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A tale of two rioters

Picture the scene.  Two 15 year olds caught up in the riots.  Both enter a building and steal something, no violence involved but it’s clearly burglary.  Both are caught by CCTV, arrested, charged, and brought before the Courts. Both are sentenced to 6 months in jail.  The justice system has worked.
But there is one difference between the two children.  One lives with his parents in a small terraced house that they bought 25 years ago and have brought their three children up in.  No-one in the family has been in trouble before.  The other lives with his parents in a small terraced house that they got from the council 25 years ago and have brought their three children up in.  No-one in the family has been in trouble before.
What does justice have to say about this?  Both have been dealt with, punished seriously for their crime.  Both will have the blight of a criminal conviction and prison sentence hanging over them for years to come.  But it’s fair treatment.
The first boy, when released, will return to his family in their family home and try to take up his life.  There is some security and stability as he rebuilds.  It’s hard but possible.
The second boy, when released, finds that his family has been evicted by the council from the family home because of his crime.  They were declared intentionally homeless, so they won’t be rehoused.  They have taken two private rented rooms in a shared house at a cost of nearly twice the council rent they were paying.  Dad thinks he can’t afford to keep working.  The youngest child is bedwetting, a result of the trauma of eviction say the medics.  Mum is suffering from depression and is struggling to keep her job.  They are not able to take the oldest boy in.  He drifts off to stay on someone’s sofa.  There is no security and stability from which to build.  It’s very hard and it feels almost impossible.
What does justice have to say about this?  None of this is fanciful; anyone involved in housing knows that this story reflects the reality.
There is no doubt that the mood is about retribution.  Polls show that more people want tenants evicted than don’t.  But neighbours who are home owners or private tenants probably don’t want anyone convicted of a serious crime living next to them either.  And the determination of some councils to evict, and the government’s determination to make it easier for them, will not apply more generally to your common or garden murderer or rapist or burglar.
It may allow politicians to sound tough.  It may be what people want.  But it isn’t justice.   It’s double punishment, it’s guilt by association, it’s discrimination on the grounds of tenure, pure and simple.
Labour, nationally and locally, should have nothing to do with it.

This post by Steve Hilditch follows previous posts on the riots and the aftermath by Steve and Tony Clements here here here here and here.  We are keen to see these issues debated as widely as possible.  This post has also appeared at LabourList where there are also a number of comments and a bit of debate.
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Anger is not a good servant of justice

The more I hear from MPs who fiddled their expenses but were allowed just to write a cheque to pay them back, now denouncing people who stole chewing gum or bottled water or were given a pair of shorts during the riots, the more I think they have lost control of their ethics.
An excellent piece in the Guardian today by Vera Baird (Riots sentencing: a sinister attempt to upend the judicial process) describes how firmly the government’s hand is on the tiller of the rash of extreme punishments, aiming to deliver Cameron’s edict that everyone involved in the riots should expect to go to jail, no matter how trivial their offence.  Using historical precedents – for example, during the miners’ strike it was very difficult to get fair acquittals for strikers at the magistrates’ court – she shows how easy it is to lose all judgement: anger is not a good servant of justice.
The government-inspired hysteria around sentencing is reverberating around many councils as well. There was a rush of council leaders trying to look tougher than the rest, although they were all beaten to it by Wandsworth, a council which has never held tenants in high regard (or indeed wanted them in the borough at all), who claimed that a tenant whose son had been caught up in the riot “will today (Friday) be served with an eviction notice”.  Nearly Legal website notes that Wandsworth’s new leader Ravi Govindia’s rush to make a name for himself was not all that it seemed.  First, the tenant’s son has not been convicted of anything, and secondly, the alleged incident was not in the location of the tenant’s flat, so that any attempted repossession on the grounds of nuisance would struggle.
And then the Notice seems to have not been a Notice of Seeking Possession, let alone an ‘eviction notice’ but a warning letter.  The tenant concerned even got quite a good hearing from the normally prejudicial Daily Mail.  NL wryly commented: “If even the Daily Mail is having second thoughts, Ravi Govindia clearly runs the risk of looking, well, pretty damn stupid in such a desperate act of witless publicity seeking.”
Mary Riddell, writing in the equally unlikely Telegraph, commented: “Threatening to evict a charity worker and her eight-year-old daughter is an act of political spite. Had this mother, whose “crime” is that her 18 year-old son is charged with violent disorder, given birth to a mass murderer, she would not be treated in such a fashion.”
Wandsworth are now looking like fools and so are the Labour councils now caught in the slipstream.  They should reconsider their precipitate action and come to their senses.