The government has announced a series of immediate measures to provide support for communities and individuals affected by the riots.
This special briefing considers issues of most relevance for local authorities – on police reforms and budgets, possible new sanctions for those involved in disturbances and on the renewed focus on dealing with ‘troubled’ families.
The initial reaction to the riots was dominated by central government but it is clear that the longer term response has to be in partnership with local government. What happened was different in different places – there cannot be a top down and one size fits all response. There are no instant solutions. Councils, working with local partners, have been dealing for decades with the deep seated problems in their communities that the riots have highlighted.
Full LGiU members briefing – available to access for free here
There has been an avalanche of responses to the riots – from politicians, the media and the public. It is not clear what will result in new policy – probably less than seems apparent from the debate so far. The government has insisted that it will not retreat from the cuts to the police budget. They remain firmly committed to police commissioners, though some liberal democrats are now saying they will oppose them in the remaining stages of the Bill.
David Cameron has made two major speeches. There has been a consistent theme – about mending ‘the broken society’ and the need for cultural and moral change, but there has not been much concrete about how this will happen. In his speech on 15 August he did indicate that there will be new measures to deal with gangs and this was taken up later by the Home Secretary who talked about new ‘strong and enforceable powers’. Ministers are considering general curfews to be imposed on specific areas in England and Wales, rather than being linked to individuals and to also allow police to impose curfews on people aged under 16.
The Prime Minister’s main commitment was to “turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families in the country” by 2015. This is not new – it goes back to Gordon Brown’s promise to “target more than 110,000 problem families with disruptive young people”. The family intervention programme that followed has been popular with all parties, but it is clear that progress has been slow – it has helped only around 7.300 families since it started. Expanding the programme to the scale David Cameron promised will not be easy – he blamed “bureaucratic problems” but it is not obvious what he meant by that. Funding has to be an issue here – hopefully the new focus on the programme will also mean additional money.
The debate around removing benefits from those involved in these type of disturbances and evicting tenants where a family member was involved have had wide media coverage. The current position on evictions where it is possible under various Housing Acts and anti-social behaviour legislation for the court to grant a landlord a possession order where a tenant has caused a nuisance in their locality would be taken much further if a person could be evicted for committing a riot-related offence, regardless of where it occurred. Leading liberal democrats are beginning to publicly oppose the suggestions on both housing and benefits. The government has made it clear, though, through extending the current consultation on evicting tenants for anti-social behaviour, that they are seriously considering widening the powers to take possession. The political debate will no doubt continue as to the merits of the policy and how it can actually be implemented will also be subject to serious scrutiny – from lawyers as well as those involved in social housing.
On benefits, it is likely that the government will pursue the concept of conditionality – that certain benefits would be removed unless the claimant commits to certain conditions, such as taking part in parenting classes. Removing all benefits from families because of the actions of one member, is bound to be highly contoversial in practice, even if following the riots, the majority of the public seem to want to see this happen.
The crucial role of local authorities during the riots and in the short term and longer term responses to them is patently clear. The LGA has publicised many practical examples of what councils have been doing to ‘clear up’ their areas, to deal with people made homeless and to work closely with the police to identify perpetrators. Councillors have been visible when trouble occurred – even if the media largely concentrated on the local MPs.
When the Prime Minister talks about turning around troubled families, he may have focused on the work of Emma Harrison, (the chief executive of Action for Employment (A4e), whom he appointed his “families champion” in December), to use her experience in dealing with troubled families in three pilot areas, but it is local authorities who have led the way in family intervention and who promoted innovative projects that brought together the many agencies involved.
If family intervention is to be a priority, then the government should rethink funding for it. These programmes have been part funded by councils, but with major cuts to budgets, it is difficult to see how they can be extended. The government has said that it would make available £200 million from the European Social Fund to help fund the target, but the rest would come from the early intervention grant, which is to be cut by 11 per cent by next year and has funding for Sure Start, teenage pregnancy and youth centres to meet. There have already been huge cuts to youth services across England – and like the family intervention services, these may need to be looked at again following the riots.
The debate over the causes and solutions to what has happened and to the underlying social and political problems they highlight is only just beginning. But as Jonathan Carr-West, LGIU Director, has said on the LGIU blog
“It’s probably still too soon for enough perspective to make a truly balanced judgement on the causes of and responses to this week’s rioting. Predictably, we are beginning to see the emergence of familiar unhelpful polarisations in the media and political response to these events… (but) wherever one sits on this spectrum, however, one thing is strikingly clear: the solution to either sort of problem must take place at a local level. Neither robust, proactive policing nor addressing social exclusion can be mandated through central strategies, both must be informed by local context, flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions and delivered in collaboration with local communities”.
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