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Page last updated at 10:31 GMT, Tuesday, 6 September 2011 11:31 UK
The Today riots debate

Rioting in Tottenham

What caused the rioting in English towns and cities this summer?

The Today programme recently held a major public debate at Birmingham Town Hall looking at the issues surrounding the recent riots in some English cities. Chaired by Today programme presenter James Naughtie, the debate brought together a number of highly respected experts and local community figures together with an invited audience of nearly a thousand local people.

The debate was split into three sections, each of which lasted around 45 minutes. These considered issues surrounding the policing of the riots, the role of intervention in troubled families, and finally the wider moral questions thrown up by the disorder.

Section one: Policing

The first part of the debate focused on the role of the police during the riots, examining if they over-reacted to the violence or did not do enough.

West Midlands chief constable Chris Sims defended the police's position in the community saying: "On the first evening... it was a greedy crown not an angry crowd... I could see no evidence of an outpouring of anger."

Blue police lights

Maxie Hayles, Chairman of Birmingham Racial Attacks Monitoring Unit, said that "you cannot get away with just blaming gangs, there are other social issues here".

From the floor opinion was just as divided.

Charlie Williams challenged Chris Sims, asking: "Why is it in over 400 deaths in police custody has not one police officer ever been convicted?".

Henrietta from the UpRising leadership programme, defended the police, noting: "If the riots were caused by frustration with the establishment why were the rioters attacking their own communities...I believe one police station was attacked, one compared to how many shops?"

Section two: Intervention

The role of the state in intervening in troubled families is once again in the news following comments by the prime minister.

In the second part of the debate, panellists considered to what extent early intervention can help families to play a fuller role in society, or if people should take more responsibility for their own behaviour.

A grandmother and her three grandsons

Youth worker Shaun Bailey took a pessimistic view of intervention, saying "the welfare state started off as a safety net, it turned into a hammock, and now it's become a noose."

Former gang member Sheldon Thomas, however, used his experience working with families in Brixton to make the case for more intervention.

"Their sons are beating up their mums," he asserted. "Their sons have seen their dads rape their mums, their sons are coming in with straps, those are the kids that I'm dealing with... if you want to stop gang culture you've got to employ people they can relate to, it's that simple."

Section three: Morality

David Cameron's suggestion that our society is "broken" due to a "slow motion moral collapse" has been followed by justice secretary Ken Clarke's assertion that Britain has a "feral underclass".


But in the discussion of the moral issues surrounding the riots, Dr Angie Hobbs, a philosopher from Warwick University, forcefully argued that labelling rioters with adjectives such as feral was "profoundly inaccurate, lazy and dangerous", before adding that "as a society we are rewarding materialistic greed".

Economist Ruth Lea defended the City: "You have a dilemma, if you are going to have a successful City of London... it comes at some sort of social price, you can't get away from that."

And Sixth Form student Aisha Williams turned the debate towards religion, saying "when you take religion out of schools, you're taking away a big part of morality".

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