British riots, further reflections


From the BBC web site:

Home Secretary Theresa May has asked the Metropolitan Police to check whether banning theft and arson is an effective strategy for preventing crime. Some criminologists have claimed that widespread looting and arson mean the laws are not having the desired effect. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mrs May hinted that the riot laws remained under review. She added: “There’s not much point in having laws that are inefficient.” She suggested that the funds currently spent on policing might be better spent on reconstruction.

No, sorry, I got that wrong. It wasn’t the Home Secretary, it was the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The correct quote is:

Chancellor George Osborne has asked the Inland Revenue to check whether the 50p top rate of income tax is actually making money for the government. Some economists have claimed that tax avoidance and evasion mean the rate is raising less income than expected. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Osborne hinted that the 50p rate remained under review. He added: “There’s not much point in having taxes that are very economically inefficient.”

I didn’t start out with much sympathy for the rioters and looters, but the difference is exasperating in the public response to a few thousand poorly educated mostly young people who challenged the police, wrecked some cars and buildings, and robbed some shops; and a few thousand highly educated bankers who challenged the regulators, wrecked the world economy, and robbed the public purse. The best we can do is try not to aggravate them with “inefficient” taxes, and hope that our banker overlords will be merciful with us in the future.

I would have mixed feelings about treating the emotions of the moment and the general sense of lawlessness as a mitigating factor for those arrested for theft or destruction of property, but I definitely cannot see any justice in treating them as aggravating factors. The backlash is turning absolutely vicious. The reports from the magistrates’ courts are genuinely disturbing from the perspective of civil rights. People arrested with what must be questionable evidence: grainy CCTV footage and some hard-to-identify merchandise. Surely any decent defense attorney could drive a huge hole through the prosecutors’ cases if these charges came to trial. For good or ill, you would think that overburdened courts would have to offer them lenient sentences in exchange for cooperation. Instead, they are being held without bail, and somehow being persuaded to plead guilty, with minimal legal advice, in rapid-process magistrates trials that can dispense up to six-month sentences, or held without bail for Crown Court jury trials.

And the six-month sentences are being handed out. “At Camberwell Green magistrates’ court yesterday, a college student, who had no previous convictions, was jailed for six months for stealing a £3.50 case of bottled water.” One judge in Manchester launched into a tirade against a defendant: “People like you, who have all the benefits of this country which others, in other countries, would pray for – you bring shame and disgrace upon the country as a whole, and upon yourselves and your families. You do nothing constructive, all you do is destructive.” Again, he could have been speaking to the hedge-fund managers in the City, but all the government has in response to their lawlessness is an offer of tax cuts.

It’s pretty clear that justice is being politicised:

David Cameron told MPs in a statement that anyone charged with violent offences should not be bailed back on to the streets. He added that Parliament would act if courts needed new sentencing powers. The Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Kavanagh had earlier said he and other senior officers were “disappointed” by sentences given to rioters, which they felt were too lenient.

This will come back to haunt them the next time they have a diplomatic squabble with a foreign dictator who wants one of its critics imprisoned or extradited, and they try to claim that British courts are independent of the government.

And they are moving beyond individual punishment, to something more like mass reprisals. One local council in London has already begun proceedings to evict a woman from her public housing, because her son has been accused (not convicted even, mind you) of participating in riots. What do they expect a poor woman to do when thrown out of her home in what is still a wildly inflated housing market? Not our problem. In cold bureaucratese:

He [Ravi Govindia, leader of Wandworth council] said she would be deemed to have made herself deliberately homeless. “Then our obligation would be at an end. She signed the contract in which she and her household would agree the terms of the contract.”

Okay, but what are these people going to do? And it’s not just this one case: “Other authorities, including Westminster, Greenwich, Hammersmith and Fulham, Nottingham and Salford, are also considering evicting those found to have taken part in the unrest.” (The same article quotes the PM pledging to support “zero tolerance” policing. He knows a bit about the inimical effects of indulging wayward youth. The above photo shows the youthful David Cameron when he was a member of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, a society of toffs who were known for getting drunk and smashing up restaurants.) And Cameron is looking to move beyond even punishing the families to something more like mass reprisals. He recently turned to advocacy of water cannons, which the police themselves have dismissed as ineffective, but which sound satisfyingly violent. Asked to comment on the consequences of mass evicting poor families, he redefined the neighbourhood bonds of the poor as “criminal networks”. It would “break up the criminal networks in some housing estates if some of these people are thrown out of their houses and I think quite right, too.”


Update (16 August): The chair of Camberwell Greens magistrates court is now reportedly “mortified” that she called the directive from the government calling for harsh sentences for looters a “directive”. This was only “advice”. “Sentencing is a matter for the independent judiciary.” Yeah, right. Well, “mortified” is the best we can get. Meanwhile, the “independent” judiciary goes up in flames together with the Tottenham shops. And purely independently, having been well and thoroughly advised, a court in Manchester jailed “a mother of two, Ursula Nevin, for five months for receiving a pair of shorts given to her after they had been looted from a city centre store.”

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