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My Speech on the Riots

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11 August 2011
Speech on the Riots Just given my speech on the riots in the Commons – here is the unabridged version (had to cut some chunks of it out as the time limit was reduced to 4 minutes).

You can also see the video of my question to David Cameron (scroll through to 54:20) and my speech (scroll through to 6:06:45) at the bottom of this post.

Thank you Mr Speaker.

On Monday of this week my constituency was the scene of violent disorder. Cars and bins were set on fire, shops were looted and there were ugly clashes between police and rioters. The windows of my own office in Lewisham were smashed, the door kicked in and computer equipment stolen. But compared to those who have lost their homes and businesses, I was still one of the lucky ones.

I first learnt of these events as I sat in a New York taxi, on my way to start my honeymoon. As I listened to voicemails – one from my alarm company, two from the police, I felt physically sick. Were my staff OK? Had people been hurt? What was going to happen next?

As I spoke on the phone to Lewisham’s Police Commander, I thought back to the conversations we’d had during my first year as an MP; conversations which ranged from my concern about the popularity and accessibility of internet footage glorifying gangs and knives to his concern about the increasing number of 13 and 14 year olds coming into contact with the police for the first time.

I thought back to the television coverage of the protests in central London about cuts to Education Maintenance Allowance – protests which were largely peaceful, but which stayed in my memory because of the frightening images of a minority, small groups of teenagers with faces masked by hoods and scarves, looking for a fight.

Some argue that these riots are just the direct product of government cuts. I don’t buy that – it’s too simplistic. Yes, some youth centres have closed, yes young people are angry about tuition fees but the people out rioting and looting on Monday night in my constituency are by and large not the people who use our youth clubs, nor I suspect are they the people who will be re-evaluating a university education as a result of increased tuition fees.

No, these riots are primarily a result of disaffected, marginalised youths who wanted a ruck. They are the result of mindless idiots who capitalised on an opportunity to nick some trainers from JD Sports or a plasma TV from Argos. Whilst the initial catalyst for the riots in Tottenham may have been anger at the police, I suspect the person who smashed up my constituency office window wouldn’t even know who Mark Duggan was.

I don’t believe that government cuts or a widespread failure in police-community relations are solely to blame for these riots. I think it’s as much about kids growing up in households where no-one gives a damn about what they are up to. I think it’s as much about the glorification of violence in our society as it is about this Government’s austerity drive. Having said all of that though, I think we have to ask ourselves how this climate of anger and aggression has built up amongst some sections of the population in our inner cities? What role has Government played, and I include previous Governments in that, in creating this climate or allowing it to take root?

Youth unemployment in Lewisham is high. I have been stopped on more than one occasion by young people on the street who are angry, really angry about the fact they can’t find work, angry that the government is making it harder for them financially to stay at college. I am not a politician who is a household name – visible in my community yes, but I am not the Prime Minister, I am not the Leader of the Opposition. It says something that I am stopped by young people who want to know what I am going to do about it.

I am genuinely concerned that this Government, perhaps unintentionally, is writing off a generation of young people who are growing up in our inner cities. This is not to make excuses for what has happened over the last week – there is no excuse. The riots were shameful and those that were involved deserve everything that is coming to them but the simple fact is that people weren’t rioting in the Prime Minister’s constituency of Witney, they weren’t rioting in Tunbridge Wells – no, they have been rioting in areas with serious economic and social problems.

Yesterday, I spoke to shopkeepers who were caught up in the violence on Lewisham Streets. One asked me what I thought the solutions were. It’s complicated and to be honest, I am not sure there are absolute solutions, just things we can do to minimise the likelihood of these events reoccurring. Jobs, education, opportunities must all feature but so too must a role for the state and society to stop a small minority of children growing up with a “take what you can, when you can” attitude and no seeming understanding of the difference between right and wrong. And it is a small minority – we mustn’t tar all young people with the same brush.

Two other final points. I think we have to ask tough questions of the police – was their response firm enough quick enough? Many of my constituents don’t think that it was.

Secondly, I think we have to be very wary of those who wish to portray this as a race issue – if anything, it is about poverty – economic poverty, but also poverty of respect and poverty of responsibility. But I say again there are no excuses for what has happened this week. The violence we saw on our streets is a stain on the fabric of our society – whist we might wash it out over the next few weeks, the real challenge is in preventing it from ever reappearing.

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