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Retribution for the riots: some common sense at last

The news that Wandsworth Council has backed away from its decision to pursue the eviction of the mother and 8-year-old sister of Daniel Sartain-Clarke, who was convicted of burglary during the August riots, is an important victory for the Labour opposition in Wandsworth and a defeat for the vindictive and punitive wing of the Tory Party, including Cameron and Shapps and their local henchman, Council leader Ravi Govindia.  The decision has greatly disappointed the Daily Mail.
Immediately after the riots, when the idea of evicting the families of rioters who were social tenants was first raised, I argued on Red Brick that this approach ‘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. ‘
Such was the furore raised by the right wing media, a bandwagon immediately jumped on by Cameron and Shapps, that it was a brave decision by the opposition in Wandsworth to stand against the decision in principle.  The disgrace is that the Council moved against the tenant before her son was convicted of anything and before the circumstances of the case, and whether there was any mitigation, became clear.  The Tories, nationally and locally, were driven by the cheap headlines they could get and the desire to find someone, other than themselves, to blame.  As ever, social housing tenants were an easy target as people like Iain Duncan Smith tried to place the blame on ‘estates’.
I know nothing about Daniel apart from what I read in the press and on Wandsworth Labour’s website.  An 11 month sentence certainly seems to comply with Cameron’s instruction that rioters should all go to jail.  But I would commend a brilliant blog post by  Jules Birch on the double standards involved, comparing and contrasting the treatment given to Sartain-Clarke and another double-barreled thief, Antony Worrall Thompson, who was a repeat offender but a celebrity who got away with a caution and an apology.  Certainly no-one argued that Worral Thompson’s family should be evicted from their home.
It is unclear whether any other council or housing association is still pursuing the eviction of a tenant because of a riot-related conviction, currently the law would appear to allow this if it could be classed as being in the neighbourhood of the property concerned.  It is also uncertain whether Shapps and Cameron will actually pursue their plan to extend the law in a move that would entrench the double punishment of the guilty, the punishment of the innocent, and discrimination against social tenants.
Stop press: a good update from Wandsworth Labour Councillor Leonie Cooper here.

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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.

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Simplistic solutions are not the answer

Maybe it’s understandable that people want to lash out after the appalling behaviour of those involved in looting and violence during the riots last week.  But there is also a risk of a dangerous authoritarian response.  This not only includes proposed changes to the nature of policing that have always been resisted before – bringing in the army, rubber bullets, water cannon and public whipping of members of the underclass just in case they were rioters (sorry I made the last one up) – but also wider and wider forms of punishment such as removing benefits from perpetrators.
Suddenly on Thursday the debate focused on council tenants, as Tony discussed in his post on Red Brick, and the issue is leading the news today.  Councils of all political persuasions knee-jerked in favour of evicting perpetrators who are or live with council tenants, and Wandsworth appears to have been the first to issue a notice of seeking possession.  Mr Bandwagon himself, Grant Shapps, was quickly on to it, saying if necessary we could have new laws by the Autumn if the existing power isn’t strong enough.  In his article in Inside Housing Shapps says:  ‘As things currently stand, whilst thuggish behaviour against neighbours or in the immediate vicinity of their home provides a ground for evicting a tenant, looting or other criminal activity by tenants further from their homes can’t usually be taken into account.  People who commit anti-social behaviour should feel the consequences regardless of whether their actions are taken within the immediate vicinity of their home or further afield.
And Mr Bullingdon (did he or didn’t he take drugs and smash places up, I can’t remember?) David Cameron joined in, saying council tenants were subsidised (they aren’t) so they have additional responsibilities to behave.  Branding a whole class of people, not for the first time, he said: “I think for too long we have taken too soft an attitude to people who loot and pillage their own community.  If you do that you should lose your right to housing at a subsidised rate“.

Bullingdon boys don't even know which end of the broom is upSimplistic solutions?  Bullingdon boys don’t even which end of the broom is up.

The existing law indeed may not give Shapps and Cameron what they want, as the always excellent Nearly Legal website briefed.  To get a possession order the landlord will
have to demonstrate that nuisance was caused or an indictable offence committed
‘in the locality’.  It is a discretionary ground for possession so the courts would decide on the merits of the case.
In my view the criminal justice system exists to assess evidence and context and impose sentences on those found guilty.  The question we have to ask is why the crime of looting a High Street should be punished by removal of housing, but only if the perpetrator is a council tenant?  The riots have nothing specifically to do with housing or council estates.  Why aren’t we debating removing NHS benefits or free school meals?  Or parking permits or driving licences?  Or tax relief for pension contributions?  Or access to higher education?  Or child benefit?
Housing associations seem to have reacted much more sensibly than some councils on this one.  Peabody’s Stephen Howlett, said he thought courts were likely to find eviction of tenants caught up in the riots disproportionate: “We want the strongest action to be taken against those involved, but our preference is for the criminal justice system to be the
focus.”  The measures risked simply moving the problem to another area, or pushing tenants further into poverty: “These people have to live somewhere, so if they are evicted you risk just exporting the problem.”  He had talked to a mother on the Pembury estate in Hackney who was was “terrified that she and her younger child would be made homeless as a result of her 17-year-old who she could not keep under control“.  He added: “This is not simple. We have to be very careful.”
The only reason tenure-based punishment has gained traction amongst politicians and some parts of the media is that it reflects pre-existing prejudice that council tenant = underclass = rioter.  It is part and parcel of the scapegoating and stereotyping of social tenants in general and council tenants in particular.  It often seems to be the case that council tenants are singled out for extra punishment or additional requirements to behave in a particular way.  Eviction for anti-social behaviour – not applied to other tenures, not
even to RTB lessees or their private tenants -.was only an acceptable policy because it involved ASB in the dwelling or the locality, that is the place where the tenancy existed, but it is now proving to be the thin end of the wedge.
There is no information that council tenants were disproportionally involved in the riots, so far this is a knee-jerk reaction not based on evidence.  From what I’ve seen so far, some were tenants and some weren’t.  Tottenham for example is a genuine mixed tenure community with both middle class and working class home ownership and private renting and housing association renting as well as council housing, from which rioters could have been drawn.  It would be ludicrous to suggest owner occupied households containing a perpetrator should be foreclosed or lose their exemption to capital gains tax on their properties.
Fortunately Ed Miliband has been taking a more considered approach.  I agree with him when he says:   “These issues cannot be laid at the door of a single cause or a single Government. The causes are complex. Simplistic solutions will not provide the answer. We can tackle the solutions only by hearing from our communities…… They want us to go out and listen to them in thinking about the solutions that are necessary. Before any of us say we know all the answers or have simple solutions, we should all do so.”

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What is it about our society that can make such things possible?

There are some similarities between what has happened in Tottenham over the past few days and the riot of 1985.  Both were triggered by a death during a police operation and a family demanding answers about what happened, followed by a march on Tottenham Police station and people feeling ignored and disrespected.  Then, crowds gathered on Broadwater Farm estate which became the venue for the subsequent riot.  The riot had nothing to do with the estate, it was about policing, and the location could equally have been Tottenham High Road then as now.  But the pressure cooker exploded and the appalling, and I believe still unsolved, mob murder of PC Blakelock cemented the notoriety of the estate.
Talking our way through hundreds of riot police, three of us opened the Broadwater farm Neighbourhood Office at 7am the following morning, dealing with many terrified people.
Teams of council staff arrived spontaneously and began the clean up.  Shops and cars had been burned out but there was remarkably little damage to the residential parts of the estate – extraordinarily, the glaziers were hardly needed – although the impact on residents’ morale was palpable.
Local politicians and neighbourhood staff were outstanding in the aftermath, and especially Bernie Grant, who showed enormous courage in the face of a despicable media campaign of vilification.  He devoted many years of his life afterwards to making the Farm, and the wider Tottenham area, good places to live and strong communities.  He eventually got the relationship between the community and the police onto a new footing.
Everything that has been said about the criminality of the current riots, the appalling firesetting and looting, is fair comment.  There are a large number of people, many very
young, who have done very bad things and they should be arrested for them as soon as they are identified.  It hurts, but we have to understand that many of the rioters have done this to their own communities; it is not good enough to say it was all done by people from somewhere else.
It will take a long time for communities to recover, but there were signs all over the news today of councils responding magnificently and communities pulling together and supporting each other.  I have been struck by the many interviews with community activists and leaders who are stunningly articulate about what is happening in their areas, why things have been going wrong, and what needs to be done.  They give the lie to the
many derogatory things that are said about working class areas.  In many cases they are already the Big Society but without the resources and wherewithal to withstand the tsunami of post-recession policies that have caused hope and aspiration to evaporate.
A twin track approach is needed.  Obviously the police response has to be better and the community deserves to be better protected.  Cuts to police numbers should be withdrawn.  There will be many operational lessons to be learned, especially when so many communities come under attack at the same time.  What is so different from 1985 is the speed with which the rioting spread through so many different areas across London and further.  The blackberry phenomenon needs to be understood for the future, the police seemed clueless in the face of it.
But those that can only condemn and talk of clampdowns and state retribution are making a big mistake.  Even Mrs Thatcher sent out Michael Heseltine to find out what was happening in Liverpool after the Toxteth riots.  Boris Johnson hasn’t got a clue.  His one
dimensional response, repeated by David Cameron, about ‘sheer criminality’ is just not good enough, and Ken Livingstone is much more sure-footed and grounded in reality when big issues like this arise.
If it has no other dimension than criminality, if it has nothing to do with economic and social conditions, and policing, why has it happened now?  Is it completely unrelated to the closure of youth centres, the removal of EMA, rising youth unemployment, and rising numbers of young people being stopped and searched on the streets, which they see as harassment and disrespect?  If poor communities are constantly accused (even by some Labour politicians) of fecklessness, worthlessness (to the point of being told they shouldn’t have children if they can’t afford them) and scrounging, and a feeling of hopelessness is added by the unfair and unequal impact of the recession, is it a surprise that the outcome is a destructive form of alienation that eventually expresses itself in violence?
If bankers ruin the global economy then earn millions in new bonuses, if politicians and policemen are perceived to be on the make (even if most aren’t), if a media empire indulges in criminality as a matter of routine, if we only measure worth in material possessions, we should be traumatised but not astonished when youth also display heartless avarice and grab what they can.  Maybe Laurie Penny is right when she wrote in her blog last night that “people riot because it makes them feel powerful, if only for a night.”
For the future, we should take our lead from the dignified comments of the furniture store owner, distraught at the loss of his building, which had served the local community for 150 years, who was right to condemn but also had the perspicacity to ask why, what is it about our society that can make such things possible?