British Leader Seeks Public Housing Evictions for Rioters and Their Families | NYTimes.com
By JOHN F. BURNS
August 12, 2011
LONDON — As Britain begins to weigh the costs of the rioting of recent days and ponder measures to prevent a recurrence, the government of Prime Minister David Cameron put forward on Friday a new way of punishing the looters and vandals who rampaged through many of the country’s cities and towns: kick them and their families out of their government-subsidized homes.
If carried out on the scale Mr. Cameron and his ministers have proposed, the measure would probably be the most punitive of the sanctions that they have said would be considered in response to the worst civil disorder in a generation. More than 10 million Britons, about one in six, live in public housing.
Mr. Cameron took to the television studios on Friday, the third consecutive day of calm after the days of chaos that began last weekend, to broaden the “fightback” he has declared against the rioters, and against those who have argued that the blame should rest less with the rioters than with the abject social conditions in the neighborhoods from which many of them came.
He has described the rioting as “criminality, pure and simple,” with no excuse in social deprivation, and laid out a controversial plan to make much broader use of existing powers to expel not only the rioters but also their families from the free or rent-subsidized accommodations that provide millions with cradle-to-grave homes.
“For too long we’ve taken too soft an attitude towards people that loot and pillage their own community,” Mr. Cameron told a BBC interviewer. “If you do that, you should lose your right to the sort of housing that you’ve had at subsidized rates.” He added that evictions “might help break up some of the criminal networks on some housing estates if some of these people are thrown out of their houses.”
Asked whether that would render them homeless, he replied, “They should have thought of that before they started burgling.”
The communities minister, Eric Pickles, a right-wing Conservative, was blunter still in another BBC appearance. Saying it was not time to “pussyfoot around” with the lawbreakers, he said he would begin a three-month consultation on ways to deal with what he called “riot tourism,” focusing on scrapping a rule that allows for the eviction from subsidized housing of people who commit crimes in their own neighborhoods in favor of a broader measure that would allow for similar punishment wherever the offenses were committed.
Asked how those so penalized would live, Mr. Pickles responded, “They could get a job.”
The proposals would reinforce other hard-line measures the prime minister has outlined. Sensing widespread public support for a harsh crackdown on the rioters and an expansion of police powers, Mr. Cameron has backed the “speedy justice” that has hastened hundreds of suspects through round-the-clock courts, some of them drawing stiff prison sentences for even minor cases of looting.
On Thursday, he told Parliament he was ready to order the army to take over guarding public buildings and other installations to free the police for antiriot deployments, and said the government would consider steps for the temporary shutdown of social networking services like BlackBerry Messenger that rioters used to mobilize on disparate urban areas, outpacing the ability of the police to respond.
Critics of the hard-line approach, including prominent figures in the opposition Labour Party, and perhaps more important, among the Liberal Democrats who are the Conservatives’ partners in the coalition government, have said that much of what the prime minister and his associates are proposing is impractical, given the Conservatives’ lack of a parliamentary majority and what they see as a British affinity for moderation.
“Removing people for unacceptable behavior from social housing does not solve the problem,” Kevin Barron, a Labour legislator, said, since it would require local authorities to find alternative housing for evicted families.
But several Conservative-led local councils, in London, Nottingham and Salford, an outlying district of Manchester, have already said that they would start eviction proceedings against tenants convicted of rioting. And one, in Wandsworth, said it had started the process of evicting a woman whose teenage son was convicted in the rioting. A petition on a government Web site for a proposal to authorize public housing evictions drew more than 100,000 signatures within 48 hours. That number guaranteed that Parliament would have to debate the proposal.
The government has said it will maintain emergency policing levels in London through the weekend, and beyond if necessary. Some 16,000 police officers have been deployed in the capital, including reinforcements from police forces across the country. Similar precautions remained in place in cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool that were hit by marauding groups, about half of them teenagers, who looted, destroyed and set fire to thousands of homes, businesses and other properties.
There have been other signs that the country has moved beyond the shock of the upheaval to a new phase of reflection — and for some, recrimination — on the causes, the days it took to get the turmoil under control, and ways to guard against a recurrence.
One element was the cross-fire that broke out between the Cameron government and two of the country’s top police officers. On Friday, they fell out noisily over who should take credit for sending thousands of police reinforcements into the riot areas of London and restoring order, and who should take the blame for the days of largely passive policing until then, which allowed the rioting to mushroom from a local disturbance in north London to a crisis across a wide area of England. Many of the riots’ victims have complained about police officers in riot gear standing back, taking no action, while mobs pillaged their neighborhoods.
Mr. Cameron told Parliament on Thursday that police tactics had been inadequate when the rioting started in the north London area of Tottenham last Saturday. “There were simply far too few police deployed on to our streets, and the tactics they were using weren’t working,” he said.
Tim Godwin, the acting commissioner of Scotland Yard, struck back on Friday, saying, “I think after any event like this, people will always make comments who weren’t there.” He appeared to be referring to the fact that Mr. Cameron, Home Secretary Theresa May and Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, were all on overseas vacations when the riots broke out. Days later, they canceled their holidays and returned home.
Ms. May, the minister in charge of policing, claimed responsibility for ordering the police to flood the streets with officers. Mr. Godwin said deployments were the sole responsibility of the police, not the government.
Alan Cowell contributed reporting from Paris.
A version of this article appeared in print on August 13, 2011, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: British Leader Seeks Public Housing Evictions for Rioters and Their Families.
Image: In Birmingham, England, on Friday, a screen put up by the police showed images of people suspected of crimes during rioting in the city this week. (Darren Staples/Reuters)