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Public Disorder — Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:27 pm on 11th August 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 12:27 pm, 11th August 2011

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made in the other place by the Prime Minister. I begin by saying that it was the right decision by the Prime Minister and the Government to recall Parliament today. It was also the right decision to recall your Lordships' House.

Whatever we disagree on week by week, month by month, today we stand shoulder to shoulder in condemning the violence and vandalism that we have seen on our streets. I join the Prime Minister in mourning the loss of life that we have seen, including those in London and Birmingham. Our thoughts are with the families and friends of those who have died. As the Prime Minister said, the protection of the public is the key duty and obligation of a Government. In our recent debates in this House, both the Government and the Opposition have been united in this view. The first duty of government is the security and protection of the people.

The events of this week have been deeply shocking but they are rare. Britain is still a peaceable country; London is still a peaceable city. For the vast, overwhelming number of people in our country, the nearest that they have come to these riots has been their remote control unit. But when they have turned on their television sets people across the country have been appalled by what they have seen: buildings burning in city centres and suburban high streets; shop windows shattered; looting without limit; gangs of youths attacking the police and fire service; and the streets under the control not of the public but of the mob-random, sustained, direct violence. However, for people living in the areas that have been hit by these events, this has been far from a spectacle seen on the television. It is their homes that have been hit-their shops, businesses and communities. For some, their lives have been not just changed but changed for ever. For every chain store that has seen its windows smashed and its televisions or trainers looted, there have been local corner shop businesses that have seen their investments, savings, livelihoods and lives reduced to rubble or burnt to the ground. The Prime Minister was right to characterise these actions as criminal.

What we have seen this week in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Nottingham, Liverpool and even, astonishingly, my home town area of Gloucester is serious criminality for which there can be no excuse. However, clearly there are problems in our society and we have to work together to find solutions. Where there have been criminal acts, we need to see arrests being made, prosecutions being brought, cases going to court and the perpetrators being penalised. We need justice to be done. Criminality in breach of criminal law needs to be responded to by criminal law. We must see swift progress from charge to trial in these cases. Can the Leader of the House confirm that there is capacity within the courts and among our prosecutors to deal with cases swiftly, not just for first appearance but throughout the trial process?

This week, we have also been reminded of the importance of CCTV in catching those responsible. I wonder whether the Government will undertake to look again at the proposals on CCTV to ensure that they in no way hinder bringing criminals to justice.

There is no excuse for this criminality. There is no justification for what has been done this week. But there are questions that we need to address. Why did this happen? Why did this happen now? What lessons did we learn from the Brixton, Toxteth, Hackney, Leeds and other riots back in 1981? Of course, we know that there are differences from that time. There was no social networking in 1981, no Twitter, and no internet at all; there were no means by which those taking part in the violence could maximise their impact through modern communications. But, just as in 1981, we know now that the background to this week's riots is complex: unemployment, especially youth unemployment, poor education, and few prospects. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London has said:

"The events of the past few days in London are appalling-but not wholly unexpected".

He spoke of the role of gang culture in the capital. That is just one of the many issues, along with parental responsibility, jobs, aspirations and ambition for our young people, the need for a sense of hope rather than hopelessness, drugs and alcohol, which must be discussed, debated and analysed. Finding an explanation for the riots is not an excuse, not a justification for the violence, but it is a means of finding a solution. We need to look at these issues if we are to have a return to order and to normality and we need to look at them seriously. There has rightly been talk of responsibility and morality. Perhaps society has lost part of its moral compass, abdicating our responsibilities to our fellow citizens, breaking the rules that bind us as communities, indulging in wanton consumerism and this week despicable criminal consumerism.

I hope that there will be a full, independent examination of what has happened in recent days and what has led us to this position; not an inquiry sitting in Whitehall hearing evidence from academic experts, but reaching out and listening to those affected, an inquiry that perhaps goes around the country listening to people. There are millions of people in this country who care about the community in which they live; they want a voice; they want to express their horror about what has happened from their own experience, but they will also have many progressive answers. We must listen to their hopes and fears and to their ideas in order to find solutions. We on these Benches would urge the Government to establish such an independent examination as soon as possible.

There are things that the Government can and must do before then. Can the Leader tell the House that the Government will ensure that the people and families who have lost everything, whether it be their homes, their possessions, their businesses, or their livelihoods, will have fast-track insurance provision so that individuals, families and businesses can start to get back on their feet as quickly as possible? Local authorities in the areas affected-areas which, in the main, were already deep in deprivation-will be heavily stretched in trying to sew together again the fabric of their local communities, which has been so violently ripped apart this week.

Again, 30 years ago, we saw considerable effort and investment put into areas affected by rioting. In this House, for instance, we think of the work on Merseyside, following the Toxteth riots, led by the then environment Secretary and the now noble Lord, Lord Heseltine. Can the Leader of the House confirm that there will not just be extra resources, but the resources that these areas need, provided for by the Government, for the programme of physical and social rebuilding and reconstruction, which these areas will now unquestionably need?

The importance of the Olympics, mentioned by the Leader of the House, to all countries is self-evident, but for this country the importance of a peaceful, orderly and successful Olympics cannot be overstressed. Just last night, I was in Delhi, where on the front pages of all the major newspapers there were stories about the riots. Naturally, there is discussion about the violence and its causes but, in conversation, questions are also asked about our reputation in the world and the implications for the Olympics. In particular, can the Leader set out what steps the Government will be taking, less than a year before the start of the 2012 Olympics, to repair the damage to the reputation of London as a world city, as an attractive place to live and visit, damage which the events of this week have certainly done?

This is not a moment for party politics. Causes are one thing but, leaving politics aside, how these issues have been handled certainly raises vital questions-urgent questions to which we need to turn our consideration. The bravery, dedication and commitment of the police officers who have been out on our streets this week, trying to defend us all, trying to protect people and communities, has been exemplary and a tribute to the traditions and practices of good policing in Britain. I thank our brave policemen and policewomen throughout the country for the work that they have done on our behalf, and of course I thank the emergency services. We have seen instance after instance of real courage, real care and real compassion as police officers sometimes struggled to maintain law and order in the face of, at times, overwhelming odds against it and them. Admirable though that certainly has been, it cannot and must not mean that questions cannot and should not be asked about how the policing of the situation was handled overall.

It is quite clear that questions need to be asked about the policing of the events, from the initial shooting in Haringey a week ago to the fact that it took as long as four days for anything like an adequate police presence to be put in place for the capital city of this country. Why four days? The police must get proper support from the Government. We on these Benches have spoken out well before the events of this week on the proposed cuts in police budgets and police manpower, which the Government are bringing forward. Now is clearly not the time for the Government to proceed with their plans for large cuts in the police forces of this country. Now is not the time to stretch the thin blue line even further, as so many of our excellent police men and women have told us this week. So can the Leader of the House confirm that the proposed cuts in the police-cuts which have led to estimates of as many as 40,000 police and police-related jobs disappearing-will now be put on hold and the basis of policing needs reconsidered?

Much was made by the Benches opposite before last year's election about what they liked to badge as broken Britain. We never thought it was true. We always had a higher opinion of Britain and the British people than that phrase implied. "Broken Britain" was a glib and easy charge to make in opposition, but government is harder and tougher. We never much took to the notion of "Broken Britain" as an idea but if Britain was broken then, it is a good deal more broken now than it was a week ago. Successful societies are built on an ethic of hard work, compassion, solidarity and looking after each other. Ours must be one society. We must all bear our share of responsibility for it. It is right that we come back to debate these issues in due course.

These are serious matters. Few things can be more dreadful than to see young women leaping for their lives from burning buildings, which have been deliberately set on fire by thugs intent on violence, looting and criminality. The people of this country rightly demand protection and security at home. To sit in your own house, as people across the country have testified to doing this week, hearing a mob attempting to break in to attack you, your possessions, your property, your family and your life, is not anything which anyone at all should be experiencing in Britain in the 21st century. We must move beyond the wanton and shaming violence we have all seen this week. There will be lessons to be learnt. We must all learn them and take whatever steps we can to make sure that there is no repeat of what has taken place in some of our greatest cities this week.

But in all the violence and in all the appalling images, we have seen some uplifting things. On the morning after their own communities had been trashed-trashed by people who are part of the very communities they were trashing-to see men and women of all ages and backgrounds coming out with shovels, mops and brushes to clear up the mess was as British in spirit as the Blitz, or the response of the public to the terrible events of 7/7. Through the violence we have also seen clearly that while for some people, at least, the rule of law means little or nothing, for every brush that was swept, for every spadeful that was shovelled and for those people trying to pick up the pieces from the violence, we have seen that the rule of law meant the opposite. The most extraordinary courage that we have seen is from Mr Tariq Jahan, whose son was killed and who said,

"Today we stand here to plead with all the youth to remain calm, for our communities to stand united".

We stand with that gentleman; he is the true face of Britain.

As its bedrock, the good society needs democracy, human rights and the rule of law. We have seen all that challenged this week but for all the despicable violence that we have witnessed, we have witnessed as well how uplifting the human spirit can be, how powerful is the rule of law-because support for it is so widespread-and how much, too, we all need to work to ensure that it is the human spirit and the rule of law rather than baseness and violence which eventually triumph.