Following the publication this month of The Guardian and LSE's research Reading the Riots, there has been a robust response from the government, led by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, insisting that disturbances were primarily a consequence of lawless behaviour. In fact the government has remained steadfastly wedded to this explanation ever since David Cameron declared in the immediate aftermath: "This is criminality, pure and simple". Children and young people, however, do not see it as being so simple and we've found that their views are also shared by adults.
The Children's Society's survey published today, which questioned over 1,000 adults and more than 1,000 children aged 13 to 17 found that, overall, they both believe the main reason that children and young people became involved in the riots was to get goods and possessions they could not afford to buy. In both groups just over a third identified this as the main reason. It was also commonly raised in a small number of focus groups we carried out. One young person said:"If you had trouble feeding your family, you would also consider stealing and taking advantage of the moment."
This correlates strongly with the Reading the Riots study and The Guardian ICM poll with adults, which found that poverty was thought to be a key factor in the riots. It indicates that material well-being cannot be overlooked as a significant issue affecting young people today. Research published earlier this year by The Children's Society showed a strong link between a child's material deprivation and their overall subjective well-being or life satisfaction. Clearly, tackling poverty and material disadvantage is crucial to avoid further unrest among children and young people.
There was also a widely held view among those surveyed that there is not one single explanation for the events - rather a number of factors were at play. So it would seem that the Home Secretary is rather out of step with public perceptions when she says the riots were about instant gratification and lawlessness. Instead our survey clearly shows that most people believe that the riots were caused by a whole range of factors - and poverty and material disadvantage are at the heart of it.
It is particularly striking that there that there is agreement between adults and children that the government should be providing more support to young people. This sends a clear message to central and local government that the public would like to see more positive activities on offer to children, rather than a reduction in out of school youth provision. It is most timely as the Department for Education has just published its youth strategy which sets out a framework of expectations and principles for supporting young people. But there is no new money to deliver the strategy and many councils are having to cut back or reconfigure youth support provision.
In seeking to understand the August events there is a risk that some voices will be heard and listened to more than others. The communities affected, the victims and those who took part all have valid opinions that must not be overlooked. But it is equally important to listen to our children and young people, so they are valued as active participants in their communities and wider society. Their views must be taken seriously by all those working to make sure that lessons are learned to avoid a repetition of the disturbances over the summer.