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Stripping rioters of their benefits will only deepen society's divisions

A proposal to evict convicted London looters from their homes and halt their benefit payments will not solve any problems. We must leave it to the courts to decide a suitable punishment.
Jo Adetunji
11 August 2011

The backlash against rioters and looters has begun, with the police and politicians vowing to bring the full force of the law following the wave of rioting that spread through areas of London.

Westminster and Greenwich councils are vowing to evict social housing tenants who took part in the hundreds of shameful instances of looting, arson and violence on Monday in their boroughs (notably backed by housing minister Grant Shapps) and an e-petition to strip benefits from those convicted of rioting is currently making its way to the 100,000 signatures needed to be considered for a debate in parliament. At last count it numbered 96,000, at a rate of around 5,000 an hour, and will be the first such petition to reach that minimum.

But as Camilla Batmanghelidjh, founder of the charity, Kids Company, and Guardian columnist Zoe Williams have both pointed out in the Independent and the Guardian, the circumstances and effects of the riots have as much of a political cause as the blatant criminality it also demonstrated.

While Batmanghelidjh said one driver was people who were “being continually dispossessed in a society rich with possession”. Williams chose to put it: “This is what happens when people don’t have anything.”

I fall into the liberal camp but that doesn’t mean to say I, like most Londoners, am not filled with anger at the behaviour I witnessed first-hand in my borough of Hackney.

The scenes that played out, on the ground, on television and from windows across the capital were inexcusable and saddening: the boy apparently being helped by a group of youths only to find his bag rifled and his things stolen; people in the crowd being mugged by others; the setting fire to buildings and businesses.

As the courts process the hundreds charged with criminality, it’s true that many opportunists are among them – of different ages and creeds. But the involvement of large numbers of young people from disadvantaged areas, targeting clearly consumerist items, is hard to miss.

In events driven arguably more by poverty than race or politics in those taking part, the question is what to take from those who already have nothing?

The government has already begun its reforms to the welfare state, including proposals for a £500 weekly cap on benefits for families. But as a recent letter leaked to the Observer revealed, removing these safety nets could merely increase the burden on taxpayers as thousands of families seek local government help.

Eviction has been used to great effect some would say in clearing antisocial behaviour from neighbourhoods, as was the case in Orchard Village, formerly the notorious Mardyke estate in Havering, north east London, which was blighted by anti-social behaviour before a zero-tolerance policy, community involvement and a makeover were invested in.

Bearing in mind possible legal constraints – councils can only remove residents when they commit antisocial behaviour on or around the grounds of their property, working out who is liable for removal of benefits and social housing (assuming those who took part are even legally of an age to receive benefits) – is blindly reactionary as it is unworkable.

Is this form of punishment to be means tested? What about whole families? Where will these evicted people go? Do those who propose these actions keen to see people on the street with absolutely nothing, to close the door with a smug ‘I told you so’?

If we follow the proposals being considered to conclusion, at best it would increase the number of homeless and prove costly at worst prove inhuman and could lead to higher levels of crime. While e-petitions can be problematic as a form of democracy (a legitimate call or just advanced form of online trolling), the proclamations from local authorities and Shapps can only be seen as political posturing.

In an ideal world no one would see benefits as a handout but a means for helping people get back on their feet. Less still would those who receive it shove it back into society’s face. But neither should withdrawing it be a method of punishment; that is for the courts. The calls for social punishment, far from addressing the very causes that have led us here in the first place, instead create deeper divisions and a blinkered view that these people aren’t our problem.

Update: 5.20pm, 11 August. The petition has now reached 100,000 signatures and has been referred to the backbench business committee, who will consider whether to take it forward for debate in the Commons.

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