Soundbites rather than substance – David Cameron’s statement on the riots

The House of Lords sat today and the Leader of the House (Lord Strathclyde) repeated a statement made in the House of Commons by the Prime Minister on the riots over the last week.  The Prime Minister’s speech was carefully tailored with soundbites for the televison news, but it was notable for what it missed out or skated around.

The Prime Minister stressed how important it had been to flood London with extra police officers.  However, there was no mention of the fact that the Government is cutting the police budget by 20 per cent, that police numbers have already fallen by 4,600 since the General Election, and are set to fall even further (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary estimates that there will be over 16,200 fewer officers by 2015).  When in the Lords, Lord Strathclyde suggested that these cuts would “not affect the police’s ability to get policemen on the streets” he was greeted by a chorus of disbelief (or “Oh!” as Hansard puts it) on all sides.

The Prime Minister praised the role of CCTV in catching those responsible for the violence and looting.  However, he didn’t mention that as part of the Coalition agreement the Government was now putting large bureaucratic hurdles in the way of local councils installing CCTV to reduce crime.

The Prime Minister talked of a robust approach to tackling gang violence, but he failed to mention that in opposition the Conservatives had voted against measures to extend the powers to obtain injunctions to stem such gang-related violence and Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, who was then Shadow Home Secretary, had described the use of injunctions as a “legally dubious gimmick”.

The statement was light on substance and where what sounded like practical measures were mentioned they often seemed to mean very little in practice.  For example, the Prime Minister said that the Government would be supporting local communities affected and that “the Bellwin scheme to support local authorities will be operational”.  This, of course, only means that local councils get some support from central government when additional – approved – spending for a specific cause exceeds two per cent of their annual expenditure.  This is a very high hurdle indeed – and even then the help only extends to the spending over the two per cent threshhold.

When I got my chance to ask a question, this is what I said:

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority and a former leader of Haringey Council, where I spent about 12 years of my life trying to secure the sustainable regeneration of the area of Tottenham. One of the tragedies of what has happened in the past few days is that the stigma of an area of riot has again fallen on that community, and that the efforts built up over many years are now being undermined, with businesses no longer being able to survive.

Do the Government believe that the Bellwin formula will be a sufficient response to ensure the reconstruction that will be needed? This will be of communities after the damage that has been done, and must also tackle underlying problems. Will they review the resources being made available to local government for regeneration in such areas? Will they also review the way in which the Riot (Damages) Act operates? If it would drain funds from police forces to compensate people who have been hit and damaged by the riots, that would be extremely damaging to the sustaining of police numbers in future. Finally, what advice was taken from the police service about the decision that water cannon should be made available on the mainland? It is used usually for the dispersal of large crowds, but the problem in this case was caused by small groups of people acting opportunistically.”

The point about the Riot (Damages) Act is important because it means that compensation to individuals or businesses adversely affected by a riot has to be paid from the police budget – so budgets already cut as a result of Government policy will be drained further to pay compensation.

And then there was the Prime Minister’s soundbite about water cannon.  Water cannon have been used in Northern Ireland – not without controversy – but their effectiveness is in dispersing large hostile crowds.  The problems that there have been with looters in London and other cities have been with small opportunistic groups.  They are already dispersed.  Water cannon would not help deal with such small fast-moving groups.

This – like the soundbite about authorising the use of plastic bullets or baton rounds – seems to be more about pandering to excitable back-bench Tory MPs rather than addressing the serious issues that affect our cities.

Am I surprised?

Well, no ….

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