23 August 2011 Leave a comment
At a time when the Mayor of London can suggest that he doesn’t want sociological explanations of the riots and the Coalition’s higher education policy will likely lead to a diminution of support for research and teaching in sociology and the other social sciences, we have all too much evidence that reveals why research from sociologists and other social scientists are vital to inform public policy.
Thus we have the widespread calls for cuts in benefits to those involved in the rioting and calls to evict the families of rioters from council housing. In the case of the former, nearly 200,000 people as of 14th August have signed up to the e-petition on the DirectGov website to demand that “Any persons convicted of criminal acts during the current London riots should have all financial benefits removed.” In the case of the latter, The Guardian reports that Wandsworth Council has already started eviction proceedings against a woman whose son has been charged (but not convicted) in connection with the rioting in Clapham (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/12/london-riots-wandsworth-council-eviction?INTCMP=SRCH). A number of other London Councils are reported to be considering similar measures.
There are several issues that might be considered in relation to these responses. One is that of double punishment. If arrest and court procedures are the means by which lawbreaking is dealt with in society, does the imposition of additional sanctions not actually weaken the criminal justice processes. Should magistrates and judges be trying to anticipate, in their own sentencing policies, the likely additional sanctions that might be imposed through eviction and benefit cuts? And why, uniquely should conviction (or even being charged) over riot related offences produce such sanctions when murder, rape, armed robbery, or phone hacking should not?
The eviction of council tenants who cause substantial upset to their neighbours through their antisocial behaviour in the locality is at least a policy where there is a clear relationship between offence and sanction and is one that provides a measure of protection for those who have been affected by their behaviour. The collective punishment of the family of participants in a riot does no such thing and inevitably contributes to the further marginalisation and impoverishment of those young people and their families.
As for the suggestion that all welfare benefits should be removed from those convicted of criminal acts, one wonders if this should be for all time? Would this apply to child benefit if those convicted have children or were to have children in the future? Would it, in the fullness of time, extend to the provision – or rather non-provision – of state pension? Without reducing explanation of the riots to issues of social exclusion, unemployment, poor education and lack of opportunity, it would be strange if none of these factors played some part in the events of last week. How much would cutting benefits contribute to resolving any of these issues and reducing the chances of further rioting. If a class of law breaker with nothing at all to lose is created by such measures, surely this must inevitably lead to more criminality. Indeed with no money for subsistence, let alone the consumer goods so clearly in demand in the looting, how could it not lead to more theft, more burglary and probably more rioting?
In ‘The Guardian’ Martin Kettle (11th August) called for the Prime Minister to “commission a proper sociological analysis of the rioters and what they did to our country this week” http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/11/talk-rioters-not-turn-back-on-them). If ever there was a week that demonstrated the ongoing need for well conducted sociological research that can lead to greater public understanding and inform policy, then this was it. Then we wouldn’t have to listen to so many proposed measures that are not only unjust but would inevitably make our problems worse not better.
Howard Wollman, BSA Vice Chair