Monday, March 31, 2014 

50 shades of Grayling.

(I am really, really sorry for the title.)

Isn't Chris Grayling brilliant?  Most other politicians would have realised within a week they were fighting a losing battle over something so petty and self-defeating as preventing prisoners from having books and clothing sent into them by their relatives, and backed down, setting say a limit of one parcel allowed every six weeks.  Grayling instead has decided to resort to every excuse possible as to why such a scheme couldn't be established, even if his choice reason is one he didn't even mention in his first missive on why prisoners have to earn the right to everything under his new tough rehabilitation/privileges regime.

Yes, the real reason why prisoners can't be sent books from outside is, of course, drugs, with a side order of not allowing in extremist or pornographic material.  Grayling didn't mention a thing about illegal substances in his first response for, only that allowing in unlimited parcels would never be secure.  No one had suggested such a thing, but let's put that to one side.  Next, in a piece for Conservative Home, Grayling did open his case by asking whether it should be made easier to smuggle drugs into prison, yet he then spends much of the rest of his article complaining about how a "left-wing pressure group" (not the most accurate description of the Howard League) and other opponents are liberal lunatics for daring to disagree with him in general.  Lastly, in an open letter to the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who took part in a protest outside Pentonville prison last Friday against the ban, he strikes a far more emollient tone, while sticking to the whole drugs argument.

The obvious problem with Grayling's it's the drugs, stupid rhetoric, apart from how he's only grasped for it once everyone realised even some of the most ruthless governments on the planet still allow those they incarcerate to read as much or as little as they want, is that it's so easily solved.  Until recently Send Books to Prisoners acted as an intermediary through which relatives could send packages, making the chances of anyone trying to get banned materials through far more remote.  Rolling out such a system across the prison estate would be fairly simple.  In any case, the idea that the main way drugs get into prisons is in parcels is a nonsense: they're either brought in by the prison officers themselves or chucked over a wall, although visitors have also long chanced their arm.  In any case, more recently the most smuggled items by visitors have been mobile phones rather than drugs.

Still, you can't be too careful even if it is just books and not drugs, hence why Grayling also brings up the spectre of paedophiles "accessing illegal written pornographic material" if books aren't properly checked as to their content.  This seems to ignore how people will masturbate to almost anything if they can't get their hands on their favoured stuff, or indeed how the more ingenious will write their own such stories to be shared if they have no intention of addressing their behaviour.  Nor should the prison librarians themselves have to put up with slurs on their work, again despite no one suggesting they were at fault.  It's just that as library provision outside prison has been cut back, with local authorities also being in charge of their equivalents behind closed walls, it's hardly going to be surprising if the offering isn't as comprehensive as it could be.

Throughout his responses, the one question Grayling has failed to answer is why the privileges scheme can't be altered to allow such vital, humanising items as books, underwear and homemade cards from relatives to be sent in, while still leaving the rest of his changes unaffected.  Is it because cuts to the Ministry of Justice/Home Office have left prisons with too few staff to possibly process anything other than letters?  Is it down to how he really does believe denying prisoners the most basic things that make life worth living, unless they are earned, builds character and helps rehabilitation?  Or is it this has all been bluff, and that once the furore has died down, Grayling will allow a compromise whereby books and other items can be sent through an intermediary every so many weeks?

You have to hope it's the third and Grayling can be embarrassed into doing the right thing.  It does however speak volumes that not so much as a peep has been heard from backbench Liberal Democrat MPs on the matter, while Simon Hughes has supported Grayling.  If the intention has been to prevent any other former jailbirds from getting a Graun column on release though, perhaps we shouldn't be quite so hasty.

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Monday, March 24, 2014 

If hospitals cure...

There's been much comment, understandably, following the blog post from Frances Crook setting out how the new privileges regime in prisons means that the sending in of books, or indeed, almost anything other than a letter or a bought as opposed to homemade card has been banned.

This also covers magazines, and in my view, most outrageously, clothes.  At the discretion of the governor, as the prison service instructions on incentives and earned privileges set out (DOC), prisoners may be allowed to receive a "one-off clothing parcel" after conviction.  Otherwise, that's that.  Unless they're one of the few lucky enough to get a job in the prison and earn money to buy themselves some extra apparel, they'll be stuck wearing prison issue clothes, most likely worn by dozens of inmates before them.  Just how draconian these new restrictions are is made clear by the exception for unconvicted prisoners, who must be allowed to have "sufficient clean clothing sent into them from outside" (page 45).  In other words, those convicted may be stuck wearing the same, dirty clothes for much of their time inside.  As one of the conditions for getting on to even the standard level of privileges is to have "due regard for personal hygiene and health (including appearance, neatness and suitability of clothing)", this seems to have been designed specifically to make life as miserable as possible.

Suitably excised by all the liberal do-gooders demanding that prisoners have the right to read books when most have no intention of doing so, Chris Grayling has duly responded.  Why, the idea prisoners cannot have books is a nonsense!  They are allowed to have up to 12 in their cell at one time, so long that is as they brought them in to start with, as trips to the prison library are infrequent and there's no guarantee they'll have something the inmate will want to read.  Besides, they can also buy books with the money they earn from their job while detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure.  Those with a job are guaranteed the princely sum of at least £4.00 per week, meaning that if they don't buy anything else they can afford a paperback every two weeks.  That is if the paperback is £5.99, as those with a television set in their cell have to pay £1.00 a week rent for that privilege.  Those who don't have a job are guaranteed at least £2.50 a week, which with the £1 taken off for TV rent leaves them with £1.50 to spend as they please.  They're also not allowed to watch the TV when they could be working, even if there aren't any jobs or programmes for them to attend.  Grayling also says prisoners were never allowed unlimited parcels, which they certainly weren't.  To completely deny them anything other than letters and cards sent by friends or relatives however is a new and drastic change.

The reasoning behind all this is supposedly to decrease reoffending.  For years we heard of how "cushy" prisons had become, with even certain Sky channels allowed in private sector prisons.  Stop allowing inmates to lounge around watching daytime TV, get them either working or learning, and soon the astronomical recidivism rate will come down.  Except the reality is that even before the cuts made to the prison system there weren't enough jobs to go round, nor can every minute be spent either on specific programmes or in education (spot checks found an average of 25% of a prison's population locked up during the day).  Those not doing either are banged up, and deprived of TV or reading material the obvious result is boredom.  Boredom leading to depression, or alternatively, aggression.  How this is meant to reduce reoffending is not explained, nor does it seem there is any actual evidence suggesting a stricter privileges regime could help.  The PSI certainly doesn't suggest this is an attempt to reduce reoffending; the desired outcome section only sets out that "prisoners will engage with their rehabilitation".  Engaging is meaningless if their circumstances are much the same on release, which for most they will be.

Why then do it, when the risk surely is that even if not directly, the new restrictions might lead to the opposite of what is intended, even to riots?  The answer that it appeals to both the tabloids and to those who believe, more than reasonably, that prison is meant to be harsh and unpleasant doesn't really cover it.  That hardly anyone apart from those affected and their relatives knew is testament to the tiny impact it would have on the overall impression of the government, Grayling, or the prison system.

Instead, it's hard to shake the impression that Grayling gave the OK to such changes precisely because he could.  As with Iain Duncan Smith and his unshakeable belief that he is right and all of his critics are wrong or far worse, Grayling gives the impression of a man who always knows best.  We don't need any trials of probation privatisation, it just needs to be done.  Prisoners have wronged society, therefore allowing them new, clean underwear apart from that bought with their own money is a luxury they have forfeited.  Depriving someone who enjoyed reading outside with the means to keep up their habit is a punishment.  That some will have read to improve their literacy skills is irrelevant.  Posing as tough rarely costs votes, as long as that stance doesn't lead to prisoners on roofs.  And let's hope for Grayling's sake that doesn't happen.

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Tuesday, April 30, 2013 

Let's be beastly to crims (and dole bludgers).

It's the week of the local elections, which means it's the absolute opportune time to announce a new round of unpleasantness to those considered to be unpleasant.  Moving away from the usual targets, benefit claimants (on whom more in a moment), Chris Grayling has pounced upon the only people less popular with politicians, those convicted of crime rather than just deemed guilty of a moral one.

Out then go the old soft regimes where it was somewhat left up to prison governors how they operated the privileges system in their respective nicks, and in comes a new tougher scheme which seems focused on making the first two weeks in prison even more uncomfortable and depersonalising than it was already.  No longer will prisoners be allowed to wear their own clothes to begin with, have a TV in their cell (Ben Gunn says those on the basic level don't as it stands now; they also have to pay for them, contrary to popular belief), an increased number of visits or access to private cash; all must instead be earned.  Plenty of people will look at that and think that all sounds perfectly reasonable, and on one level it is.  The problem though is that it's the first few days in prison when those who are new to the experience are at their most vulnerable, both from other prisoners and themselves.  If the purpose of prison is to both punish and rehabilitate, then it helps no one if further avoidable harm is done to the individual at the very outset of their sentence.

As with so much of our policy on prisons, a little honesty and humility would go a long way.  Again, few are going to protest at prisoners being made to work a longer day, but they might if they knew there aren't enough jobs to go round in the first place, or what prisoners get in return for their labour.  There are a few schemes where they can earn in the region of £30 a week, although far more usual is pay of £4 to £10.  This is often work of the most menial kind, as a recent Howard League for Penal Reform report set out, and which hardly gives the kind of experience likely to impress employers on the outside.  For those who can't be found a job, they're likely to spend most of their time banged-up. While it's not explained exactly how prisoners can be stopped from watching TV in the daytime if they're on the higher privilege level and have one, what else are they expected to do? Read, if they haven't already finished those books they've got? Continue with any education programmes they're on, regardless of the lack of access to a tutor? Just kick their heels? Imposing boredom might be considered a punishment, but it brings with it its own set of obvious problems.

Nor do these changes take into consideration those who continue to maintain their innocence.  As admitting guilt is the first thing you have to do in order to take part in the rehabilitation programmes designed to prove your readiness to be released, those who refuse to do so will forever be stuck on the basic level, something that seems bound to lead to a legal challenge.  Then there are just the silly inconsistencies: prisoners won't be allowed 18 rated DVDs (they've long been prohibited items in medium or low security hospital wards), but will presumably be able to watch such films if they're shown on television.

The ultimate test of such changes ought to be whether they improve behaviour while in prison or decrease recidivism upon release.  One expects that studies will be established once the changes start in November to measure if this turns out to be the case.  Otherwise you could be forgiven for thinking the entire episode was designed as a purely populist measure to win a few votes during the traditional period of purdah.

Definitely not designed to win votes is the latest imposition on those without a job, a questionnaire apparently put together by the government's behavioural science unit, which must be completed on pain of the loss of benefits.  Those looking for work are presented with 48 statements, some of which are patently ridiculous ("I have not created anything of beauty in the last year"), and then asked whether they agree or disagree.  Any possibility this might help those lacking self-esteem or self-confidence is only slightly undermined by how the results at the end are largely identical regardless of whether you fill in the boxes or not.  For those worried about the creepiness of a test that bears more than a resemblance to the Oxford Capability Analysis carried out by Scientologists, it doesn't seem as though the results are recorded, which nonetheless isn't much of a reassurance.  Nor is it apparent what the point of it is, although that seems a perfectly adequate summary of the work of the "nudge" unit thus far.

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Thursday, November 22, 2012 

David Cameron is duly invited to the vomitorium.

All things considered, there are relatively few things I find so anathema that they make me feel physically ill.  Coming from someone who was so often throwing up at one point that I was ironically nicknamed "sick", factor in I barely feel comfortable in my own skin at most times, and this is quite the statement.  Compare me to David Cameron for instance, who finds the mere prospect of prisoners gaining the right to vote so terrible that he gets the urge to purge, and it's apparent my constitution is positively cast iron.

Cameron is by no means the only politician moved to blow chunks at having to give the franchise to those currently detained at her majesty's pleasure.  Truth be told, I'd wager the vast majority couldn't care less or quite probably even privately support giving some behind bars the opportunity if they so wish to vote.  It's that this is something being forced on them by the European Court of Human Rights.  If there's one thing politicians can't stand it's being told that they have to do something, unless of course it's the Daily Mail or the Sun doing the ordering, in which case they immediately hop to it.  Combine this with how it's the European court saying we have to change the law, even if the ECHR doesn't have anything to do with the European Union, as well as how this is about the supposed human rights of those who some on the right feel should count themselves lucky they aren't given just bread and water and left with only a bucket to piss and shit in, and it's a no brainer.  If they can't pontificate about this at pompous length, just what can they hiss and moan about?

Sadly, like it or not, the government has to look as though it's at least starting the process of changing the law or the Council of Europe might start imposing a few tiny fines over our intransigence.  In reality it's not so much the Council the government's worried about as it is prisoners starting legal action demanding compensation for being denied their rights, something that will almost certainly cost far more than any fines from Europe.

In line with the deadline set by the ECHR expiring tomorrow, the coalition has then duly set out the earliest possible draft of its prospective legislation (PDF).  In clear defiance of the court is that one of the options available to MPs will be to vote against any prisoners gaining the franchise, with the other choices to extend it to those serving sentences of less than 6 months and 4 years respectively.  Since the last skirmish over these proposals, the legal situation has changed slightly, as the draft bill sets out.  The grand chamber of the ECHR found in the case of Scoppola v. Italy (No.3) that it wasn't necessary for the judge at the time of sentencing to specifically remove the right to vote from the guilty party.  It did however reaffirm the principle that a blanket ban was discriminatory, so the inclusion of the do nothing option in the draft bill is the equivalent of sticking two fingers up to the court.

As Joshua Rozenberg (always worth remembering Rozenberg is married to Melanie Phillips, so he must have had a really enjoyable past week) sets out though, the government does still have significant leeway.  The ECHR doesn't demand that the law be changed immediately; merely that they set in motion the process of altering it.  This it has duly done, albeit at the last possible moment.  Whether the eventual published bill will make its way to the statute book before the next election is therefore highly doubtful.

Nonetheless, by including the status quo option at all the government seems to be setting itself up for a fall.  If it had really wanted to make things difficult for the ECHR while still complying with successive rulings, it could have gone for an even shorter limit than 6 months; why not 3 months, or 4 weeks?  It may well be that the joint committee will subsequently reject the option of offering no change in the bill, but that seems unlikely considering the strength of feeling among MPs.  The thinking appears to be that as long as the issue is defined in law, regardless of how, the court will have to bow to the will of parliament.

Not only is this foolish considering the legal advice, it's at odds with the coalition's somewhat enlightened views on attempting to reduce the level of reoffending.  Only this week Chris Grayling announced that all those sentenced to a year or less would be given a mentor on release who would try to guide them away from a return to crime, a sound idea, albeit one that needs resources and ingenuity the government and its favoured private sector contractors tend not to have.  Recognising that cutting those serving short sentences off from society until the day they're dumped back on the street is damaging rather than beneficial ought to be the first step towards designing a rehabilitation programme that truly works.  By allowing those serving under a year to vote if they so wish would be a further sign that regardless of what they've done, they will shortly be a member of their local community again, with all the rights and responsibilities (ugh) that entails.  Plus, if it means David Cameron and Tory backbenchers heaving as they go through the division lobbies, that's an incalculable bonus.

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Thursday, October 18, 2012 

Britain broken no more.

Remember the good old days of a few years ago when the arrival of the latest crime statistics invariably led to both the Conservatives and the tabloids arguing that the end was nigh?  I do, mainly because I then went and looked at the actual figures. Even a quick browse showed that both were being either highly selective, relying on the police figures over the results of the British Crime Survey on violence against the person for example, or highlighting only one aspect of recorded crime, such as the use of a specific weapon when the numbers being attacked and killed were in fact in decline.

It's interesting to note then that the release of today's figures, showing that despite the recession crime continues to fall, with only theft from the person increasing, has been met with an almost universal shrug.  There's no report as yet on the Sun's website, while the Mail has been left with having to put a story alongside its article on a "teenage yob" being given just a final warning after beating a boy with his own crutches.  Unlike how the Conservatives couldn't wait to pile in on any sign that Labour was being "soft on crime", on occasion concocting figures to such an extent that they were warned by the UK Statistics Authority they were likely to "mislead the public", the opposition's response has been just as low key, focusing mainly on the drop in the numbers of police officers.

Welcome as this is when the British Crime Survey suggests the chance of being a victim of crime is its lowest since it began, it's also indicative of how the right-wing press tends to play dirtier with Labour governments than they do with the Tories.  The Sun for instance claimed that a mistake in recording GBH was an indication Labour had been cooking the figures altogether, something it had no evidence whatsoever to back-up.  Admittedly, some of this was Labour making a rod for their own back: the consistent tough talking from home secretary after home secretary led all but inexorably to the press shrieking when the next moral panic arrived.  Just though as we barely hear a peep from David Cameron about the broken society now he's in power, even as hundreds of thousands have to rely on food banks, so the paper that did the most to promote the notion has "moved on".  As for any even grudging recognition that crime fell massively while Labour was in power, even if the two things are not necessarily connected, we'll be waiting a long time.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2011 

Where do we find these lunatics?

Even as someone with an, ahem, slight interest in the media and a loathing of the tabloids, I do on occasion get slightly tired of the knee-jerk bashing of the so-called popular press that gets featured in the "unpopular" Graun. Equally, on occasion, it's well worth reminding yourself of just how utterly vile the likes of the Sun can be: an editorial in today's paper comments, presumably in reference to the Graun's Reading the Riots research, that "[F]our months on, the Left has regrouped to concoct its perverse excuses for evil".

It's a sentence that sums up so much about the Sun's editorial mindset. That the "Left" would not have had to do any sort of "regrouping" had the government ordered a proper independent inquiry into the worst outbreak of disorder on our streets for a generation goes completely unmentioned. After all, why would they when both the Sun and the prime minister knew the causes the second the rioting began? It was what they've been spent the last umpteen years banging on about, not just the broken society, but a sick one, sick due to the collapse of responsibility, an underclass created through welfare dependency and worklessness, with the streets controlled by gangs. An inquiry might suggest that this wasn't a full or even partial picture, or worse still, have provided as the Sun so wonderfully puts it, "perverse excuses for evil".

This isn't to suggest that the Guardian and LSE's work has been a success, nor that its provisional findings can't be used to provide excuses. As others have pointed out, it's not wholly surprising that so many of those who took part hate the police, or are now pointing to their antipathy towards them as to why London and other parts of the country burned for four nights if they've been convicted previously. Far more interesting would have been a comparison between those convicted before they took part and those who hadn't as to their attitudes towards the police, as well as to how many times they'd been stopped and searched, if any. Indeed, even better would have been a quantitative rather than a qualitative study, or at least one running alongside the other: finding out why some from the same area and background rioted and others didn't would have added much to the debate. Instead, we're having to sift through those who not only enjoyed themselves but are now essentially boasting about what they did, such as the young man who supposedly came off a foreign holiday to take it part, and those who now deeply regret their getting caught up in the moment. Self-aggrandisment, rationalisation and honesty have all become mixed up.

To paint this though as "concocting perverse excuses for evil" is a wonderful reflection of the complete lack of curiosity on the part not of the Sun's readers, but on those who write for them, imagining they're speaking their language. At its heart it is not only obtuse and ignorant, it's also deeply anti-intellectual. You don't have to be even slightly sympathetic towards those who rioted to want to prevent it from happening again, and to even have a chance of that you have to at least attempt to understand why.

So much though when filtered through the tabloid impurity process becomes lost in translation. As they could have expected, the Homicide Review Advisory Group's call for a change to the law on murder has been ridiculed in the most disparaging terms when anyone can see that reform is long overdue. On a number of levels, the current mandatory sentence of at least 15 years and then a lifetime spent on licence is not working: not for those who commit a "mercy killing" who then take up the time of probation officers unnecessarily, nor for those who expect a "life" sentence to mean life, when in practice only a tiny number who receive them will never be released. In essence, what was originally passed as sop to those who opposed the abolition of capital punishment has become a monument to the lack of trust government has in judges. The very people who are best placed to rule on how dangerous someone is and how long they should serve before their case is reviewed are not fully trusted to do so.

In the Sun, all these nuances and reasoned arguments are reduced to liberal do-gooders wanting to downgrade murder. Whether or not either Linda Bowman or Richard Taylor were given a proper summary of what the report calls for or rather just told it argues for the abolition of mandatory life sentences, both ripped into any change, which was exactly what the paper wanted them to. Over in the same editorial as we began, the leader writer asks:

Where do we find these lunatics?

Where indeed.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011 

Clarke should resign and truly break the cycle.

The usual tendency in politics is to offer much before you win power, then to do very little, if not the direct opposite to that you promised once you're in it. Ken Clarke and the Conservatives seemed for a time to have got it backwards. Despite their manifesto making the usual noises on law and order, with mandatory jail sentences for those committing a crime using a knife and a pledge to "redevelop" the prison estate to ensure early release wasn't necessary again, Clarke was swiftly given the authority to almost completely ignore the hardback blue tome. Helped along by the cuts being made to his budget, Clarke quickly proposed measures that would have resulted in a drop in the prison population of around 6,500, while there were to be further sentence discounts for early guilty pleas.

As quickly as this surprise was sprung on us, it's been taken away. Clarke, it has to be said, didn't make things easy for himself. With the tabloids always likely to oppose even the slightest changes to a system they have had a major part in imposing upon us, he had to watch his every step and take a softly softly approach. His unfortunate performance during a 5 Live interview presented them with a massive open goal, which they took advantage of gleefully. Since then we've had the riots, and with so much else the government is doing becoming increasingly unpopular, Ken has been fighting a losing battle. First went his sentence discount plans and call for more community sentences, and now his opposition to mandatory terms with the exception of those convicted of murder has also been overruled.

Whether this has any connection to the battle between Clarke and Theresa May over that darn cat, or if indeed the apparent animosity had surfaced before then is difficult to tell. May has never really come across as a populist, so maybe it's simple cynicism: doing what the tabloids want in an attempt to get them to back off elsewhere. Certainly, Cameron could hardly have been comforted by the continual attacks from the Sun over his dropped promise on knife crime. To them, anyone carrying a knife is a savage, regardless of whether they're doing it out of fear or youthful stupidity, and so deserves to spend at least four months in prison. Rather than allowing a judge or magistrate to make their own decision based on the circumstances of each individual case, the government must intervene and take the matter out of their hands.

Clarke did at least fight his corner. Even on Tuesday he was arguing in front of the home affairs select committee that it would be a "bit of a leap for the British justice system" for the government to demand a court send a 13-year old first time offender to a secure home. Yesterday he was left to stand up in the Commons and announce that while he had managed to prevent that from happening, 16 and 17-year-olds would face a mandatory term should they use a knife or other offensive weapon to "threaten or endanger", which essentially means waving it around even if they have no intention of actually doing anything with it. The option of using restorative justice in such a case, or community service, something that might bring home to a young person both more effectively and cheaply the gravity of their foolishness is to be withheld. This is the exact kind of pseudo tough policy making that has failed us for the past 17 years.

Much the same is true, although less objectionably, of the proposed mandatory life term for those committing a second "most serious sexual or violent offence". Clarke himself said this would most likely only apply to those who commit two "probably near-murderous attacks" and only affect around 20 people a year, but this is much the same that was said about Labour's indeterminate public protection regime, with subsequently over 6,000 receiving them, many languishing in prison past their minimum term unable to access the courses necessary to prove they're no longer a risk. One thing to welcome is the abolition of IPPs, although this is also tempered by the proposed replacement, the extended determinate sentence. This looks to be the equivalent of a life sentence in all but name, with the difference being that parole can be applied for once two-thirds of the term has been served. Once released they will then remain on licence for up to 8 years, or 10 for the most serious offenders. One suspects this will shortly become the standard sentence for almost all "serious" offenders, putting extra pressure on the prison estate and then in turn probation (receiving heavy cuts) for possibly little overall benefit.

Apart from how these massive changes to current practice have been left to be inserted into the legal aid, sentencing and punishment bill as amendments at the very last minute, with no time for consultation, the most troubling thing for Clarke must be the effect they'll have on his actual prison reform programme. To be able to have any chance of reducing re-offending, prisoners must have access to the work, training and therapy programmes he's been proposing. This is next to impossible to provide when some prisons are forced through overcrowding to lock up prisoners for 23 hours a day. Without bringing the population down to a sustainable level, the whole cause looks lost.

When the Sun then asks where Clarke goes from here, with their suggestion being that his time is up, it's difficult to disagree even if it's for an entirely different reason to the one they set out. Why continue as justice secretary when he's clearly lost the support he initially had for thinking somewhat radically? He should resign now and let those truly responsible take the blame when the attempt to "break the cycle" miserably fails.

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Thursday, September 15, 2011 

Playing the statistics game with Ken Clarke.

It's good to see that a week after Ken Clarke pronounced those responsible for the riots in August were a feral underclass unreformed by the prison system the Ministry of Justice has got round to publishing the preliminary data on which he based his assumption (PDF), only 10 days after certain media organisations were given an early version which they used to make similar claims.

Not in dispute is that Clarke was right to say that 75% of those over 18 who have been charged with an offence connected with the riots had received a previous caution or conviction. In fact, the actual figure is 77%, and the overall figure, including juveniles is 73% (page 5). Where it gets more interesting and informative is when you drill down further into the figures: unconnected with the riots entirely is that 28% of males aged 18-52, or more than 1 in 4, has at least a caution on their record. Also likely to be used as grist to the "feral underclass" mill is that 40% of the male juveniles charged with an offence following the disorder had committed at least one previous offence, compared with just 2% of the 10-17 male population as a whole.

So far then it does look as though the "criminal classes" were mainly those running amok. Other comparative data provided however blunts this somewhat: the 27% so far charged who didn't have a previous record is in fact a higher percentage than the 23% who found themselves up before the beak for the first time last year. Similarly, this data is meaningless without knowing the severity of the past crimes committed: 38.7% were summary and breach offences, while 23.5% were theft and handling stolen goods, the majority of which are likely to be shoplifting. The more serious burglary, robbery and violence against the person make up 4.7%, 3.6% and 6.0% respectively (Table 18, page 23). 9.6% of the 16,598 offences (1,586) were dealt with using cautions, suggesting those committing them were first or second time offenders. Crucially though, we don't yet know (and probably never will) just how long ago these previous offences were committed: the courts, as evidenced by Judge Chapple (PDF), usually ignore previous one-off minor brushes with the law when they took place over 5 years ago when passing sentence. That 28% of males between 18 and 52 have a record of some sort doesn't automatically make them a "criminal"; the same equally applies with the 77% charged so far.

We additionally have to take into account that a distinct percentage of the 1,715 who have so far passed through the courts charged in connection with the riots could be described as "low-hanging fruit": those already well known to the police and whom were identified by officers at the time and picked up afterwards, or later spotted on CCTV; those with records who left behind fingerprints; and those who have a "reputation", who suddenly came into possession of electrical goods and clothing at the same time as the disturbances and were duly grassed up. They were, as Paul and Reuben both point out, far easier to catch than those completely unknown to the police. The Ministry of Justice promises a further publication at the end of October covering wider "socio-economic and demographic characteristics" of those involved. Politicians and commentators alike would do well to wait at least until then before claiming any sort of vindication.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2011 

Reading the riots with Ken Clarke.

It was probably for the best that Ken Clarke did a disappearing act in the aftermath of the riots. Well, one suspects he was on holiday anyway, no doubt in some agreeable resort, cigar in one hand, pint of ale in the other while the feral underclass back home were looting far more proletarian booze and fags from whichever supermarket or off-licence they managed to smash their way into. His immediate analysis, which would have almost certainly been exactly the same as the one dispensed via the Guardian today, might not have gone down too well while his more excitable colleagues were calling for the rubber bullets to be brought out and the army to be deployed, or with the wider public.

His article does however fall squarely in with all the other pieces produced, both by politicians and hacks, who took the riots as proving their prior belief: while for Melanie Phillips they were the logical conclusion of a "a three-decade liberal experiment" (liberalism it seems began under Margaret Thatcher) and for Seumas Milne the result of greed at the top of society, dear old Ken instead concludes that it's not down to the parents or a sudden moral collapse as David Cameron has hypothesised, but instead the criminal justice punishment punishing but not rehabilitating.

To suggest the evidence for this is probably even slimmer than for almost any other explanation offered, baring the blaming of rap music or the whites becoming black (® David Starkey) would not be putting it too strongly. To begin with, Clarke's quoted figure of 75% of those over 18 who have so far been arrested having previous convictions is almost meaningless without the Ministry of Justice providing a detailed breakdown of exactly what those past offences were. We don't know whether they include simple cautions, or indeed whether the convictions resulted in custodial sentences, which would at least begin to go some way towards putting flesh on the bones of Clarke's argument. The MoJ website doesn't even mention Clarke's use of the statistic, which we will almost certainly be hearing time and again over the next few months. The sentencing remarks which have been released from the first batch of cases dealt with by crown courts also provide a muddied picture: all three of those dealt with by Judge Chapple in the inner London court had past criminal convictions (PDF), but only one could conceivably be described as being a member of the "criminal classes"; the other two had convictions from six and seven years ago respectively, while the former had more recently committed the heinous offence of travelling without a ticket on the railway.

A similar, if for now anecdotal pattern seems to be emerging across the country. Just as there were a good number of those who have spent their adult lives in and out of prison taking advantage of the situation, there were also a large number with either no previous record or with cautions from years before who found themselves caught up in the moment, or indeed persuaded by the apparent breakdown in law and order to help themselves. That beyond the victims' panel set-up by Nick Clegg there seems to be little interest as yet in collecting detailed information and evidence on how and why the riots started and spread beyond the death of Mark Duggan is both worrying and informative. Ten years ago the riots in Bradford and other northern towns led to the Ritchie and then Cantle reports; despite the disorder being far more widespread and serious this summer there is still no suggestion as yet that we're going to have anything approaching the in-depth analysis provided by those inquiries, or the informed recommendations they made as a result.

What it seems we will have is a continuation of policies the government was pursuing anyway, only speeded up and intensified slightly, regardless of their efficacy. In one way, this is a good thing: that we haven't seen an immediate rush to legislate and give additional, unnecessary powers to the police is a positive, and it's something that could well have happened had the authoritarian-leaning Labour party still been in power. It does also however more than suggest we have a coalition which doesn't change its mind when the facts change, or rather, doesn't even want to gather those facts in the first place. We should have expected as much on the economy, on which the government has built its entire foundation: even when admitting growth won't be as strong as forecast George Osborne refuses to consider any possibility that a change in course is needed, as to do so would be the equivalent of saying Labour and especially the hated Ed Balls have been right all along.

Of Clarke better should be expected. His plans for reforming the prison system had already been stymied by David Cameron, responding to the familiar cries from the right-wing press prior to the blowing up of the phone hacking scandal. Having originally wanted a reduction in the prison population, he had to settle on a stabilisation. That now looks even more optimistic than it did then: even if only half of those who have been arrested following the riots receive a prison sentence, the numbers behind bars will increase by at least 1,250. Rehabilitation of any variety is more difficult in heavily overcrowded jails where inmates spend most of the day banged up, rather than working as Clarke wants increasing numbers to: the resources weren't there before the cuts, and paying providers on results, which is still in the trial stage and completely unproven can't even begin to pick up the slack.

With the original anger at those involved in the rioting beginning to dissipate, now would have been the perfect time to look beyond the simplistic explanations so far offered for why, and Clarke could have taken a leading role, as Michael Heseltine did back in 1981 when he went to Liverpool following the Toxteth riots. Clarke doing little more than repeating the line the coalition has taken almost verbatim is a sad sight indeed.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011 

In which I admit to talking crap redux.

One of the not so great spectacles of the last few months has been seeing those who should know better and those who have no shame variously passing judgement on Dominique Strauss-Kahn. It's one of those cases where you can safely say that individuals on all sides share guilt: those in France, whether they be the philosopher buffoon Bernard-Henri Levy who sprang to DSK's offence in the way only a puffed up windbag can, or the others who assumed guilt based on DSK's only now reported serial womanising. Unfortunately, we can't even feel desperately sorry for Nafissatou Diallo: besides her lack of reliability as a witness based on dishonesty over her past, she was advised abysmally, as exemplified by the exclusive interviews she gave which only undermined her case yet further. In an ideal world, she would have had her day in court and a jury would have decided whose version of events to believe based on all the evidence. This is not an ideal world.

Deciding who's guilty and who isn't based on media reporting, or worse, on someone's past record, is daft. In the spirit of DSK then and in the second sort of mea culpa of the week, the acquittal of Learco Chindamo is welcome and refreshing news. Chindamo had not only been charged with the robbery of a man at a cashpoint, only four months after being released on parole, having served 14 years for the murder of the headteacher Philip Lawrence, it was also alleged he had intimidated the man by referring to the murder, something which suggested all those who had testified as to his changed, remorseful nature had been misled. OK, I didn't pass judgement based on his arrest, having believed such accounts, but all the same I felt the need to draw further attention to it before justice was done.

In a way, it does in fact show just how the justice system works when someone sentenced to life and released is then accused of a further crime: Chindamo has spent the entire time since he was arrested back in prison, and three previous trials collapsed for various reasons before he was finally acquitted yesterday, when it's unlikely the Crown Prosecution Service would have felt it was in the public interest for such expense and time to be spent trying a relatively minor crime had it involved those without such serious prior convictions. He will now have to go in front of the parole board again before he can be released, something unlikely to be a formality. As Frances Lawrence said, it can only be hoped that he has a happier, calmer and more productive future ahead of him.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011 

2031 here we come.

Much as this blog has always been against the tendency to split the whole population of a nation down the middle into two distinct groups in the past, I'm finding it hard to see such nuances when it comes to the sentences given to the "Facebook rioters". You have those who think that four years in prison for making events pages on a social networking website for riots which were never going to take place is ridiculously harsh, and then you have vindictive wankers who have obviously never done anything stupid in their entire lives who think it's perfectly acceptable.

The ostensible reason why Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan have received what seem such disproportionate terms of imprisonment is that inciting a riot, even if it doesn't take place or was never intended as anything other than a joke, is regarded as a more serious offence than the violent disorder which would result from it. This is underlined by the ranges set out by Judge Andrew Gilbart in his remarks before sentencing the first batch of those who pleaded guilty to taking part in the rioting in Manchester and Salford: he argues "that the context in which the offences of the night of 9th of August were committed takes them completely outside the usual context of criminality", and so feels likewise that the normal sentencing guidelines "are of much less weight in the context of the current case, and can properly be departed from". His starting point for "organisers of riots or commerical burglaries" after trial is 8 years upwards.

Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan then if anything seem to have got off relatively lightly, such is the climate that has descended. Judge Elgar Edwards, who sentenced both men, described their offences as happening at a time of "collective insanity", before going to err, describe what Blackshaw did as an "evil act". Perhaps though we shouldn't be so surprised: we've seen with the #twitterjoketrial that judges and the authorities don't take kindly to what seem to online dwellers like ourselves self-evidently mocking messages, regardless of the hints of menace they have in them. This was of a different scale, and added to the general level of unease which communities all around the country were going through, with the police turning up at Blackshaw's proposed location, yet it's both the lack of consistency between the terrible crimes you can commit and get 4 years for and the knowledge that there were plenty of other people out there on Facebook and Twitter spreading rumour and panic causing much the same fear and uncertainty without so much as being lectured for doing so that makes it stick in the craw so much.

Not that there's much consistency either in the sentences which have been handed down for those taking part in the actual looting. Gilbart gave Linda Mary Boyd, the woman who picked up a bag containing stolen alcohol, cigarettes and a mobile phone ten months suspended for two years. He judged her to be unlike the others he was sentencing, despite Boyd having a long record of petty offending. Such considerations were not given by Judge Robert Atherton, who sets out how he "respectfully agrees with the ranges" outlined by Gilbart, to Conrad McGrath, a 21-year-old student who previously seems to have had an entirely clean record. Arrested after being seen in a looted Tesco Express, Atherton sentenced him to 16 months for burglary (PDF). Even when taking everything into account, including McGrath's stupidity and his role in the wider unrest, it seems an overly harsh punishment for a first-time offender who didn't actually steal anything. A twelve month suspended sentence, which involved perhaps a curfew and also a form of restorative justice would surely both serve the stated parameters of "sending a message" while also acting as an effective punishment.

The Heresiarch asks:

That being the case, is it really fair to hand out exemplary sentences to rioters who were merely acting in accordance with human nature, who are not actually violent criminals? And is such sentencing policy good either for them or for society?

He goes on to suggest it is. I'm not so sure. While the public mood is undoubtedly in favour of the harsh penalties being handed down, and some of those involved truly are deserving of what they have coming their way, our prisons are not exactly renowned for their work in reducing recidivism, while the current overcrowding is hardly going to improve the conditions for those first time offenders finding themselves in a circle of hell as a result of a few hours of madness. It's also dubious that the fear of such punishments can ever overcome the peer pressure of the mob when you're caught up in it.

Moreover, all the signs are that last week's events are another one-off which we'll end up looking back at in a similar way to the race riots 10 years ago and the disturbances in the 80s: memories fade quickly, while the young often have only the most superficial knowledge of events during their early childhood. It's safe to bet that plenty of those under 21 had very little to no knowledge whatsoever of the Toxteth, Brixton and Broadwater Farm riots of the 80s. Exemplary sentences only stay that way as long as they can be recalled. Come the 2031 riots, those on all sides will doubtless make the same arguments all over again.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011 

How soon we forget.

Further to Bagehot's piece in the Economist, linked to by 5CC, on how we've been here before, here's a brief history of rioting from the latest Private Eye:

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Monday, August 15, 2011 

Shorter David Cameron.

It is time to take stock. It's clear that over the last few days, through a mixture of blaming the police and failing to talk to almost any real people where the rioting took place in case they heckled me like they did Bozza that I've begun to look out of touch.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Look, here I am on the mean streets of Witney with grafitti art as a backdrop. It even has hoodies. I mean business, and we must mean business. However, we musn't oversimplify. This is why everything I'm about to blame could have been come up with by a speak your weight machine ingeniously converted to giving right-wing political opinions.

Moral relativism. Political correctness. Greed. Irresponsibility. Children without fathers. Schools without the birch and fagging. Rights without responsibilities. The state incentivising such behaviour. Police officers not being on every street corner because of Labour's barmy bureaucracy. Parents who fail to keep their children under lock and key every minute of the day. A welfare system that encourages laziness, arson and wearing your jean waistband around your testicles. The human rights
act. Health and safety. Helen Flanagan. Gordon Brown. Chocolates next to the tills at supermarkets. Lady GaGa. Grand Theft Auto.

Happily, even though I hadn't so much as mentioned the broken society since I almost won the election, the government was already providing the panacea to all of these problems. Some of the solutions are simple, like reforming the welfare system until no one can claim anything and handing the control of police locally to politically motivated monomaniacs. Introducing a voluntary national citizen service so those who already have their Duke of Edinburgh gold award can add another line to their CVs is something I'm incredibly passionate about. Deporting all of those 350,000 "problem" families to the Isle of Man. The more complicated stuff we can get Steve to blue-sky brainstorm.

Let me be clear then. The government can't do all of this on its own. Especially considering the global economy has imploded again and we're potless. We are in all this together. That's why it took a journalist to remind me to ask the audience what they thought. They agreed with me. Funny that.

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Friday, August 12, 2011 

Not quite apropos of nothing.

I think we should shut Louise Mensch down.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011 

The tone is set and the blame game truly begins.

When you're in politics, it's a fairly dangerous game to start blaming the police. Not only are they almost certainly more popular than you are, even in the aftermath of the worst breakdown of law and order in the capital in recent memory, they're also the last people you want to get on the wrong side of. Jacqui Smith succeeded in annoying them so much they marched on parliament. Anyone remember what happened to her?

It's curious then that both David Cameron and Theresa May did just that in today's recall of parliament, later joined in their certainty by clapping seals on the backbenches. Just as bizarre is that it makes a libertarian lefty like myself, not exactly a noted cheerleader for our fearless feds, want to defend them. Even if we take at face value the apparent admittance by the Met that they treated the rioting which broke out on Saturday in Tottenham initially as a public order issue rather than a criminal one, there was perfectly good reasoning behind that: heavy-handed tactics that night would have almost certainly made the situation worse. Their real error was the failure to acknowledge the protest by Mark Duggan's friends and family quickly enough at a senior level.

Even when the copycat violence broke out on Sunday, it still wasn't clear or predictable that pockets of the capital would the next night be in flames. As I somewhat argued two days ago and John B sets out in more detail, the main failure was that the police simply couldn't keep up, nor did they properly understood quite what was happening. Considering few of the rest of us did either until the day after, this is hardly something they can be pilloried for. It also saw something probably unprecedented in terms of rioting, rather than political protest: the use of BlackBerry Messenger and texts (The use of Twitter and Facebook seems to have been pretty negligible as an organisational tool, as both are more or less wide open, although they were a few "inciting" through both) to publicise the targets, in some cases only a matter of minutes before they were then hit. At best the police had a couple of hours notice, and that was if someone bothered to forward the plans onto them. The riots in France back in 2005, the most similar recent outbreak of unrest to our own few days of looting also went "viral" but certainly didn't involve such flash-mobbing.

As the police were so overstretched and without major back-up, the decision in most cases not to intervene in the looting, while undeniably perplexing to the public, was a fairly sound one. There's bravery and preventing disorder, and then there's the distinct possibility of getting beaten to death by a group which outnumbers you by at least about 5 to 1. The efficacy of water cannon and tear gas against such mobile groups who aren't intent on reaching any particular area or repeatedly charging and attacking the police is also fairly negligible. 6,000 officers, normally more than enough to contain even a fairly prolonged outbreak of disorder, simply couldn't take back control. They couldn't however have possibly known things would get as bad as they would. Hindsight, as always, is a wonderful thing.

It's also ever so slightly rich for politicians, always so keen to express their admiration for the bravery of the police to then speak out of the other side of their mouth a matter of minutes later. Both May and Cameron were still on holiday on Monday; those who were doing their best in unbelievably difficult circumstances were out on the streets. Not that either of the former have been out on them much since: May even slinked away from Boris Johnson when he was heckled in Clapham. Since then the government, realising it appears to be on a hiding for nothing, has keep as low a profile as possible. Not a single government minister could find the time to appear on any of the major news programmes tonight, including Question Time, where the affable David Davis had to instead make the "brokeback" coalition's case.

Then again, it's probably best they don't try and defend the measures outlined by Cameron which are meant to stop a recurrence of the violence. Police already have powers similar to ones demanding individuals uncover their faces, and in any case it's rather difficult for a couple of beat coppers to deal with a whole group of people with masks on, let alone when they're already smashing windows. It also begins to defy belief when the ravings of right-wing backbenchers, suggesting the police spray rioters with indelible liquid making them easier to identify later are treated seriously; discarding or burning clothes is something those showered would never think of doing. Just to make things even more surreal, comfort was given to those who called for the army to be brought in, while social networking could also be temporarily shut down in such circumstances, something that certainly wouldn't cause further unnecessary panic or hinder the spread of reliable information on what was happening, as some police forces attempted to provide in real time this week.

Ed Miliband's statement was well considered on the whole, and a few lonely souls did suggest this wasn't just amorality run amok, but the tone does seem to have been set. 16 weeks in prison for a 21-year-old who said to police that he'd "smash you if you took your uniform off", an empty threat if there ever was one and something which he might have got a caution or a fine for at worst in normal circumstances seems ridiculously over-the-top even after this week's events. Pie boy got six weeks for assault, later reduced to four. If being a twat in public is going to get you four months inside, at least let's be consistent.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011 

Between the armchair generals and the stereotype sociologist.

I've been trying to think of somewhat mocking comparisons between the flood of comment on the riots we're now up to our neck in (and which I'm going to do the equivalent of pissing in, polluting while adding to it) and likewise exhibits in popular culture. At the one extreme, some of the response looks the equivalent pulling a Wooley, the SWAT team member at the beginning of the original Dawn of the Dead. While one of the very slight failings of the film is that it's never clear quite why a SWAT team is going after a gang of criminals when flesh-eating zombies are shambling everywhere, Wooley also isn't too bothered by this chain of events. For him it's the fact that "these low lifes" are living in these "big ass fancy hotels" which are "better than what he has". "You ain't gonna talk 'em out of here, you gotta blow 'em out! Blow their asses!"

At the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the Eric Idle sociologist from the Hells Grannies sketch in Monty Python, so intent on giving his prescription of exactly why these "senile delinquents" have "rejected contemporary society" that he doesn't notice they've opened up a manhole in front of him. Being hoist by your own petard is though a universal danger: as always, pretty much everyone is explaining, rationalising, or rather saying they warned about this all along and it all happily fits their previous prejudices. Hell, I've done it the last couple of days. Melanie Phillips (and others) then think it's all down to absent fathers; Max Hastings in the Mail puts the onus on years of "liberal dogma"; Shaun Bailey says it's all down to responsibility (lack of) and a sense of entitlement, although only the sense of entitlement amongst a certain section; Seumas Milne sticks it all on greed and the rapaciousness of those at the top of society; and the Guardian's leader comment, which has been getting more shrill day by day, fingers both everything and nothing. No change there then.

It is though the ultimate way to play safe. And in truth, all of these explanations have something in them, (with the exception of Max "Hitler" Hastings doing the bidding of Paul Dacre), while also being fairly easy to knock down. Absent parents can have a major impact; they also, as Phillip Larkin will always remind us, fuck us up. Those preaching the virtues of the nuclear family ought to read Hayley Matthews' account of the riots in Salford, where parents with their kids in child seats in the back of cars screamed up and filled their boots (literally) with loot. It would be equally naive to dismiss the fact that in certain cases children are being brought up, either by single parents or not who aren't taught right from wrong, and have had everything given to them on a plate, whether by the state or trust fund, who feel aggrieved that they can't have everything right this instant. Again though, Matthews' account makes clear that certain authority figures do either make those who've taken part think twice, or at least temporarily ashamed of their actions: they might not fear the police, but seeing her dog collar alarmed and troubled them. If their parents had turned up, it's fair to say a good proportion of those taking part would have been shocked and despite what some have also pointed towards, been given at the least a sock round the ear.

The accounts then by those outside the usual commentariat are the ones which most often strike home or point out things those inside their own bubble haven't broached. Kevin Sampson makes the excellent point that it's incredibly easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment, as many who've been on protests that have turned violent or nasty can also testify. These might not have been marches, but they also weren't highly organised actions, even if on the surface some of them look that way: opportunism by those along for the ride most definitely happened in numerous places. Those caught so far and being processed through the system look to have been the stragglers or those stupid (or brazen) enough to go unmasked, the ones who stole a couple of bottles of alcohol, shirts or who were in the shops when the mob had moved on. The shame and regret will have hit many of these later, as it will the parents disgusted to find their spoils, not knowing whether to risk turning over their offspring considering the exceptional penalties bound to be passed.

You also know there's a real reason to be worried when the inestimable FlyingRodent is concerned. His point that at the centre of what's happened are the petty criminals among the young, the ones normally involved in minor drug-dealing and causing occasional havoc in shopping centres is a sound one; some of those among them were smart enough to see an opening in London after the riot in Tottenham for larceny on a grander scale than what they're normally up to, and the bonus was that with the summer holidays they had gangs of otherwise bored acquaintances who could both help distract the police and who also then joined in. This was then copied by non-related but similar groupings in the other big cities, and err, Gloucester and a few other minor towns. Into the mix also came a good few adults, as we're also discovering. This isn't to deny that some of the rioting had a political undercurrent, and also that many of these youths, especially the ones on the outside looking in, don't see a future, feeling completely disconnected from their wider communities. Others though almost certainly knew and were friendly with those they came to steal from. Some just hate the police and other figures in authority, for both good and completely and utterly wrong reasons.

David Cameron's reaching for the illness definition is but an echo of Tony Blair's similar statements following the murder of James Bulger. Certain sections of our society do have very deep seated problems, but broken or sick? Some people are just thuggish pricks, as has been demonstrated to the world by the mugging of Asyraf Haziq, being ostensibly helped up only to have his backpack rifled through. They have unfortunately though always been with us, as have gangs of out of control teenagers, and no amount of lectures on morality or responsibility will have an instant impact, or get through to all of them.

However bad things were in London on Monday or elsewhere yesterday, this is not going to become a regular occurrence. There also, so far, doesn't seem to be any instant recourse to further legislation, although we still have the rest of the summer recess once parliament has had its say tomorrow to get through, and then the party conferences, where crackdowns could yet become the order of the day. What we are going to have though is intensified fear of and stigmatisation of teenagers, especially those who go about in hoods, thanks to the efforts of a tiny number of their peers and the foolishness of those who do know better in general. The hope has to be that the current mood soon lifts, and that those calling for the giving of a "free hand" to the police find themselves quickly back in the minority. The middle line between Wooley and the stereotype sociologist is the best place to remain until then.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2011 

Fear and media overreaction has to be followed by reflection.

It's difficult to reach a conclusion other than it's going to be a bad day when it opens with Eamonn Holmes on Sky News essentially asking Kit Malthouse why the army aren't on the streets shooting people. When it ends with Kelvin MacKenzie on Newsnight, taking part in quite possibly the least enlightening debate in history also suggesting squaddies should be out fragging the underclass, even if only with rubber bullets, you know that one low has inexorably led to another.

Overreaction to what were unprecedented scenes last night across London was always likely. For the news networks rather than the usual suspects our febrile press to be the main culprits is still something to be surprised by. It's continuing even now, with what are likely to be events completely unconnected to the rioting reported as if they are further evidence of a situation still out of control. This hysterical atmosphere, not helped admittedly by the rise of social networks where rumour and invention are immediately reported and spread as fact, is undoubtedly scaring people who have absolutely no reason whatsoever to be frightened. I'm well outside London and away from the main flashpoints in the other major cities, and yet through word of mouth it was today spreading around that a major local supermarket had been set on fire, almost needless to say when it had not been. Likewise, every major town around the area except for ours was apparently facing down similar outbreaks of lawlessness, again it turned out completely erroneously.

This in turn has resulted in London essentially shutting down tonight and many businesses boarding their windows up, when it looks as if such desperate measures, although precautionary, were completely unnecessary. The violence in Manchester does look to have been serious, although even there it appears to have been localised to the main city centre, rather than in multiple areas. While it is indeed better to be safe than sorry, it always seemed likely that what happened last night was an aberration, a once in a generation outbreak of lawlessness perpetuated by the disaffected, those with a grievance and those simply out to take advantage. Like Sunny I might yet eat these words, but with the combination of the massive police presence, parents refusing to let their children out and the general sense of anger and outrage at what happened it was doubtful there would be a repeat performance. It could just be that it's a lull, and that at the weekend it could start up again, but even then you suspect the numbers of police out will be similar.

The police, having been caught out like everyone else are coming in for criticism which is unbelievably short-sighted and lacking in both humility and candour. Any police force in any major city in any democracy would have struggled to deal with the ultra-localised groups of rioters that were out yesterday, moving quickly both on public transport and in cars. They were stretched to the absolute limit, and knew full well that if they had intervened directly in the looting when they were so often so vastly outnumbered that not only did they risk making things even worse, if that's possible, they would be risking their lives for the sake of a few plasma televisions and shop windows. It requires tens of officers, organised and trained in dealing with mobs, to be able to stop such organised thieving, not the few who were being deployed in restrictive full riot gear. As hard as it is to for the shop owners and others to see their businesses being smashed and in some cases burned while the police stood off and watched, risking exacerbating things would have not helped anyone.

Similarly, those asking why water cannon and tear gas weren't made available or used to break up the looting are confusing their use against protests which often have one specific focal point, where demonstrators are usually attacking the police or trying to get somewhere, and the fast-moving attacks on property seen last night. Even if you soaked and hit/gassed a few of those taking part, the majority would manage to slink away quickly. Moreover, it wasn't just looters who were out last night; there were large numbers of onlookers, as the police themselves said, who risked getting caught up in it. Using the threat of baton rounds could arguably have been effective, which is why they were authorised for use today if they were needed, which they thankfully haven't been. Even then the problems are obvious: the last thing we need or want is the routine use of such crowd control methods, as could easily follow as a result. As has hopefully been demonstrated, the biggest deterrent is not just a temporary major police presence, but also the opprobrium of the community at large bearing down on those who felt temporarily empowered or free from the fear of the consequences of their actions.

The one thing the Met could be criticised for is their overly cautious approach today, urging businesses to close early and recommending the cancellation of tomorrow's England friendly, which if the general calm continues may look daft later. They have at least, unlike the politicians, been urging calm. Urging calm, unlike telling people not to panic which tends to have the opposite effect, seems uniquely British. David Cameron merely gave the impression through his Downing Street statement not of resolve, but of someone thoroughly pissed off that he'd had to come back from Tuscany to deal with the proles finally realising their lives are going to get worse and keep on getting worse. All of the Tories seemed perturbed that despite their predictions rioting had broken out; weren't the inner cities a problem that had been solved, or which could be left to fester without what happened there spreading to their own heartlands? They certainly hadn't bargained on anything like this impeding or questioning the imposition of austerity, which has still yet to properly kick in.

This isn't to suggest that this can be traced directly back to government policy, or excused or explained in such a simple way. It's apparent that some of the rioting, especially outside London, seems to have been conducted by the local hoodlums who the police regularly find themselves dealing with, who shouldn't be given even the slightest benefit of a political explanation for their actions. Some of what we've seen has though had its roots in the hopelessness which many are beginning to feel and which the latest economic figures and market crashes have brought home to them: that we're in a hole and regardless of which of the main three political parties is in power power, all are wedded to policies which are going to hit the most vulnerable the hardest.

As Kenan Malik has stated, there doesn't have to be contradiction between the competing claims that this is sheer criminality and that it has a root cause in social exclusion and wasted lives: those taking part are responding in the only way they know how to, which also has the benefit of grabbing attention whilst giving them the feeling of striking back through the acquisition of goods. The one message that has filtered down to them is that you should take what you can. They've followed it. Now the politicians have to find a way of reassuring an outraged middle class without further attacking and antagonising those they've all but abandoned. After the clean up must come the inquest.

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