When the council for voluntary service in Hackney, east London, heard recently that some people wanted to hand back goods stolen in the riots, it proposed to the local police commander that there should be an amnesty. The answer was no: among other things, the police were perhaps feeling the hot breath of the government on the backs of their necks.
But while the criminal justice system pursues its pound of flesh, a meeting has at least been arranged for leaders of the voluntary sector to tell the Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, how charities can help people to rebuild and contribute to the development of future social policy.
The sector’s capacity in the first of those two roles was demonstrated emphatically by the way some local people rallied round in the immediate aftermath of the riots and helped to clear up the streets. The government will want to see more of that kind of thing, which expresses a defiance of the destructive minority.
But it is vital that it also listens to the sector’s views on the second subject – the policy response, which we canvass in the magazine this week. Charities are repositories of experience and knowledge of the country’s most pressing social problems and how best to address them.
When the Thatcher government similarly faced riots in 1981 within two years of coming into office, it responded with measures that included reforming police-community relations and a purposeful attempt to regenerate run-down communities in the major cities of England.
The danger is that the coalition government will see only the need for a crackdown on criminality and will not be able to summon the political flexibility to listen constructively to the sector and others, rethink some of its policies and begin to tackle what lies behind the disturbances.
The Prince of Wales remarked on television when visiting the affected areas that we’ve been dealing for too long just with the symptoms, without addressing the underlying causes. On this occasion, ministers would do well to listen to the heir to the throne.