Oral statement to Parliament

Riots: Theresa May's speech on 11 August 2011

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, gave this speech to the House of Commons on 11 August 2011. This version is as spoken.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Theresa May MP

Mr Speaker, the last five days have been a dark time for everybody who cares about their community and their country.  Violence, arson and looting in several of our towns and cities - often openly in front of television cameras - has destroyed homes, ruined livelihoods and taken lives. As long as we wish to call ourselves a civilised society, such disorder has no place in Britain. 

I know that the House will join me in paying tribute to the bravery of the police men and women who have worked to restore order to our streets.  In particular, I know that Hon Members will want to lend their support to the police officers who have suffered injuries in the course of their duties.

And I know that the whole House will want to send their condolences to the families of the three men so senselessly killed in Birmingham on Tuesday night.

The violence of the last five days raises many searching questions, and the answers to those questions may be painful to hear and difficult to put right. Why is it that so many people are prepared to behave in this way?

Why does a violent gang culture exist in so many of our towns and cities? Why did the police find it so hard to prevent or contain the violence? It will take time to answer those questions fully and adequately, but I will take each of them in turn.

First, the reasons behind this behaviour. We must never forget that the only cause of a crime is a criminal.  Everybody, no matter what their background or circumstances, has the freedom to choose between right and wrong. Those who make the wrong decision, who engage in criminality, must be identified, arrested and punished - and we will make sure that happens.

But nobody doubts that the violence we have seen over the last five days is the symptom of something very deeply wrong with our society.  Children celebrating as they smash their way into shops.  Men in sports cars arriving at stores to steal goods. Women trying on trainers before they steal them.  A teaching assistant caught looting.  Thugs pretending to help an injured young man, in order to rob him. They are all shocking images, but they are in fact symbols of a deeper malaise in our society.

Almost two million children are brought up in households in which nobody works. One in three children leaves primary school unable to read, write and add up properly. We have the highest level of drug abuse in Europe.  There are almost a hundred knife crimes committed every day and nearly a million violent crimes every year.  Half of all prisoners reoffend within a year of their release from prison.  These are serious social problems and we can’t go on ignoring them.

Nobody is pretending that there are easy answers to such deep-rooted problems, but they are the reasons why the reform of welfare, schools and the criminal justice system cannot wait.

I want to move on, now, to the gang culture in many of our towns and cities. Six per cent of young people are thought to belong to a gang of one kind or another.  Gangs are inherently criminal: on average, entrenched gang members have eleven criminal convictions and the average age for a first conviction of a gang member is just fifteen. 

They are also inherently violent: gangs across the country are involved with the use and supply of drugs, firearms and knives.

Talking to chief constables who have dealt with the violence of the last few days, it is clear that many of the perpetrators - but by no means all of them - are known gang members.

So we have to do more to tackle gang culture.  Over the course of this year and next we have already announced plans to provide £4million in funding to London, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands to tackle their gang, guns and knives problem.

We are providing a further £4 million over two years to community organisations working to stop young people becoming involved in gangs, help young people get out of gangs, and support parents to help their children.

And we are working with the Prince’s Trust to support young people who want to prevent gang violence through the new Ben Kinsella Fund.

We need to do more to help local communities share ideas and expertise on how they can tackle their gang problem. Working with ACPO we will establish an Ending Gang Violence team, of experts drawn from across the country - from the police service, local councils and the voluntary sector - to provide an up-to-date map of the scale of this problem and provide practical, on-the-ground expert advice to areas wanting to get on top of their gang problem.

In January, we launched gang injunctions, which give the police the power to impose tough sanctions on adult gang members, like barring them from entering certain parts of town, appearing in public with dogs or wearing their gang colours or emblems.  As the Prime Minister said in his statement earlier today, we will now go further, and introduce gang injunctions for young people under the age of eighteen, not just in pilot form but across the whole country.

And as the Prime Minister also said in his statement, I will present a report to Parliament in October on a cross-government programme to combat gangs.

I now want to move on to the questions about the police reaction to the violence. I know that Hon Members, like members of the public, are concerned about the speed and quality of the police response.  That response has changed over the course of the last five days, and has been different in different parts of the country.  We need to appraise it honestly, bluntly, and learn the lessons where things have gone wrong.

In London, the first disturbances began in Tottenham on Saturday night. The police operation began with the originally peaceful protest about the death of Mark Duggan.  Officers were understandably cautious about how they policed the protest, but as the violence began, the police lost control and a fully-fledged riot followed. 

On Sunday night, with Tottenham calm, the police managed to nip in the bud trouble at Oxford Circus, but the violence spread to Enfield and Brixton.  On Monday night, the number of officers deployed in London increased to 6,000 - two or three times more than a normal evening. But still, that wasn’t enough and with the violence reaching Hackney, Peckham, Croydon, Ealing, Lewisham and Clapham, officers were overwhelmed.  In Clapham, the mob ran amok for more than two hours before the police regained control.

That is simply not acceptable. On Tuesday, the Prime Minister and I held a meeting with the Acting Metropolitan Police Commissioner in which he set out a new approach.

During the day, the ringleaders were identified, arrested and taken out of circulation.

Officers took a tougher approach and intervened earlier to disperse groups before trouble began.

All leave was cancelled and all special constables were mobilised. Mutual aid was stepped up. In total, up to sixteen thousand officers were deployed. 

Officers took a more robust approach to tackling disorder and making arrests.

There are tricky days and nights ahead, but thanks to the efforts of those thousands of officers, order has, in large part, been restored.

In other parts of the country, though, we saw more disorder. In towns and cities including Manchester, Salford, Nottingham, Wolverhampton and - for a second night - Birmingham, there was further violence.

In Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, despite the best efforts of officers, we saw for a while streets that were in control of the thugs and not the police. 

In Winson Green in Birmingham three young men were killed when they were hit, apparently deliberately, by a car. 

The whole House will want to pay tribute to Tariq Jahan, the father of one of the victims, for his dignified call for calm, which undoubtedly did much to calm  community relations.

Yesterday, I convened and chaired a conference call with chief officers from every force in the country. We agreed the mobilisation of all special constables, the cancellation of police leave across the country and the adoption of the tactics deployed by the Metropolitan Police in London.  Again, there are difficult days and nights ahead, we are not complacent, but at this stage order has been restored.

We said that we would do everything necessary to bring the disorder to an end, and we meant it. We made clear to the police that there was nothing to stop them using  baton rounds if they judged it necessary.  We put the water cannon stationed in Northern Ireland on standby to be deployed within 24 hours.  The police made it clear to me that they did not want to use them.  And, as things stand, what is working is officers on the streets, robust policing and the help and support of local communities - which we would jeopardise if we rushed to use things like rubber bullets.

Policing by consent is the British way. But the police will only retain the confidence of the wider community if they are seen to take clear and robust action in the face of open criminality. 

On Monday night, it was clear that simply not enough officers were on duty. The largest event in London is the Notting Hill carnival, and the same number of officers were deployed as would be for the carnival.

And it is clear to me that the original police tactics were insufficient. After criticism of previous public order operations for excessive force, some officers appeared reluctant to be sufficiently robust in breaking up groups. 

Many arrests were made, but in some situations, officers contained suspects in a specific area, free to commit criminal damage and steal, instead of intervening and making arrests.

I want to make clear to the House that in making these points, I am not criticising the police themselves. Too often, the police are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. And nowhere is this truer than in public order policing.

Well, I want to be clear: as long as officers act within reason and the law themselves, this Home Secretary will never damn the police if they do.

Another way in which the police response could have been better is in the harnessing and sharing and analysis of intelligence.

Even in the best of economic times, we would not have the resources to keep up this level of deployment continuously.  So public order planning and intelligence will need to be considerably better.

This is not the first time that criminals with plans to disrupt life in our towns and cities have used technology to plot their crimes.

Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter and messaging services like Blackberry Messenger have been used to coordinate criminality, and stay one step ahead of the police. 

I will convene a meeting with ACPO, the police and representatives from the social media industries to work out how we can improve the technological and related legal capability of the police. 

Among the issues we will discuss is whether and how we should be able to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality. 

A further difficulty - not just in this recent disorder but in other recent operations - has been the issue of face coverings by criminals.  The police already have a power to require people to remove face coverings in certain, limited, circumstances.  Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act allows officers to force their removal only in a specific geographical location for a limited time, linked to a threat of violence.  This doesn’t leave discretion to individual constables and it doesn’t allow officers to nip trouble in the bud early on. 

So we will change the law to allow police officers to remove face coverings - if they have reasonable belief that they are related to criminal activity - under any circumstances.

And as the Prime Minister said, we will also look at the use of existing dispersal powers and whether any wider power of curfew is necessary.
Mr Speaker, we often say in this House that there can be no liberty without order, and the events of the last five days have shown that more clearly than ever.  The tide is turning, and order is returning to our streets. 

Since Saturday, more than 1,200 people have been arrested and more than 400 have been charged.  Courts in London, the West Midlands and Manchester have worked throughout the night and we are already starting to see the offenders prosecuted. 

I am clear that the perpetrators of this violence must pay for their actions, and the courts should hand down custodial sentences for any violent crimes.

The tide is turning because communities up and down the country have said enough is enough. 

It’s turning because the thugs are being arrested and locked up.

And it is turning because of the bravery and dedication of the men and women of our police forces.

So I will just end Mr Speaker with this thought. We ask police officers to put themselves in harm’s way on a routine basis.  We ask them to go into dangerous situations that most of us would hope we will never experience.

We have the best police officers in the world, and we owe them all a debt of gratitude.


Published 11 August 2011