Posted: 19 December 2011

Not so simple: Considering the causes of this summer's riots

The government has had a robust, single-minded response to the publication of the Guardian and LSE's recent research report Reading the Riots. Led by the home secretary, Theresa May, it has insisted that the riots were primarily a consequence of lawless behaviour.

It's a view that the government has become firmly wedded to ever since the riots’ aftermath, when David Cameron declared 'This is criminality, pure and simple'.

In our new survey Behind the Riots, however, we found that not only do children and young people not see the disturbances as being simple, adults share their views.

The main reason young people became involved in the riots

For Behind the Riots, released today, we questioned over 1000 adults and more than 1000 children aged 13 to 17. We found that both groups believe the main reason that children and young people became involved in the riots was to get goods and possessions they could not afford to buy.

In both groups just over a third identified this as the main reason. It was also commonly raised in a small number of focus groups we carried out.

One young person said: 'If you had trouble feeding your family, you would also consider stealing and taking advantage of the moment'.

This correlates strongly with the recent Reading the Riots study and the Guardian ICM poll with adults, which found that poverty was thought to be a key factor in the riots. It indicates that material well-being cannot be overlooked as a significant issue affecting young people today.

A range of factors stemming from material dissatisfaction

Research we published earlier this year showed a strong link between a child’s material deprivation and their overall subjective well-being or life satisfaction.

Clearly, tackling poverty and material disadvantage is crucial to avoid further unrest among children and young people.

There was also a widely held view amongst those surveyed that there is not a single explanation for the events but rather a number of factors were at play. So it would seem that the home secretary is rather out of step with public perceptions when she says the riots were about instant gratification and lawlessness.

Our survey clearly shows that most people believe that the riots were caused by a whole range of factors – and poverty and material disadvantage are at the heart.

Intergenerational agreement

It is particularly striking that there that there is agreement between adults and children that the government should be providing more support to young people. This sends a clear message to central and local government that the public would like to see more positive activities on offer to children rather than a reduction in out of school youth provision.

The Department for Education has just published its youth strategy, Positive for youth, which sets out a framework of expectations and principles for supporting young people. But there is no new money to deliver the strategy and many councils are having to cut back or reconfigure youth support provision.

Listening to young people

In seeking to understand the August events there is a risk that some voices will be heard and listened to more than others. The communities affected, the victims and those who took part all have valid opinions that must not be overlooked.

It is equally important to listen to our children and young people so they are valued as active participants in their communities and wider society. Their views must be taken seriously by all those working to ensure the lesson are learned to avoid a repetition of the disturbances.

By Enver Solomon, Director of Policy, The Children’s Society

By Enver Solomon - Policy team

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