material accumulation, an aggressive sense of entitlement and a demoralising level of status anxiety.

The Coalition Government's reckless austerity agenda, combined with rising youth unemployment and economic stagnation, is contributing in no small way towards a sense of hopelessness - with huge cuts in public funding for young people's clubs and services, and the scrapping of Educational Maintenance Allowance already having an impact. It's clear that many people feel disempowered and that some have become disengaged from their own communities, to the extent that they are willing to attack them without fear of consequence.

Policing

That the riots and looting escalated to such an alarming degree is no doubt in part due to the failure of the police on the first two nights of the outbreak to maintain order - a result of inappropriate operational tactics and lack of numbers, and the Party has publicly voiced criticism of the police to this effect. However, we have largely welcomed the police approach on the last three nights of riots, which proved more successful in containing the unrest.

In light of these events, the Greens are calling for a moratorium on all police cuts until December 2012; in other words, after the colossal policing challenge that is the London 2012 Olympics, and after the various inquiries into the riots have reported back. In the meantime, the police should focus on spending money wisely, and ensuring that police officers are not burdened with administrative tasks which take them away from frontline policing.

Public order policing needs to be more flexible and intelligent. A review of public order policing training is required, as well as a strategy to train up more reserve police officers. Urgent initiatives should be put in place to improve cooperation between police and communities to build stronger foundations for the future.

Draconian tactics are not the answer

While it is crucial that the police develop the necessary tactics to provide public protection in challenging times, we must also recognise the dangerous and draconian nature of some modern policing methods. Such methods can pose a serious risk to public safety and individual liberty, and incidents such as deaths in police custody serve to fuel negative perceptions of the police.

We condemn, for example, the use of plastic bullets, which raise serious public health and civil liberties concerns. We reject calls for the police to be routinely armed. We do not support the use of Taser guns unless as a last resort and as a more humane option to lethal shooting with bullets. In these cases, they should be issued only to fully trained armed response units.

The use of water cannon was operationally inappropriate in the recent riot situations we saw around the country; that is, small and mobile groups on high streets or barricaded urban estates. They are also very costly - senior Met officers in 2009 investigated the purchase of six water cannon, at a cost of £5m - and involve practical challenges of transport and storage.

The Green Party rejects the idea of localised curfews, which we view as repressive and difficult to enforce. We also strongly reject any attempts to close down social media, which we believe to be misguided and counterproductive - and urge people to sign up to the Open Rights Group's online petition on this issue.

The Party also continues to support the principle of free speech for legal organisations, and is therefore concerned about the consequences of kneejerk reactions in the wake of the riots which could see this principle breached. The Party is opposed, for example, to bans on events such as marches by the English Defence League, which would serve to drive these groups underground - making it far harder to challenge their contemptible views.

Cameron's political punishments will undermine respect for the law

The sentencing of riot perpetrators in a way which is clearly designed to "set an example" and act as a deterrent is overtly political and wholly misguided. The varying sentences given out so far reveal serious inconsistencies and an alarming lack of proportionality. As such, they threaten to bring the legal system into disrepute. Overly tough sentencing will lead to costly and time consuming appeals, and add to the sense of unfairness already rife in our society.

Rather than succumbing to kneejerk calls for draconian punishments, David Cameron and the UK justice system should be doing all they can encourage trust in, and respect for, our laws and the legal profession itself. They should also be clear about the consequences of sending hundreds of young people to jail - especially when prison capacity is at an all time low - with little chance of any proper rehabilitation.

In April this year, justice secretary Kenneth Clarke called for a rethink of prison policy, including a 3,000 reduction in the number of people locked up. "It is just very, very bad value for taxpayers' money to keep banging them up and warehousing them in overcrowded prisons where most of them get toughened up", he said. Mr Cameron should take heed.

Sentencing guidelines already allow courts to take into account, where relevant, "aggravating circumstances". No more than this should be necessary; criminals should continue to be punished for their crimes in the correct manner. We support a greater focus on community sentencing for those involved in the riots and looting, as well as efforts to bring perpetrators face to face with their victims, and to involve them in the repair of damage done to businesses and communities.

The Greens completely oppose withdrawing benefits from those linked to the events and we oppose the eviction of families from state-supported housing. Such measures will only exacerbate existing problems of poverty and alienation - cutting off ever further those who we must seek to bring closer. Driving people into deeper poverty will not make the streets safer - nor will it help us build a stronger, fairer society.

Long term solutions

The Coalition Government must show it is willing to address the shocking level of inequality which exists in our society. Research by UNICEF suggests that the UK is one of the worst places to live as a child or teenager in the developed world - largely thanks to the growing gulf between the haves and have nots. This is not something which the Government has shown any interest in tackling.

We need policies to create a more equal society. And as the economy continues to teeter dangerously on the edge of disaster, we need urgent action to create jobs and get people into work. The Green Party has long supported, and implemented where possible, the introduction of a Living Wage to begin to address these issues. We will continue to push for this change at every opportunity.

We also continue our call for Government investment in the clean industries of the future to create millions of new green jobs and help our transition towards a greener future. And we demand bold measures to tackle the scourge of tax evasion and avoidance which allows those at the top of society to loot the public purse with impunity.

Although we reject the idea of any kind of military-based national service, the Greens would support a voluntary national community service programme for young people - particularly one geared towards training and eventual employment. Sadly, such a positive scheme would require a level of funding unlikely to be forthcoming from this Government.

Yet by investing money in intervention now in programmes to broaden the horizons of young people, address their concerns about the future, offer them a way to participate in public life and have their voices heard, we can save the state money - and save lives - in the long term.

For example, to tackle the lethal gang culture which blights our inner cities, the Greens propose the introduction of Community Initiatives to Reduce Violence (CIRVs) based on the successful model we have seen in Glasgow. The scheme seeks to reduce violent behaviour and provide mentoring, career and employment services, bringing together different social services in an integrated approach. This way, we can make sure that those at the bottom are drawn away from criminality, and are able to gain control of their own lives.

In the meantime, the Greens welcome the inquiries now underway to investigate the complex causes behind the August riots - in particular, the formal commission being coordinated by Nick Clegg which aims to speak directly to people within the affected neighbourhoods about what happened. We also support efforts to establish "payback" sentencing and restorative justice for people found to have participated in the disturbances. Plans for a "riot payback scheme" would ensure that those who are convicted are forced to mend the damage done via community service work, and to face up to the consequences of their actions through meetings with victims. If the Government is serious about preventing a repeat of these terrible events, then such solutions must form part of a more balanced, humane and realistic approach - one which can help to bring our society closer together, rather than pushing us further apart.

 

 






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