Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

Guardian 'Non-rioters are upset too' - 09/12/11

Headlines reporting the Guardian and London School of Economics' Reading the Riots research have pointed to widespread anger and frustration with the police as one of the principal causes.

Disappointingly, even after all the work the police did after the Macpherson report, there is still intense hostility towards the police. It is particularly pronounced among young men. But the extent to which this caused the riots is called into question by my research showing hostility to the police every bit as deep among those who took no part in the riots.

While carrying out extensive surveys of people living in my constituency, I looked at the attitudes of young people who received the same BlackBerry messages as the rioters but whose response was to stay well away from it. Though most of those charged with riot-related offences were young and local, the overwhelming majority of Peckham young people are decent, law-abiding and determined to do well in their lives.

In focus groups, they demonstrated their high degree of motivation and determination to stay on track and achieve their goals.* But though it was not the case for the girls, the boys' attitude to the police was deeply hostile. One young man summed up this attitude to the police in one word, "hatred". So even though the rioters expressed hostility to the police, most of those who shared that hostility played no part in the riots.

I also carried out focus groups among young people in Putney to compare their attitude with their peers in Peckham. Surprisingly, the hostility to the police was expressed with equal vehemence by the more affluent boys from Putney.

Whether from Peckham or Putney, these young people based their hostility to the police on their experience of having been moved on or stopped and searched. Like the rioters interviewed by the Guardian and the LSE, they attributed this to a belief that the police abused their power in the way they carried out stop and search. In Putney the views echoed precisely those in Peckham: "It's not that they stop you that's the problem, it's just the way that they do it."

What is clearly needed is a targeted programme of community engagement and police training to improve the relationship between young men and the police. This will demand more police resources in our area – not fewer.

But if hostility to the police, while undoubtedly present, is not the cause, what did cause the riots? Perhaps it is another issue identified by the Guardian/LSE research: the link between areas where rioting took place and areas of high deprivation. Throughout research published thus far, there are themes of political grievances and a pervasive sense of injustice.

In my research I asked some of my constituents what they thought was necessary to stop riots happening again. They identified three things that would make riots less likely in future: more youth services, lower unemployment and more police. The irony is that, as a result of government action, that is precisely the opposite of what is happening. There are cuts in youth services, unemployment is rising while the government is shutting our jobcentre and police numbers are already falling. The impact of government decisions on Peckham is only going to exacerbate political grievances and the sense of injustice.

In areas where people have the least, cuts are being felt the hardest. There is a sense, particularly among young people, that communities are being forgotten, fostering a sense of injustice and making communities more vulnerable.

This is a tragedy, because young people in Peckham are every bit as self-motivated and ambitious and have just as great potential as their peers in leafier postcodes. They are not to blame for this country's problems, they must be part of the solution.

*Focus groups carried out by Britain Thinks

Read this and other articles related to The Guardian/LSE Reading the Riots research here.  Download my report, 'After the Riots - The Way Forward', here.

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