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Jean Lambert London's Green MEP

Public Service Europe article: British youth is disenfranchised, not ‘feral’

Almost a month on from the London riots, Jean Lambert MEP argues that the coalition government must now work to create an accessible economic and social system full of opportunities for Britain’s alienated young people.

Like the millions of people who are proud to call London home, I was deeply upset by the wave of violence that swept the capital last month.  Londoners were not alone in their horror as the chaos and disorder quickly spread to Birmingham and then to Manchester and to countless other cities across England.

This violence cannot be excused.  We must now have a period of reflection if we are to understand why this happened in the first instance and try to prevent similar events from taking place.  The formal commission into the causes behind the riots co-ordinated by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is to be welcomed, but if we are honest with ourselves, we will recognise that there is no simple answer and certainly no simple solution.

Newspapers and commentators from across the political spectrum have been awash with varied and often contradictory explanations as to why some of the worst civil disorder this country has seen in recent years spilled on to our streets.  But a consistent theme has been one of “feral youths” on the lookout for an opportunity to go on the rampage – providing evidence of a “broken society” and “moral collapse”.

This is simplistic and naïve reporting at its worst, which fails to explain both the frustration felt by some young people in this country and does not reflect the wider context; the tension in relations between the police and young people, rising levels of youth unemployment, the abolition of the educational maintenance allowance, the gutting of youth services in some of the country’s most vulnerable communities and the prevalence of a consumer culture which encourages endless material accumulation against a background of growing inequality. These disturbances could be seen as people acting on a sense of hopelessness.  It comes from being part of a society that appears unequal and uncaring.

These problems will require ongoing, long-term investment.  The coalition government must commit itself to the implementation of policies that will help to create an accessible social and economic system full of opportunities for young people.  Measures such as the introduction of a living wage, which recognises that circumstances and living costs of young people, the development of a voluntary community service programme that gears teenagers towards eventual employment, widens horizons and engages those who might not otherwise take part in any kind of education, and the restoration of the EMA. Only by investing in young people now can we hope to assuage their concerns and fears about what the future has to offer them.

We must also consider the people affected by the riots – those who lost their homes, their businesses and their livelihoods during the disturbances.  Initial government figures suggested that at least 100 families were made homeless, whilst the British Retail Consortium has estimated that businesses across the country lost more than 7,500 hours of trading during the riots with some 11,000 members of staff affected.  A number of these businesses will have been small and independent stores, who were already suffering from a fragile economy with staff that might now face unemployment as a result of the damage caused. Meanwhile, the announcement of a new multi million pound government fund designed to help those whose homes and businesses have been damaged is to be welcomed. It is vital that payments reach those affected without delay and are not held up by bureaucratic red tape.  Employees who have lost income must also be included in any financial support package.

Less welcome is the government’s overly political and populist threat to withdraw benefits and evict from social housing those families linked to the events. Whilst those convicted of serious offences should face serious consequences, seeking eviction or removal of crucial financial support will only serve to destabilise their lives and make it harder for them to find work; further isolating people already alienated from society.  Community payback schemes would provide restorative justice for those convicted and for victims who were affected by ensuring that the damage is repaired via community service work.  Eviction and benefit cuts should not be used as a form of retribution.

Just as important as structured support in the process of recovery is community support.  The scenes of citizens taking to the streets with their brooms in the immediate aftermath of the riots to help restore their neighbourhood brought a sense of hope, but this great show of solidarity must continue.  We must continue to shop on our local streets and protect our local services that are under threat due to savage spending cuts in order to develop our communities.

There is no doubt that the road to recovery will be long and arduous for those areas that experienced the worst of the disorder and for the current and successive governments, who must try and mend the wounds bore by our disenfranchised young people.  We will only be successful if our efforts are matched by a sincere attempt to create a more equal and caring society, where all are encouraged to realise their potential and given the opportunities to do so.

This article was published on Public Service Europe on the 2nd of September: