Benefits a safety net, not a reward for being good

At the time of posting over 219,000 people in the UK have signed an e-petition requesting that the Government withdraws benefits from any of the rioters who have been convicted for offences committed in London in recent weeks. The threshold for the Government to consider debating such ideas is 100,000 and this idea is already being considered for discussion in September when Parliament returns after the Summer recess. 

The wording for this petition is:  Convicted London rioters should loose (sic) all benefits – Any persons convicted of criminal acts during the current London riots should have all financial benefits removed. No tax payer should have to contribute to those who have destroyed property, stolen from their community and shown a disregard for the country that provides for them.

This is a substantial number of people. With the exception of one other e-petition which is calling for the disclosure of the Government Hillsborough files up to a year ahead of the time planned, the other 100 or so e-petitions fall well short of the threshold (the next highest is 63,000). To put these numbers into context politically, the current estimate of membership of the Conservative Party (the largest of the political parties) is below 250,000 and by comparison the RSPB has over 1 Million members.

By September, the public at large may have forgotten the impact of the riots, although as I have written previously the scars for some will remain for many years. Our daily news is now largely focused on conflict on the Tripoli Streets and the resignation of Steve Jobs from Apple. I suspect that few people can even recall the name of Mark Duggan whose death at the hands of the Metropolitan Police only three weeks ago sparked the first riot. By the time the MPs return to the debating chamber the popular support for this measure may be down to the 17,420 who wish to see a return to Capital Punishment. It should be noted that having signed an e-petition in a moment of enthusiasm, there is no way of Parliament measuring if this support remains constant a week later, let alone the time needed until the debate can begin. 

A Government that plans to be re-elected in 3.5 years may feel they can ill afford to throw away 220,000 potential votes from the signatories to the petition. A much wider challenge is the need to be seen to take seriously this first test for their e-petition process, let alone the desire by a number of MPs to support this move. Even if they do debate the matter, Parliament is not obliged to enact this as legislation (indeed to do so may prove almost impossible) but ignoring 200,000 people is not an easy decision to take. That said the previous Government overlooked Two Million marchers who opposed the War in Iraq, and they were still re-elected!

It is clear that some members of Parliament are already persuaded that the idea has merit. James Clappison for one, as MP for Hertsmere has published an article suggesting that the idea should be considered. Some of those who have commented on James Clappison’s opinions, have pointed out as someone who has claimed some £97,000 in public money over 7 years to run his constituency home (some £14,000 per year) in addition to his income as an MP, that he is poorly placed to deny public money to others who are not personally wealthy as he is (some reports suggest he owns 24 houses).

The idea that Benefits can be withdrawn from people, beyond the time they may spend in custodial detention is a draconian one (all prisoners lose benefits whilst incarcerated). No one receives a Benefit as a reward for good citizenship, this income is not a bonus for excellence, but instead something provided to people at risk of serious levels of poverty or hardship. A blanket decision that could affect up to 2000 people and their families in some of our neediest communities is incapable of assessing the impact (and therefore unintended consequences) of this grand or rather grubby gesture.

The Courts are surely the agency of the Crown that are delegated to decide what should happen to people who have broken our laws and ignored our cultural norms. If as a result of a knee jerk decision by 200,000 anonymous people and the 650 MPs whose own dependency on public expenses is still much in question we overturn the principle of universal benefits will we not be driving the thin end of a massive stake into the heart of our Welfare State. These Benefits are a safety net, provided by the nation as a whole for those who have least in this society of huge inequalities.

About ianchisnall

I am passionate about the need for public policies to be made accessible to everyone, especially those who want to improve the wellbeing of their communities. I am particularly interested in issues related to crime and policing as well as health services and strategic planning.
This entry was posted in Parliament and Democracy, UK Riots in August 2011 and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Benefits a safety net, not a reward for being good

  1. Xun-ling Au says:

    I don’t believe that the removal of benefits should be considered as part of the criminal justice system (unless it is due to a custodial sentence). A punitive action such as the removal of benefits from rioters is not going to act as a deterrent. It will actually just make them more disenfranchised and more likely to commit crime.

    So what measures should be taken against those on benefits who do not receive a custodial sentence?
    One place that is an option is increasing the strength of community payback orders (CPOs). Currently community payback orders are limited to 300 hours. I would suggest that for those not in work this limit should be raised to 1500 hours. That’s 6 hours a day on (almost) every weekday for a year. That sounds a bit more like a deterrent. Hey congratulations you are an indentured servant for the next year.. sucks to be you! (Or at least that’s the message you hand to the daily mail)
    There are 2 advantages to this. Firstly given the length of time that the order runs it gives the provider of the CPOs (Often charities) a long term worker. It will give the offender structure (something that is often missing) and hopefully if the placement is well managed some training and work experience which may help lift them off the bottom rung. Of course it would require some additional investment into the probation service and CPO providers. It would also provide some politicians the oppotunities to get their houses decorated:
    (Okay that last bit was a joke).

  2. clare szanto says:

    I quite agree.The hypocritical self righteousness of many of those who have condemned the rioters has been quite sickening. It’s fine to tax evade ( considered even quite clever) and lie about expenses, but dare to loot a shop and only the stocks are good enough. I hated Facebook even more than usual in the immediate aftermath of the riots because people who I had liked and respected were in full Daily Mail cry and those who dared raise a dissenting voice were bullied into silence. Horrible. The sad thing is that the positive measures that were in place to tackle youth offending, unemployment and poor parenting: youth services, Connextions, Sure Start and programmes like them, have been withdrawn. Stupid.

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