Responding to the riots: why we should avoid a knee-jerk reaction

No-one could fail to be moved by the words of Tariq Jahan, the father of one of the three men mown down by a hit and run driver in Birmingham last week.  His reaction to his son’s death, killed as he tried to protect his community from rioters, was both poignant and extraordinary.  He said he believed people could stay calm and could live together.  The police said his words had played a significant part in helping to quell further unrest.

I was particularly struck by how this appeared in stark contrast to calls for rioters to be denied benefits and thrown out of their homes.  One a considered, compassionate response from a man grieving for his lost son; the other a short-sighted, knee-jerk reaction from at least 192,000 people who have signed an e-petition, most of whom will have lost nothing more than a few hours sleep from staying up late to watch news coverage of the riots.

There are so many reasons why a blanket removal of benefits from those found guilty of rioting is a bad idea.  Not least because it could lead to the bizarre contradiction that someone who smashed a shop window and made off with a tv would be without benefits, but a convicted rapist who has served his term could go on receiving them.

So far the prime minister has resisted publicly backing these calls, although not all those in his party can be credited with such restraint.  The charge is being led by housing minister Grant Shapps, who has already proposed that those found guilty of anti-social behaviour should be automatically evicted from social housing.  He now wants this extended to riot-related behaviour, regardless of whether the offence took place in the person’s own neighbourhood.  Such policy proposals are putting a strain on the coalition and the government is struggling to present a united front.  Simon Hughes, the Lib Dems’ deputy leader, warned this weekend that tax cuts for the rich and removing public support from the needy will only further damage the social contract.

Knee-jerk legislative reactions are often unworkable and always controversial.  The most notorious example, the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, was rushed onto the statute book following a number of serious attacks by aggressive and uncontrolled dogs, particularly on children.  Pressure for the law came from heavy tabloid coverage that caused widespread public concern.  But it has been cited ever since as an example of bad legislation:  one huge loophole prevents prosecutions for attacks on the dog owner’s private land, meaning many vicious attacks go unpunished.

The UK isn’t alone in falling into this trap.  Controversy is raging in the US following the death of two-year old Caylee Marie Anthony, who was missing for 31 days before her mother, Casey Anthony, reported her missing.  There was public outrage when Anthony was found not guilty of first degree murder, aggravated child abuse and aggravated manslaughter.  'Caylee’s Law', proposed in several states after online petitions gained over one million signatures, would make it a crime for failing to report a child missing within 24 hours.  I don’t think I have to list all the reasons why this is a bad idea and will probably do nothing to help recover abducted children.

Legislators should know better than to respond to these public outcries.  David Cameron would do well to remember how he cautioned against a knee-jerk overhaul of gun laws after Derrick Bird went on a killing spree in Cumbria last year.  We should not legislate by the court of public opinion, not because the public doesn’t have a right to have a view, but because you can’t legislate for individuals.  Take Caylee’s Law.  It’s all very well to surmise that it might have helped find Caylee Anthony alive, but it could also needlessly criminalise thousands of parents and tie the police up in pointless compliance.

Those found guilty of looting should, of course, be punished.  But I haven’t read anything in the last week to suggest that the police and the courts don’t already have at their disposal the tools they need to make arrests and pass sentence.  It is not for the public, or politicians, to make judgements about how the perpetrators should be punished.  And we do not accord the victims of crimes that right either.  Rather, as a civilised society, and despite recent events, this is what we are, we give judges and juries the right to dispense justice.  This is vital in maintaining the rule of law.  Allowing vigilantism and retributive justice to take hold will only lead to more riots and more victims.

Of course, we elect politicians to represent our views.  But we also elect them to lead and to act in the best interests of society as a whole.  In doing this, they may not always be popular.  This is as it should be.  A populist response to the calls for looters to have their benefits cut may be tempting, but our discredited politicians would do their reputations far more good by resisting those calls and taking a more measured, thoughtful and proportionate response.

It was, interestingly, a previous prime minister of Norway, Kjell Magne Bondevik, who said ‘to exchange principles for popularity might be a temptation.  It’s at the core of populism.  We must offer something else’.  This is surely the route we must follow.

Posted in: Rule of Law

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