Taking rioters’ benefits away could cause deeper problems

A mass clean-up in London has already ensued (c) Burma Democratic Concern

Katy Owen

David Cameron today returned to the worrying theme of ‘broken Britain’ in a speech outlining his intended response to last week’s riots. The theme is worrying not because I disagree that there are parts of British society which could be labelled ‘broken’ (rich and poor alike), but because of the issues he chooses to attach to this idea.

For example he equates ‘children without fathers’ with selfishness and bad behaviour as signs of a collapse of morals. Recent research may have suggested that children from single-parent families are more likely to be badly behaved, but this is likely due to factors coinciding such as poverty and unplanned pregnancy. A recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies have shown that marriage has little effect on children compared to educational background.

Even more alarming is Cameron’s suggestion for ‘toughening up’ on those who are out of work and receiving benefits. The prime minister’s speech and an online petition calling for participants in riots last week to lose their benefits share a common assumption: that benefits are a luxury – even a reward – that can be taken away at will by the state, or have conditions placed upon them.

In actual fact they are a safety net the taxpayer provides because we as a nation have decided that we do not want anyone to be deprived of the basic necessities for a comfortable life. This is something of which we should all be very proud.

This benefits suggestion is unacceptable in the first instance because it will aggravate the combination of deprivation, selfishness and anger which underlay the motives for the riots; because it could affect family members of rioters who were entirely innocent; because it sends the wrong message about why we provide benefits in the first place; and because it would likely create a large group of unemployable homeless people. Cameron will not adopt the petition’s suggestion; but he has indicated today that he could adopt a smaller version of it.

We hold standards of behaviour for our citizens and have rules enshrined in our legal system for which there is punishment when individuals break them. This punishment must be dealt out by our courts. We may sometimes question the decisions they make (for example sentencing someone to six months in prison for stealing £3.50 worth of bottled water). But ultimately if we do not trust them to give sufficient penalties to criminals then our cause for concern goes beyond the riots and into profound questions about the purpose of our justice system.

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