Images of burning buildings and shops stripped of their merchandise provided news broadcasters with a stream of disturbing images over the summer. The footage of the Reeves furniture store on fire in Croydon being razed to the ground will remain a defining image of the August riots. This was a family business owned by an 80 year old man that had been built up over generations and destroyed in a matter of hours.
The shocking behaviour of the rioters was rightly met with outrage and was condemned by all the political parties. The looting of goods, attacks on police officers and destruction of buildings showed a blatant disregard for authority and disregard for the consequences of criminality. It is right therefore that such criminal behaviour has been met with the full force of the law. However, we need to recognise that this chaos also highlights a broken section of British society which does not share the values we expect of our fellow citizens.
The report released this week by the Guardian/London School of Economics found that 79% of the rioters interviewed cited unemployment as a reason for their behaviour. For this report 270 people were interviewed who rioted in London, Birmingham, Nottingham, Salford and Liverpool.
In contrast, this September ComRes also did a poll of MPs to ascertain their views on the UK riots. Many members attributed the civil disorder to a lack of sense of responsibility for one's actions. However, the single most popular explanation for the riots was greed and opportunism. Six out of ten MPs chose this as the central reason behind the rioters' behaviour.
It is telling that Waterstone's was the only shop not looted in Clapham; book shops were spared the major damage of other stores during the riots. Instead the looters targeted sports shops and electronic retailers, proudly displaying on Facebook and Twitter photographs of them holding ipods, mobile telephones and designer trainers. This highlights the flaws in the arguments made by the left which has made repeated attempts to blame the summer riots on the cuts. As the Prime Minister has said "These riots were not about government cuts: they were directed at high street stores, not Parliament". In the LSE report 'Reading the Riots' many of the rioters themselves conceded that their involvement was down to opportunism and the chance to acquire luxury items they would usually be unable to afford.
When I speak to other students and young people about the reasons for the riots they cited greed and a lack of respect for the law as central factors. When the BBC interviewed looters on the radio many of them said they would carry on until they were caught. We need proper punishment and tough sentencing in order to ensure that this type of behaviour does not reoccur. However, we should also not allow sensationalist media reporting to distract us from the underlying problems in our society that the riots made apparent.
The most comprehensive figures published so far show that the England riots were younger, poorer and of a lower educational achievement than average. The report by the Home Office showed that 90% of the rioters were under the age of 21 and that 42% were on free school meals. However, the most revealing statistic was that 35% of the rioters were claiming out-of-work benefits, which compares to a national average of 12%.
Many of the young rioters were unemployed and on benefits showing that poverty and disadvantage were major causes behind their behaviour. Labour claims to have tackled social mobility yet under the last government the gap between rich and poor widened. The richest 10% of the population are now 100 times better off than the poorest. The riots have highlighted the importance of giving the next generation a good education and opportunities. We need to give our young people a stake in society and the chance to improve their lives in the future. If greed and opportunism played a major part in the riots then we need to make perpetrators of the violence and disorder feel responsible towards society.
Haringey borough which includes Tottenham, where twenty-six police officers were hurt during violent clashes with rioters, has the fourth highest level of child poverty in London. It also has an unemployment rate of 8.8% which is double the national average with one in fifty-four people looking for work in the borough. The real challenge is the difficulties our young people face today in terms of employment. There are on average 70 graduates applying for every job in the UK and students are entering the worst jobs' market in a generation. With competition so high it is no wonder that our young people are feeling disillusioned.
In his conference speech in Manchester the Prime Minister spoke of the public's lack of surprise at the riots over the summer. He spoke of the need for greater police powers, speedy justice and a stronger society in which parents take responsibility for their children. That is why the Government has committed to turning around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families in the country this Parliament. We need a sense of social responsibility at the heart of every community. To echo David Cameron, we are all in this together and we can work together to mend our broken society.