Evidence heard in Public

Questions 762 - 793



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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Home Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 22 November 2011

Members present:

Keith Vaz (Chair)

Nicola Blackwood

Michael Ellis

Lorraine Fullbrook

Dr Julian Huppert

Steve McCabe

Alun Michael

Mark Reckless

Mr David Winnick

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Rob Berkeley, Director, Runnymede Trust, and Yohanes Scarlett gave evidence.

Q762 Chair: Order. The Committee has a number of inquiries that it is progressing today. The first is our ongoing inquiry into policing large-scale disorder. I welcome Mr Berkeley and Mr Scarlett; thank you very much for coming to give evidence. I do not know whether you have been following our proceedings, but the Committee has heard evidence from a number of individuals and organisations concerning the disorders that occurred. I know that Runnymede is conducting its own round-table discussions, which are very helpful, and we would very much like to know about your deliberations when they are concluded. Perhaps I could start with this question, Mr Berkeley: what do you think the causes of the disorders were?

Rob Berkeley: You will appreciate that there was a whole range of different events that happened around the same time, but I think they had different causes in different places. We can look at the events in Tottenham on the Saturday night as a classic race riot, followed by a set of different events; I think we recognise that it went much closer to the edge than people may have thought in advance of that. It is very hard to suggest that what happened in Gloucester and Chatham is the same thing that happened in Tottenham.

Q763 Chair: So are there individual causes for individual cities and towns?

Rob Berkeley: There are individual causes, but there are themes that you can draw, and I think those themes are about a high level of insecurity and a loss of trust in policing, as well as opportunism-and criminal opportunism.

Q764 Chair: Mr Scarlett, I know that you have appeared on "Newsnight", where you put your views forward as to what you thought the causes of these riots were. I am not sure whether you were out on the night, or whether you got anecdotal evidence as to what happened; did you see opportunistic criminality, or do you think that was one of the reasons why people behaved in the way they did?

Yohanes Scarlett: I definitely did see that across the country. I think the debate so far on the causes of the riots has been superficial, as far as its all being opportunism or criminality is concerned. I think that was a big part of it, and a major part of it spreading. A lot of people saw it as an opportunity to go out and advance whatever causes they had-some criminal, maybe some not. I concur with Rob when he says that the Tottenham riots were something different. They were something that started differently. I was in Tottenham just the other day, speaking to quite a few people, and they are still angry up to now, and most of their frustration and anger is being directed at the police at this point.

Q765 Steve McCabe: Mr Berkeley, what is the purpose of the round-table events that you are holding in various parts of the country?

Rob Berkeley: I think you will appreciate that in the days and weeks after the riots, people came forward with theories that they had had before the riots, and very few people have changed their mind. As a research organisation, we are very keen to make sure that the comments that we make are based on evidence. Going across five locations around the country, we are engaging young people from schools and local experts, and we are trying to reach community hubs; we are actually working in hairdressers’ and nail shops to speak to people about their experience of the riots. We are trying to reach beyond the usual suspects.

Q766 Steve McCabe: So it is an evidence-gathering process to inform understanding. Given that, what was the rationale for publishing your report, "Urban Disorder and Gangs", before you took your evidence?

Rob Berkeley: The report on urban disorder was about working, as we do, with a range of academics to try to raise an alternative view. We saw that this issue around gangs was becoming very one-sided. There was a suggestion that these gangs were real and were very much involved in the riots, and we just wanted to raise an alternative point of view, which is much more about why gangs might not be the cause of the riots. Also, on the kind of solutions being suggested, it might be worth thinking more broadly than just about gang suppression in the Bill Bratton model.

Steve McCabe: Thank you very much.

Q767 Lorraine Fullbrook: Following on from Mr McCabe, how and why did you decide on these five locations-Birmingham, Croydon, Lewisham, Coventry and Bradford?

Rob Berkeley: We wanted to choose an area where there were not major riots, so that is the reason for Bradford. We are working in the west midlands, in part because of our funders, who are very interested in the west midlands, and in Croydon and Lewisham because we have some contacts there and knew that we could do this, and do it at the right kind of pace.

Q768 Lorraine Fullbrook: Of those five, the only one that I can see where there were not any substantial riots was Bradford, as you say. Why are you not going anywhere else? Your other four had riots, so why are you not going anywhere else to be able to compare?

Rob Berkeley: I would love to be able to do more, but this is obviously constrained by resources.

Q769 Lorraine Fullbrook: Really, you are only going to be able to find things out in the places where the riots took place.

Rob Berkeley: We are going to four places where riots took place and one where they did not.

Q770 Lorraine Fullbrook: Do you think that that is comparable?

Rob Berkeley: I am not sure that this is going to be the final word. It is a contribution among some of the other contributions. I suppose that we are keen to try to find areas where there might be some different patterns. The interesting comparison between Lewisham and Croydon is that they are pretty similar areas, in terms of their population, but people whom I speak to there say that there were some different dynamics. There are some interesting comparisons, I think, to be raised there.

Q771 Lorraine Fullbrook: Is it a race issue that you are trying to pull out of this?

Rob Berkeley: We are working on this to ask questions about race. We do not want to presuppose that race played a major part in the riots, but we are concerned with the dismissal of race in some of the dialogue so far. We are really asking people what role they think race played in these riots.

Lorraine Fullbrook: Thank you.

Q772 Chair: Mr Scarlett, you heard what Lorraine Fullbrook said about the race issue; do you think that this is an issue in these riots?

Yohanes Scarlett: I don’t think that it is the complete or the major issue, but I would not dismiss it so quickly and say that it has nothing to do with it. It is quite a plausible possibility that race did play a part, and any research into that would be a good idea, so that we get a full understanding. I don’t understand the rationale of trying to dismiss something before you have even looked into understanding it. That would be a smart idea.

Q773 Chair: All the witnesses who have appeared before this Committee have been quite clear that race did not play a part. Mr Berkeley?

Rob Berkeley: I can see the temptation and the reason why you would wish to deny the role of race. There is a way in which calling it a race riot drives tensions and drives different kinds of solutions. Just because not all of the rioters were black, it does not suggest that there is not a dynamic here about racial inequality. At this point in our investigations, when we have asked people about the role of race, they are saying, "Actually, there are lots of young people from black and minority ethnic communities who do feel excluded, and who do feel as if policing in particular is driving the level of victimisation."

Chair: One very quick supplementary question, and then we must move on.

Q774 Steve McCabe: I just want to go back to Mr Scarlett’s point. You said you thought that the idea would merit investigation, and that it may not be the explanation, but it could be part of it. Obviously, there are some suggestions in Birmingham, following the death of the young men there, that there was not only a racial component, but an inter-racial component. Do you think that we need to investigate in those areas as well?

Yohanes Scarlett: I think that it needs to be investigated broadly-every area: not just the racism of race against another, racism within races, or the racism by ethnic minorities against other ethnic minorities. If racism is being investigated, all forms of racism should be investigated. There is no point in separating it out. That is not proper investigation.

Q775 Mr Winnick: Recognising that the overwhelming majority of working-class youths in no way participated, would it not be correct to say, looking at those involved, that there was no evidence that young people from very privileged and rich backgrounds took part in any way?

Rob Berkeley: I am sure that some people from very privileged backgrounds took part.

Q776 Mr Winnick: In other words, was it more class than race?

Rob Berkeley: I think that class played a huge part, but I do want at least to reserve the space to think about racial inequality and racism in this pattern as well. If you were to solve the problems of class inequality, you would still have race inequality left to deal with. In the areas that we are looking at, we know that a disproportionate number of black and minority ethnic people have been arrested and convicted in comparison to their proportion in the area, so there is an over-representation of black people.

Q777 Mr Winnick: Mr Berkeley, this bears somewhat on previous questions, but how do you see the difference, if any, between the riots that took place in the early 1980s, with which we are obviously familiar from personal experience-well, some of us, if not Mr Scarlett-and what occurred in August? Do you see a great difference?

Rob Berkeley: I see a number of similarities. We are looking at similar patterns of inequality, education and employment, and policing. We are looking at the spark for the riots being around a mistrust of the police. I think what was new was the way in which communication played a role to spread these riots much further and much more quickly, and the size of the number of people from a broader range of backgrounds who felt justified in taking to the streets.

Q778 Mr Winnick: On your website you drew comparisons that showed that in fact there was not all that much difference. If anything, in some respects, looking at what you wrote on your website, the situation is worse as regards the gap between black and white youths and the number of stop and searches that take place. Instead of any decrease, your website indicates that there has been an increase in such matters.

Rob Berkeley: Yes, and I think racial inequality is still as big a problem now as it was in the early ’80s. We are still looking at a 20% gap in terms of educational achievement, and we are still looking at stop and search being seven times more likely if you are black than if you are white. These are similar patterns to those in the early ’80s.

Q779 Mr Winnick: I put this question to you: in the early ’90s there was a general feeling that the riots that took place were in fact a way of demonstrating against deprivation and poverty. In the August ones, there was far more emphasis on the way in which the lawbreakers, who caused tremendous damage and fear among law-abiding people, were only too keen to get into shops-not bookshops, of course-to steal items that they clearly could not afford. Do you see that distinction?

Rob Berkeley: I do see that distinction, but I think that there is something that happens in riots that is not a demonstration any more. The significant difference might be how many people were prepared to use this as an opportunity to engage in criminal behaviour, and how many people felt-we are picking this up from some of the round tables that we have already done-that it is about "them and us". They feel as though the wealthy are in opposition to them, and therefore it is justifiable to take revenge, or take action.

Q780 Dr Huppert: Mr Scarlett, you have spoken quite a bit about the relationship that young people had with some of this. Both within the riots themselves and-perhaps more interestingly-more broadly, how do you think the police could improve their relations with young people?

Yohanes Scarlett: It is a very difficult and complex idea. We were just talking about the 1980s riots, and a lot of children and young people nowadays are being brought up by people who were very angry with the police during the 1980s, and that has carried over. I know young people for whom it is inherent, almost from birth, not to like the police. It is very difficult.

Mr Berkeley brought up stop and search; I think it was overused, especially during my teen years. I am 21 now, but when I was 15, I remember I was stopped and searched three times within an hour on the same road, just going down it. It gets overused and there is a lot of anger. More respect when police are stopping people is a big point. If you have to stop me-and I understand that sometimes you will-there is a way in which police officers could do it.

I think the main thing is that people have to see that police are being held accountable when things do go wrong. Recently, we had the Enfield crime squad; many of the people involved in smashing up the stolen car while the passenger was still in it walked away with their jobs, and a lot of people see that. There have been over 300 deaths since 1998 in custody, and not many police officers really get charged. If police are seen to be accountable, and they are not always seen to be walking around, throwing around their weight, of course that will start improving relations.

This is a long process. Communities have to do more; parents have to do more; politicians have to do more. They all have to come together and try to work towards a position where we can feel like the police are for us, not against us. When I was nine years old, the first thing I ever saw a police officer doing actively was beating a boy up on my road with a baton. I did not know what he had done-I was just walking down the road-but I was only nine years old, and that was my first experience with the police. I had actually known that boy.

Q781 Dr Huppert: I used to be a councillor, and in the part of Cambridge that I represented, we had various issues with antisocial behaviour. One of the things that the police started doing-there was a particular community beat manager, Nick Percival-was going into the primary schools, getting to know all the pupils, and getting on first name terms with them. They knew him as Nick. Do you think that could work more widely?

Yohanes Scarlett: Yes, definitely. I think police officers could visit more frequently. When I went to primary school, we had teachers and police officers come and do that, and then again at high school, but I came from an area where there was already tension towards the police, so when they did come in, there was already a confrontational atmosphere-even with a bunch of primary school children, and then in high school. It should be done more widely; it can be. If you get more people involved-community leaders, youth workers-and show that we are all working together with the police, and that they are not against us, I guess young people will start looking up to them more. I think respect goes to where it comes from; that is what my mum always taught me. If police officers are more respectful to the young people, young people will generally tend to be more respectful to police officers. Not all, because there are some young people who have been bad and will continue to be bad anyway, but I think if you are a professional police officer, then you are okay.

Q782 Alun Michael: To some extent, you have touched on part of the question I wanted to ask in talking about the relationship totally outside these sorts of events. You have both indicated that there were a lot of different causes, and you have also indicated that, for a variety of reasons, some people felt that it was a situation where anything goes, and they could do things that suited them. What can we do to reduce the likelihood of that sort of feeling arising when events happen in the future? Events will happen from time to time. What can we do to prevent that sort of freedom to steal stuff, if you like?

Rob Berkeley: I guess that the first thing is to look at the causes of what happened in Tottenham-police, and communication with families. That came up in the first inquiry, and it will come up again this time. The way in which that initial event was policed, as I think you will be aware, needs to be rethought. More broadly, I would probably think about it in terms of how precarious some people’s lives are, in terms of opportunities for careers and for a successful family life, which means that their understanding of the risks they are taking is very different. Levels of social mobility, access to employment, and access to services to support people-particularly young people, in terms of youth services-are crucial.

Q783 Alun Michael: I understand that in terms of teenagers, because often teenagers do not have a sense of risk, but there were an awful lot of older people who got involved in this. There were an awful lot of people who were actually in work who got drawn into this.

Rob Berkeley: But I wonder how secure those people feel. If that work is very precarious, and they do not feel as if they have a career-it is a job and it is relatively temporary-what sense of investment do they have in their communities? Also, that feeling about the system being against them becomes quite powerful.

Q784 Alun Michael: Finally, identifying the problem is one thing; have you got constructive suggestions about what can be done to tackle what you see as the problem?

Rob Berkeley: I mentioned notions around social mobility, and some of the work that could be done there, but also what strikes me is quite how inarticulate the anger is. I wonder whether political education-political mobilisation-might be one of the routes, particularly for younger people, in trying to explain and understand the situation that they are in, and to understand the routes to effective change.

Q785 Alun Michael: Do you think the work of organisations like London Citizens helps towards that?

Rob Berkeley: I think it does. There are a number of really strong third-sector organisations that are doing really interesting work, but it seems to be very atomised and, again, precarious.

Q786 Michael Ellis: Have you seen some of the arrest figures released by the Home Office-the figures on the people who have been arrested and prosecuted? Have those figures surprised you at all? We have had evidence, including, I seem to recall, from a Member of Parliament who went to the scene of a riot in his constituency and actually saw people getting out of expensive cars with iPhones, running round the corner, coming back with goods and loading up their cars. That was from a Member of Parliament on this Committee. Have some of those facts and figures been looked at by yourselves? Do they surprise you?

Yohanes Scarlett: I have looked at some of the figures released by the Home Office, and I am not really that surprised. At the beginning of the riots, some people were saying that poverty was a driver, and to some extent I think it was. Then again, there were some people, as you say, with iPhones, nice cars and tracksuits trying to get what they could get. It is a matter of greed, really.

Q787 Michael Ellis: So you do agree that there was opportunism in this?

Yohanes Scarlett: I never said that I didn’t. There most certainly was opportunism. I have heard stories about people driving their car from one side of London to the other side of London, loading it up and driving back, and all kinds of things, because they saw it as an opportunity. Opportunism played a massive role in this. One of the statistics that did not surprise me, although it is significant, is that many of the people arrested had previous convictions. Some of the people had iPhones and nice cars, but they may not have got the money for those things directly from a legitimate, paying job. Career criminals may have been involved in some cases.

Q788 Michael Ellis: On a slightly different subject, issues have been raised about the social media, and I would like to ask you both about the positive and negative issues. We have heard evidence about the use of Facebook, Twitter and the like during the disorder, and we have also heard from the police that they used social media with a view to trying to defuse situations, so there are both positive and negative aspects. What issues do you feel are raised by social media?

Yohanes Scarlett: As Mr Berkeley said earlier on the way these riots happened in comparison with those in the ’80s, it allowed more communication. I have a BlackBerry myself and, like a lot of mobile phones you can communicate on, it is very easy to get messages around and to mobilise a lot of people. The interesting thing is that some of these kids were able to mobilise a bunch of people around a cause to loot and steal, but they could have used the same skills to mobilise events planning or organisation. They could have used it for very positive things as well. I do not think it is a big issue, but it is an issue that needs to be tackled and looked into when people use it in the wrong way.

Q789 Michael Ellis: Do you think that in a major emergency situation, assuming the authorities were capable of doing so, they ought to turn off social media such as Twitter and Facebook?

Yohanes Scarlett: I have some difficulties agreeing with that. I could understand the reason for it, but it is the same sort of thing that would happen in China, Libya or Egypt. If we are going to start doing that, and we have already condemned those countries for doing it, we will start on a slippery slope.

Q790 Michael Ellis: Mr Berkeley, do you have anything to add?

Rob Berkeley: I concur. There are lots of possibilities for these communication tools. What surprised me was how much better people were at communicating than the police. There are some real challenges about how the police use and catch up with the use of smartphones and other media.

Chair: Thank you. A final quick supplementary from Nicola Blackwood.

Q791 Nicola Blackwood: Mr Berkeley, you mentioned the inarticulate anger directed against the wealthy and its widespread nature, and you wondered whether directing that anger towards political expression might be helpful. One of the problems this Committee has is that we have heard from a number of victims. The victims we have heard from come from very similar backgrounds to a lot of the people who rioted. These are not wealthy plutocrats, bankers or politicians; they are small business people, families who were burned out of their homes, and people who are now living, terrified, on the high street in Tottenham. It is difficult to understand how the people who rioted in their communities felt that those victims were suitable targets. I think that a lot of people in this country are trying to understand how the anger that you are talking about was properly directed, or why it was directed in that way.

Rob Berkeley: I do not think riots are directed, and I do not think riots are demonstrations-they are very different phenomena. It very rarely makes sense to riot, and it is quickly out of control, so I very much feel for the victims. I do not condone what people chose to do, but what is clear is that there were enough people who did not have a sense that they had invested enough in that community to want to protect it, and there were enough people who felt that the risks were worth taking. That, for me, is a major worry.

Q792 Chair: Mr Scarlett?

Yohanes Scarlett: I agree with a lot of what Mr Berkeley said, but I also think that when you have a lot of people who are angry and, as he said, not politically educated-they do not know how to protest effectively and demonstrate properly-they are going to do some crazy things. I know some people who have been burned out of their house. I know one shop owner who lost their shop, and you can only feel sympathy for them. At the same time, it is going to be difficult to understand why someone thought burning down someone else’s house was a good way to vent their anger, but it is worth trying to educate them politically, saying, "If you have a problem, there is a way to deal with it-a proper way that democracy allows." That would be a good way to educate and stop these things from ever happening again.

Q793 Nicola Blackwood: Do you not think that in addition to political activism, which is important, having a sense of needing to protect your community, and it being something that you have a stake in, is also something that apparently was missing in these rioters’ lives?

Yohanes Scarlett: I think that is definitely true, but a lot of them do not feel part of their society. A lot of people who I know do not leave their estate, period, apart from going to school, or maybe a youth club. All that they really live in is their little box in their estate with their friends, so when they go out, they do not look at it as being their community. They just see it as something outside their area, so it is very difficult.

Chair: Mr Berkeley, Mr Scarlett, thank you very much for coming in to give evidence to us today. We are very keen, as a Committee, to know about the deliberations of the round-table discussions. When you have completed your report, we would be most grateful to receive a copy, so that we can add that to our own deliberations. We now switch inquiries; we will be looking at the roots of violent radicalism with members of the National Offender Management Service.

Prepared 23rd November 2011