Work and pensions secretary warns riots will reoccur unless structural reforms are made to communities and families
A “get rich quick” celebrity culture exemplified by The X Factor and the dysfunctional lives of footballers has created a society “out of balance”, the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, says today in an interview surveying Britain after the summer riots.
Duncan Smith, who as chair of the social justice cabinet committee is one of the key figures shaping a coalition response to the riots, warned there was “every chance” riots would recur unless structural reforms were made to repair “communities in which so many families are broken”.
He is due to call next week for major investment from the private sector to help prevent social breakdown. He will argue that public-private spending can reduce social failure.
In an interview with the Guardian, Duncan Smith welcomed this newspaper’s research into the disturbances, carried out jointly with the London School of Economics, and argued that some of the looting and robbery was fuelled by an acquisitive consumer culture. “If you look at the footballers, you look at our celebrity culture, we seem to be saying, ‘This is the way you want to be’. We seem to be a society that celebrates all the wrong people,” he said.
“Kids are meant to believe that their stepping stone to massive money is The X Factor. Luck is great, but most of life is hard work. We do not celebrate people who have made success out of serious hard work.”
Similarly he claimed the fantastic rewards given to bankers who then went squealing to government for protection had added to the sense in some communities that there was “a rule for one, and not for the other”.
The Guardian/LSE research, which involved interviews with 270 people who took part in the riots, has been studied by a number of cabinet ministers. Next week Theresa May, the home secretary, will join the Metropolitan police commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, and the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, at a conference to discuss the findings.
Duncan Smith said the riots could be partly explained by a number of short-term factors, including police being seen to lose control, the influence of gangs and a “crowd mentality”. He said he accepted the Guardian/LSE findings that – for many involved – the riots were about “sticking it to police”. But, in a wide-ranging interview, he pointed to a host of structural problems he said were partly to blame, and said he wanted create balance in society, adding: “Balance is if you try hard, you work hard then the rewards are in balance with what you put in and what is available.”
He also blamed monopolistic capitalism, arguing that free-market philosophers and advocates of “a moral market place”, such as the 18th-century economist Adam Smith, had always warned against anti-competitive banks.
Criticising the absence of male role models, he said reforms to social housing were needed to break the ghettoisation of the poor.
He said he would do more to protect the poor from doorstep lenders by building up credit unions of the kind seen in Germany and America. “We have a moral obligation – I hate to use the word moral – to reform the whole culture of how people in different communities access money and for what purpose”.
Duncan Smith also blamed a society in which “a sense of structure and authority in kids’ lives had collapsed”. But he angrily rejected media suggestions that the absence of fathers was solely an African-Caribbean problem, saying it was not a simple ethnic issue, but a cultural one.
“In Birmingham, Manchester or Liverpool there are white gangs that share the same backgrounds – they come from broken homes, completely dysfunctional, mums for the most part unable to cope, the fathers of these kids completely not in the scene.”
He said he had been urging the education secretary, Michael Gove, to do more to attract male teachers into primary schools, an urgent issue that needed addressing. “It becomes a problem for boys in that the only male role model they do see is the deeply dysfunctional guy with spinning hubcaps that teaches them, ‘All you need to succeed is guts, not qualifications’.”
Duncan Smith said the goal of social justice was to put people on the first rung of social mobility, adding that he wanted a broader set of statistical indicators of progress than relative income, such as the nature of family life, proper rewards for work and other “pro-social norms”.
He said he was also deeply disturbed by the way in which social housing had become ghettoised. “Now, more than ever, we live our lives by income in a way we would not 200 years ago. If you are an executive, you probably don’t live in an executive home, you live in an executive estate and there will be a housing estate for the poor somewhere else and preferably nowhere near you because that will bring your house prices down.”
That left whole communities in which work was not part of the way of life. He added that he did not believe all the rioters should be treated the same, arguing that some were victims of a crowd psychology. “People went to watch, got sucked in like a spectator sport and suddenly found themselves caught up with it. They fall to the lowest common denominator almost immediately and lose all sense of all individual right or wrong.”
He claimed the swift retribution handed out by magistrates courts in the wake of the riots, including prison sentences, had been a shock to communities. “Kids’ sense of penalty had gone completely from them. The idea of crime and punishment did not register at all because they felt even if they got arrested nothing happens to you.
“Too many young criminals thought, ‘Even if the police come here, what are they going to do – arrest me? Well, that is a joke. You know I have done this before and all that happened was the bloody magistrate remanded me over or I got an asbo.’ The system seemed hell-bent to get you out without any kind of punishment.”
Duncan Smith insisted that he believed gangs had played a large role in the riots, even though police figures have suggested as few as 18-19% of those arrested were in gangs. He described the figure as staggering, given that gang members represent 1-2% of society. “Gangs are firstly the products of social breakdown, and they are also the drivers of perpetual social breakdown in these communities.”
He said young people would not go for a job because the bus taking them to the interview would cross gang zones. “The chances are you will get stabbed. Whole families will not go out in the evenings because of gangs. Shops that open near an estate will find they have to pay a particular crew off. They pull down and lock down communities. Think about gangs as dysfunctional, nasty businesses and then the whole thing becomes explicable.”