19 August 2011
Comment is Free, The Guardian, 19 August 2011
Caroline Lucas MP and Jenny Jones, London Assembly Member
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 days 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 David Cameron does, that British society is ‘sick'.
Furthermore, we are concerned that Cameron's encouragement of draconian punishments will undermine respect for the law. The harsh sentencing of riot perpetrators to "set an example" is overtly political and wholly misguided. The varying sentences given out so far reveal serious inconsistencies and an alarming lack of proportionality. Overly tough sentencing will lead to costly and time consuming appeals, and add to the sense of unfairness already rife in our society.
The Government 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.
The Greens also completely oppose withdrawing benefits from those linked to the events, and 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.
Ultimately, underpinning any analysis of the riots should be a recognition of the deep inequality which lies at the heart of British society. So too should we understand the effects 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. 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.
In focusing on long-term solutions, the Government must show it is willing to address the shocking level of inequality which exists in our country. 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.
In light of the events earlier this month, 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.
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 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.