Voters: “Strip rioters of benefits!” Politicians: “Sure. See you at the 2031 riots?”
As I write this, 75,263 people have signed this e-petition:
Any persons convicted of criminal acts during the current London riots should have all financial benefits removed. No tax payer should have to contribute to those who have destroyed property, stolen from their community and shown a disregard for the country that provides for them.
This e-petition was set up early yesterday. It has been gathering signatures at a rate of more than 3,000 an hour, long since overtaking Paul Staines’ petition to “Restore Capital Punishment” (6 days old; currently 11,387 signatures), Martin Shapland’s opposing “Petition to retain the ban on Capital Punishment” (6 days old; currently 20,027 signatures), and Robert Halfon MP’s “CHEAPER PETROL AND DIESEL” (5 days old; currently 24,189 signatures). These professional politicos have been left standing.
At the current rate (c.5k/hour), more than 100,000 people will have signed by later this evening, triggering consideration of the petition by the House of Commons’ Backbench Business Committee. The first test of Parliament’s commitment to listen to the public will not be capital punishment, but a demand to punish those responsible for the violence and destruction of the past four nights.
Everything that’s wrong with democracy – direct and representative – encapsulated in one neat package.
Behind the petition is a clear assumption that those rioting are in receipt of benefits, something that early reports of those brought before magistrates – school staff, students, a self-employed designer – suggest is not generally true.
Even if it were the case, it’s hard to see how stripping people of financial benefits is likely to reduce the risk of further disorder. Riot carries a maximum sentence of ten years in prison: if that is not a deterrent, I doubt loss of benefits will be. Applying the penalty retrospectively – as the plain wording of the petition suggests – is pure retribution.
And then there’s the question whether it’s possible or practical to strip individuals of benefits. Many of those arrested are youths: will we dock EMA (to reform of which, leaders on the left have sought to link the disorder) or deny their parents child benefit? In the latter case, we’d end up punishing the parents and any other children.
There are ways in which benefits could be restricted – you might, for example, provide a portion of the benefit in a non-cash form, such as vouchers – but this adds cost, and such systems are prone to failure as the experience of similar, supposedly non-punitive, measures applied to asylum seekers demonstrates.
Housing has its own problems. Westminster Council has announced that it will seek to evict social housing tenants who have been involved in the riots. It’s not clear whether they will be able to – as the law in this area is too narrowly drawn, requiring the anti-social behaviour to be linked to the immediate area of the house – but it is difficult to defend a law which obliges a social landlord to treat a rioter who paralyses a borough better than someone who’s nuisance is confined to a single street.
Assuming you could evict these people, where do they go? Do they begin to draw Housing Benefit to subsidise private rentals? The same local authority which evicted them from its housing may find itself paying their rent a few streets away. It is neither practical nor politically acceptable to force people to relocate to other areas or cities – what local authority would take them? If they are denied Housing Benefit, and find themselves homeless, are they also placed outside the local authority’s duty to house them?
Perhaps some of the people signing this petition have considered these issues. Perhaps some are even prepared to see families homeless and begging on the street. But I doubt it. Like all such calls for punishment, there is rhetoric, without consideration of the effects.
The same goes for calls for stiff prison sentences for rioters.
I’ve grave doubts about the usefulness of prison sentences in this situation. At best, we incur the costs of imprisoning offenders for a year or more – Magistrates are already referring many rioters to the Crown Court, because the Magistrates Court cannot impose a sentence of more than six months – and at worst we set petty criminals on a path which to major criminality.
Those accused of offences that endangered life (arson, assault, and worse) should face custodial sentences, but it’s pointless to send those accused of theft offence to prison. They should receive harsh community penalties: curfews, and community work obligations measured in thousands of hours. There should, over the next few weeks, be hundreds of people in hi-visibility jackets being forced to spend every minute of their leisure time improving the communities they have attacked, and facing the prospect of doing the same for the next year. Unfortunately, the current sentencing framework makes this impossible – because previous calls for punishment to be harsher has seen prison prioritized over everything else.
Still, let’s say you buy the idea that all those who rioted were on benefits. Once they get out of prison, this latest crop of offenders will find themselves less employable: their education interrupted, their criminal records dissuading employers. We’re going to deny them access to state benefits, so presumably they’ve got a straight choice between begging on the street, or theft.
Even if they’re not denied benefits, the impact of prison terms will be increased joblessness. People will fall back on state benefits, Job Seeker’s Allowance, Housing Benefit, and in due course child benefit, as they become the work-less parents to a new generation of young people.
Congratulations: same time, 2031?