“While of course we have had to act swiftly and decisively, we have resisted the temptation to engage in overnight policy or instant announcements.”
Nick Clegg, 13 August 2011

The background

Scotland Yard is warning rioters who haven’t had their collars felt yet that it won’t be long before they get a knock on the door.

The Met say they have arrested more than 2,000 suspects but the job of identifying looters and rounding them up is “far from finished”, according to Commander Simon Foy.

The police appear to be keeping their promise to come down hard on the rioters. How about the politicians?

Ministers tripped over themselves to promise reforms to the criminal justice and benefits systems in the aftermath of the disturbances. But will the crackdown end with a whimper?

The analysis

Social media

The role of Blackberry Messenger, Twitter and Facebook in helping the rioters organiser themselves was an early talking point in the crisis.

The Prime Minister was moved to comment: “We are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”

That idea appeared to grind to a halt this week after Theresa May met representatives of all three companies and quietly dropped the idea of a social networking blackout in emergencies.

The Home Office confirmed it was not seeking any additional powers to close down any network after it became clear senior police officers were against the idea.

Met Police Acting Commissioner Tim Godwin told the home affairs select committee he had thought about asking for the authority to close sites down but concluded: “The legality of that is very questionable and additionally it is also a very useful intelligence asset.”

Iain Duncan Smith’s benefits squeeze

The Work and Pensions Secretary proposed an intriguing idea to hand out an additional punishment for rioters when he said: “I am at the moment looking to see whether or not someone who’s convicted of a criminal offence but not custodial, that we would be able to impose a similar process on them as well, that they would lose their benefits for a particular period of time relevant to that process.”

As his aides pointed out tirelessly, people who are sent to prison already lose their benefits.

Not that that means it’s permanent. They just don’t get handouts for the time that they’re in prison, as obviously you don’t need housing benefit if you’re a guest of Her Majesty.

As soon as prisoners are freed, there’s nothing to stop them reapplying for all the benefits they were entitled to before they were locked up.

As far as stopping some or all of the money people get if their sentence is non-custodial, that’s…errr…still a work in progress too, and it seems we shouldn’t hold our breaths for an update any time soon.

A DWP spokesman said Mr Duncan Smith “has commissioned the Department to look into it”, adding: “It does take a while to look into the legalities and so on.”

IDS has since said that he thinks it might be better for the courts to impose sanctions of this kind rather than DWP, an idea that will require a major change in the law if it comes to pass, as judges and magistrates do not currently have the power to interfere with benefits payments.

If the policy ever sees the light of day it’s sure to attract stern criticism from groups like the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), the leading providers of legal advice to benefits claimants.

CAB told us that slashing or freezing the benefits of people who are already poor and desperate will only force them to beg, steal or borrow money from loan sharks, leading to even more misery, crime, homelessness and ultimately, financial cost to the state.

Nick Clegg’s riots payback

The Deputy Prime Minister was full of bright ideas about what to do with rioters last week.

From March next year, he said, all newly-released criminals “will be met at the prison gates by providers in the Work Programme who will make sure that those offenders as they leave prison will be put through a tough process so that they find work and they stay on the straight and narrow”.

They won’t literally be met at the prison gates. That was just a figure of speech. But there is a new plan for ex-cons to get preferential treatment on the Department of Work and Pensions’ (DWP) welfare-to-work scheme, apparently.

It seems that freed prisoners will leap-frog people who have been looking for jobs for months and get an appointment straight away with an employment advisor, rather than waiting for three months, like most non-criminal jobseekers.

FactCheck asked DWP whether the small companies and charities who actually deliver Work Programme had been consulted, and whether they have the capacity to deliver on this new programme given the surge in convictions following the riots.

That’s a pressing question at the moment because, according to research from the trade union-backed anti-cuts website False Economy, three of the charities who have been tasked with helping ex-offenders find work as part of the Work Programme have recently had their funding cut by local councils.
But the department was unable to let us in on the meticulous planning that no doubt lay behind Mr Clegg’s announcement, saying: “We will be announcing the details in a few weeks.”

Mr Clegg also said he wanted to see convicted rioters put to work helping to rebuild the areas they trashed, dressed in orange suits.

And he announced that “there will be additional money provided to ensure that victims, if they want, can face and confront their offenders too”.

They won’t literally wear orange suits. That was just a figure of speech. But people sentenced to take part in Community Payback do wear high-visibility vests with the name of the scheme written on it.

As for the idea of victim and offender meeting each other, a probation service source told FactCheck that, while such “restorative justice” projects do appear to work, they are so complex, expensive and time-consuming that no large-scale schemes of this type are in operation at the moment.

So the extra cash Mr Clegg promised will no doubt be welcome. Except that Ministry of Justice were unable to tell us how much extra money will be in play and where exactly it will be spent. Apparently there will also be more information on this in the coming weeks.

And one potential fly in the ointment? There’s currently no legal mechanism for forcing offenders to agree to meet their victims. If the rioters don’t feel like a face-to-face showdown then, as things stand, they won’t have to.

The verdict

Mr Clegg’s words about “overnight policy” and “instant announcements” could well come back to haunt him. The Prime Minister’s vague threat about shutting down websites has already been shown to be ill-advised, and there seems to be very little concrete detail about how the other new policy ideas widely reported in the wake of the riots will actually work.

We’re not going to award Mr Clegg a Fiction rating yet, but as the weeks go by, victims of the riots will be increasingly anxious to see that the Coalition’s promises start to come true.

By Patrick Worrall