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Learning lessons from the riots

Posted on 28 March 2012 .
Tags: society

The Independent Riots Communities and Victims Panel set up to examine and understand why the August 2011 riots took place, has published its final report, and will present its recommendations to the leaders of the three main political parties. The findings are based on research conducted in communities, and in consultation with third sector organisations and social enterprises, local authorities, and private sector employers. It also draws upon research from an earlier study conducted by NatCen Social Research, The August Riots in England, which was commissioned by the Cabinet Office.

One big question the report throws up is the extent to which the riots were a product of broader social problems and how much can be put down to a lack of individual and parental responsibility? Of course, there’s a sense in which both hypotheses are true. The riots were complex events. One thing we tried to do in our own report was to understand both the immediate motivations and ‘on the night’ factors that affected behaviour, and separate these from deeper-seated underlying social problems that the riots have now come to symbolise.

We can’t overemphasise the importance of this distinction. The immediate motivations and ‘on the night’ influences provide a tantalisingly and apparently clear and direct set of ‘causes’ for the riots. But, our research found that not all young people had these motivations. Most, in fact, probably didn’t - or if they did they didn’t act on them. So what explains the difference in behaviour? This may be where the underlying factors come in - a whole range of overlapping conditions and circumstances that make up the social context in which people live their lives. While this can’t be blamed for individual action, it does set the context in which this kind of behaviour on this scale was seen as acceptable to some.

The Panel’s report covers many of these factors, and locates the family as a central route to identifying and addressing these problems. The report identifies 500,000 "forgotten families" who need help to turn their lives around. One immediate question is how these families compare with the 120,000 "troubled families" that many initially (and mistakenly) thought were to blame for the riots? The Panel claims that the overlap with rioters is limited.

We had suggested this in our blog describing the 120,000 families back in August. Here we described the "troubled families" as facing multiple forms of disadvantage (such as low income, material deprivation, unemployment, poor quality housing, poor health, and so on). However, and more importantly, they were not defined as being involved in anti-social behaviour - these seemed to be families that faced troubles rather than families that caused troubles. In fact, according to our survey (which admittedly took place before the riots), only 10% of 11-15 years olds from these "troubled families" families had themselves been in trouble with the police.

All in all, it’s clear from a range of research and inputs that it won’t be enough to sort out the ‘on the night’ factors by, for example, ensuring a stronger and more rapid police reaction. Equally important is the need to address the longer term challenges crystalised in the events of last August – it is crucial that it’s the right families that are helped with preventative early interventions, particularly in light of shrinking public sector budgets. Not a simple task.


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