Rioters must be met with strong sanctions to show that Britain is open for business

Mike Weatherley MP argues that the government must reassure retailers that this frenzied crime spree will never again be allowed to happen or go unpunished, and that Britain is truly open for business.

Shoplifting has been relegated to the realms of a ‘victimless crime’.
Mike Weatherley MP
On 11 August 2011 09:28

In amongst people’s reactions to the scenes of rioting and looting that has dominated the front pages of newspapers, there was a message board posting from a Croydon resident that sums up the recent events for many people:

“In the Arab world people rise up for freedom, democracy, human rights and freedom of speech. In England we rise up for a new flat screen TV and a pair of trainers.”

This speaks to the fact that there seems to be no ideology behind this senseless destruction; indeed the whole sordid affair now seems very far removed from the initial protest about the shooting of Mark Duggan, whose family has condemned the violence and lawlessness of the last few days.

There is, in my opinion, no justification for the unbridled ransacking of parts of London, the West Midlands, Liverpool and Manchester. Various apologists have tried to label these criminals as ‘disaffected youths’ who have been let down by a system that hasn’t given them a job or a stake in society - frankly I find this sentiment at best misguided.

There has been a creeping lack of discipline, sense of responsibility and respect for authority in some our youth; and these errant kids are now graduating to a taunting disregard for the police - aired live on our news channels and splashed across our newspapers.

These criminals are well versed in their ‘rights’ yet have no regard for their responsibilities and one cannot exist without the other.

This rioting cannot even be simplistically reduced to spontaneous opportunism by socially networked and mobilized youths, although there is clearly an element of that. Met Commander Stephen Rodhouse stated that the mass disorder has provided the additional opportunity for serious, targeted and organised crime to be committed.

We must be clear though that the lawlessness and looting we have seen over the last few days is not an incident to be seen in isolation.

This sort of disregard for the law, society and property – whether it belongs to individuals or retailers – has been an epidemic spreading at a rapid pace which seems to have some correlation with increasing long term youth unemployment and welfare culture. However, this rioting and looting is not a political statement by ‘disaffected youth’. It has more to do with an attitude of ‘take what you can if you can’. 

This ‘take what you can’ attitude has for too long been committed by a minority criminal element of society and largely ignored and tolerated. But the activities of the last few days have demonstrated how dangerous this attitude is when it becomes concentrated in a technologically savvy mob of youths.

It is tragic it has taken such a shocking occurrence of criminality for Parliament to suddenly take notice of the political change that retailers in particular have been calling on for so long to address the growing prevalence of shoplifting, burglary and assault that is a blight on our communities.

The coalition is uniquely placed right now to use this tragedy as an opportunity to put in place long term ‘game-changers’ to ensure this sort of thing is redressed; and that criminals who damage other people or property face proper sanctions so that permanent lessons can be learnt.

It is also perhaps easy to see how this disregard for businesses’ property in particular has come about – and it is not an attitude that has spontaneously ignited overnight. Successive governments have presided over the downgrading of shoplifting as a crime and this government needs to immediately rectify this.

There is a feeling among shopkeepers that they have been abandoned by the police – whether rightly or wrongly – as shoplifting has been relegated to the realms of a ‘victimless crime’. It has taken the events of the last few days to demonstrate that this attitude in law and policing is clearly wrong. It has instilled a sense of security in criminals that they have carte blanche to steal from a shop without fear that the crime will receive police priority to investigate it, and that even if they are brought to justice, they will get little more than a slap on the wrist.

This soft touch attitude has undoubtedly fostered the notion that certain crimes can be committed without reprisal. Indeed many police forces publicly stated that when their resources were stretched over the last few days their priority was to protect ‘people not property’.

I am not arguing that police should not prioritise ensuring the safety of citizens, but this statement speaks volumes of an institutional attitude that has been passed from politicians to the police that property is a distant secondary consideration. This public statement was seized upon by many rioters who took this as a sign that looting shops was fair game and there is a huge amount of footage that would appear to indicate police officers were more like bystanders as the looting was going on, than proactively functioning as a deterrent.

I am not in any way trying to blame the police for the events of the last few days. Indeed, I understand there must be a huge frustration among the forces that they are often ‘damned if they do, and damned if they don’t’ when it comes to reacting to crime. We often hear highly publicised accusations that police are too heavy handed; or that their reaction has been insufficient – but very rarely ever praise for a balanced approach. The public and the media must stop pandering to sensationalist accusations that whatever the police do, there must be some impropriety; and we must put our faith in them and allow them to do their jobs once again.

The last few days have also demonstrated that we must also ensure that the Sentencing Commission formally recognises the particular vulnerability of shopkeepers to being victims of crime. There needs to be real sanctions in place to deter criminals, rather than seeing them as an attractive target. A youth in Manchester who was interviewed stated brazenly that:

“As long as this stuff is up for grabs I’ll be helping myself. If I get arrested it will be my first offence and I will take the caution.”

This is a damning indictment on our current system that this heinous attitude can be fostered. I understand that, in London, none of the suspects arrested for rioting, looting and criminal damage have been granted bail and all have been detained in custody. This is the sort of thing that should become automatically maintained once normality returns to our streets to truly redress this attitude that there are no consequences to unlawful theft and destruction of property.

On the 8th of September I will be Chairing a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Retail & Business Crime where retailers will be able to address MPs who are concerned for the welfare of their communities; and Home Office Minister of State, Baroness Browning, who has kindly agreed to attend. I will also be calling upon the Leaders of the three main parties – David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband – to attend in a demonstration to the business community that the Government and Opposition are supportive of businesses as they get back on their feet; to update worried retailers about progress that has been made in the month after the riots; to reassure them that this frenzied crime spree will never again be allowed to happen or go unpunished; and that Britain is truly open for business.

Mike Weatherley MP is the Member of UK Parliament for Hove. He tweets at @mike_weatherley

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