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Docking benefits: the ugly Tory face of retribution is now coming out

Have they taken leave of their senses? Has their moral compass got jammed? There was always an element within the Tory party which was vindictive, but to punish people twice for the same offence and to dock benefits or tax credits or even evict which affects everyone else in the family (and not just the parents) exposes an ugly punitive streak which is now coming to the fore amongst Tory MPs and Tory Councils. It also underlines the Tory insistence that there’s nothing wrong with the system itself or with social inequality, it’s just a feral underclass which, if it breaks the rules and riots, must now be crushed into submission by any draconian measures available.

There are several things deeply wrong with this approach. First, there is the disproportionate nature of the penalties being proposed – withdrawing child maintenance and child benefit from parents of children who truant or regularly stay out late at night on the streets. That money was not designed to be a gift to the parents, but to provide the basics for the welfare of the child: withdrawing it dehumanises a family on low wages or benefits.

Eviction, which is already starting to be imposed, is out of all proportion: it hits the whole family and will anyway probably cost the council/government more in then having to provide temporary accommodation. And penalties already enforced – 4 months prison for verbally abusing a police offficer, 6 months for taking a pack of water from a shop already broken into, and 18 months for accepting £20 to put a stolen TV in the boot of a car – say a lot more about the relish for revenge than about a measured criminal justice system.

Second, it is tackling the symptoms, not the causes. Yes, if the Tories are vicious enough with some some very nasty penalties, they can probably terrify the victims (the families of the offender) into compliance, at least for the time being. But they leave a household, not repentant or resolved to pursue a different better path, but resentful and embittered and perhaps just waiting for the next chance to break out. At a heavy price they establish a sort of social equilibrium, but a very unstable one.

Third, the emphasis is heavily on retribution rather than examining the underlying causes. No-one can excuse rioting, particularly such serious acts as arson or the trashing of businesses, but to pretend this vandalism and violence simply occurred in a vacuum and is exclusively a matter of individual criminality is a very unbalanced and myopic view. One cannot ignore that our current social values (however much one may despise it) are built around consumerism, materialism, wealth, celebrity and bling, and where a significant section of the population is systematically excluded from access to the status and respect that these assets offer, they will sometimes given a chance kick out. A more adult and mature response to the riots is needed than the immediate vengeful gratification so far meted out.

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