Last week's riots were devastating and shocking. Five people lost their lives. Others lost their homes and belongings through arson. Nearly 900 police officers were injured. Countless shops and non-domestic properties were looted and damaged – £200 million worth of damage says the Association of British Insurers.
Only a tiny minority of people living in London, Birmingham, Bristol, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Medway and Salford took part in the rioting. An even smaller number of these were children: estimates are that less than a quarter of those involved were aged under 18. More people, young and old, took part in the clear-ups than in the destruction. Yet, as national co-ordinator of the Children's Rights Alliance for England, I can say that our organisation shares the fears of many young people that the events of last week will result in increased demonisation and even more social exclusion of the young.
Jess Reid cleaning up after the riots in Manchester
Back in 2008, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child observed a "general climate of intolerance and negative public attitudes towards children, especially adolescents", including within the media. Ministers were told to take urgent action.
The UN Committee made a further 100+ recommendations for improving the lives and social conditions of children living in the UK. These included robust safeguards for children alleged to have breached the law, and those convicted of criminal offences. International law is clear that criminal justice responses to child offending must always be a last resort – sustained intervention by education, child protection, health and welfare agencies are proven to be the most effective in rehabilitating children.
As yet, there is no clear narrative as to the motives of the rioters; and no plain picture of the backgrounds and circumstances of children – some as young as 11 – involved in damaging and dangerous behaviour. An inquiry into the social conditions, home lives and motives of the children involved in last week's riots must surely be a priority for the Children's Commissioner. Importantly, such an inquiry should take in the views, reflections and recommendations of children living in similar circumstances, including friends and siblings, who elected not to engage in criminal behaviour.
The Prime Minister and the Home Office are leading political debate at a national level. No public statements have yet been issued by Government Ministers responsible for education, children's health and social care, youth services or juvenile justice. The Youth Justice Board sought to reassure courts and the public that there were enough prison places to incarcerate convicted children, as if this was the most natural and effective response to the week's events.
There have been no calls to learn the lessons from countries with much higher levels of social cohesion and far less child poverty and social and economic disadvantage. Has so much improved in our society since UNICEF ranked us bottom of 21 of the world's richest countries for child well-being in 2007?
What we have heard so far are a range of punitive and predictable responses, which can only put our country further down the international decency scales for how we respond to children in trouble:
Home Secretary Theresa May was reported in the Daily Telegraph on Sunday as asking the Director of Public Prosecutions to urge courts to lift reporting safeguards for juveniles convicted of riot-related offences. London Mayor Boris Johnson was reported in yesterday's Sun newspaper as wanting courts to be able to exclude children from school and for the reintroduction of 'Borstal-type schools'. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has said those convicted of riot-related offences but not given custodial sentences could still lose entitlement to benefits. Families in council houses are facing eviction by local authorities for the alleged actions of individuals.
Media reporting safeguards have been in place since 1932 for children convicted of crimes; and the failure and brutality of Borstals has long been recognised. School exclusion can have a devastating effect on children’s life chances, so much so that the Children’s Commissioner launched an inquiry on the subject just last month. Merging basic social protection with criminal justice penalties puts children and communities further at risk and demeans politicians for their lack of insight and imagination.
Last year, the coalition Government promised that the Convention on the Rights of the Child – the international treaty which sets out how Government's should provide for and treat children in good times and bad – would always be taken into account in the development of new laws and policies. There are no signs so far that this international standard of decency, for all children, is playing any part in the coalition Government's rhetoric or actions. This has to change, fast.