The claim

“What I found most disturbing was the sense that the hardcore of rioters came from a feral underclass”

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, The Guardian, 5 September 2011

The background

Feral Underclass is a humdinger of a phrase from Ken Clarke, but what does it mean?

Previously, David Cameron lumped the rioters together as “pockets of our society that are not only broken, but frankly sick”.

And after almost a month of naming and shaming the rioters in the national press, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has released the facts.

So do they deserve the stigma? FactCheck investigates.

The analysis

The MoJ’s data shows that 346, or 21 per cent, of the rioters were aged between 10 and 17. The remaining 1,284 were adults. A huge 91 per cent of across all age groups were male.

Furthermore, 77 per cent of the adults had previous brushes with the law – either cautioned or convicted for a previous criminal offence. That means 61 per cent of all rioters taken to court had previous convictions.

Of those who’d done time, 45 per cent of them received custodial sentences with an average length of 5 months.

What’s interesting about this, is that an MoJ report from earlier this year found that short prison sentences led to higher rates of reoffending, with two in five of those jailed to between one and two years reoffending within a year.

In London, where the riots began, 81 per cent of the rioters were adults. And indeed, those in the docks for the ripple riots across the country followed similar patterns. After London, the West Midlands had the highest concentration of adult rioters, at 80 per cent, while Nottingham had the lowest, at 69 per cent.

Using the Oxford English Dictionary, a ‘feral underclass’ can be defined as: those resembling wild animals recently released from captivity; from the lowest social stratum in a community, consisting of the poor and unemployed.

To be base, we all saw their destructive actions in the riots – but how recently that 61 per cent had been released from prison, we don’t know.

If you’d deign to use the outdated term ‘underclass’ – were they, as the definition goes, poor and unemployed?

Let’s take three London flashpoints as examples; Tottenham – where the riots began, Hackney and Clapham.

Scouring local government data, FactCheck has discovered the following:

Tottenham High Road in Tottenham and Mare Street in Hackney both rank in the top 10 per cent most deprived areas of England. And employment in both of these postcodes wallows in the bottom third of the country.

St John’s Road, just off Clapham Junction, is an interesting case. That specific road actually scores 49 per cent on the deprivation index (0 per cent being the worst off, 100 per cent being the most wealthy). Plus, unemployment levels are extremely low – the cream of the top third of the country (ranked 30,960 out of the 32,482 ‘lower super output areas’ – which are zones or areas within a local authority).

Yet just around the corner from St John’s Road is the notorious Winstanley Estate – whose postcode notches just 8 per cent on the deprivation index, hauling it into line with Tottenham High Road and Mare Street in Hackney. And unemployment there plunges to, again, around the same level as Tottenham and Hackney.

The verdict

Tim Godwin, acting Met Police Commissioner, said today that the riots were a “wake-up call for the criminal justice system”.

“The amount of people who have previous convictions does pose questions for us,” he added.

Three in every five rioters had previous convictions, according to today’s MoJ figures. Meanwhile, Local Government data proves the London riots began in areas of high poverty and unemployment.

Ken Clarke is prone to conjuring up Victorian comparisons when he talks of his “rehabilitation revolution”, and today was no different.   He said he was disturbed by this “feral underclass”, the majority of which were products of a failed penal system.

What’s also disturbing is that the Victorians documented the same street in Hackney more than a century ago, noting “chronic want” in the surrounding areas.

In 1898 Charles Booth found a direct split between the middle class shop owners that lined Mare Street in Hackney, and the “poor and very poor” who occupied the back streets leading off it.

By Emma Thelwell