Poor policing in London was blamed for riots which spread across the country and claimed three lives in Birmingham, in the first report by the Government’s Riots Communities and Victims Panel.
But the inquiry also highlighted a wide range of factors which encouraged people to take part in looting – ranging from poverty and lack of opportunities for young people to the way brands are advertised and even good public transport links.
Social media, which allow people to publish and spread information on computers and mobile phones, helped the violence to spread and allowed looters to outwit the police, the panel said.
The Riots Communities and Victims Panel was set up by Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, to investigate the causes of August’s riots.
It is chaired by Darra Singh, the chief executive of Jobcentre Plus and former chief executive of Ealing and Luton council, and has published an interim report, called 5 Days In August, following an inquiry which included talking to Birmingham residents at a public meeting in Handsworth.
The inquiry drew a clear distinction between the initial unrest in Tottenham on Saturday August 6 and Sunday August 7, triggered by the shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan, and the spread of violence across London and elsewhere, which it blamed on police allowing rioters control the streets for two nights in a row.
“Those who rioted on Sunday were again felt to have been unchallenged and confidence among potential rioters in other parts of the country grew. By Monday, riots had spread nationally.
“Local policing decisions can lead to national consequences.”
The report added: “The vast majority of people we spoke to believed that the sole trigger for disturbances in their areas was the perception that the police could not contain the scale of rioting in Tottenham and then across London.
“Lack of confidence in the police response to the initial riots encouraged people to test reactions in other areas... rioters believed they would be able to loot and damage without being challenged by the police. In the hardest hit areas, they were correct.”
The role of social media as well as television images which showed London in flames, was also highlighted.
The panel said social media played a positive role in providing information to members of the public, but warned: “There is no question that the rioters were aided by the existence of social media”.
The report said: “In our analysis, the images of police being seen to ‘back off’ in Tottenham and their rapid circulation across social media and broadcast news services conveyed a loss of control of the streets.
“This combined with a febrile rumour environment created a unprecedented explosive cocktail.
“It began to build a perception (and ultimate reality) that the street was no longer defended or defensible once resources were split. Second, the ability of social media to act as a platform for mobs to regroup and move at fast speed across the cities in ways which in effect outpaced traditional policing.”
Ladywood MP Shabana Mahmood (Lab) said: “I am a little disappointed that the report seems to focus on London, as there are questions about what happened in Birmingham that still need to be answered.
“I am very clear that the riots were criminal acts and the main motivation was to go out and rob, and the interim report seems to confirm that view.”
A final report from the panel is due in March.
• Who rioted?
Although there was a tendency to see the riots as an event involving young people, with sections of the media blaming a lack of youth clubs or cuts to the Education Maintenance Allowance received by some sixth-form or further education students, only 26 per cent of people who appeared before the courts for crimes committed during the riots were under 18.
Nine out of ten were male and 42 per cent were white while 46 per cent were black and seven per cent were Asian.
Youngsters aged 10 to 17 who came before the courts were two-and-a-half times more likely than other pupils to be receiving free school meals, and 66 per cent had special educational needs – a figure which is three times higher than for the population as a whole.
Nationally, 40 per cent of adult rioters were on benefits, including 10 per cent who were on Employment and Support Allowance or Incapacity benefits.
The panel said: “Most disturbing to us was a widespread feeling that some rioters had no hope and nothing to lose.
• Why were some towns and cities spared?
There was a link between deprivation and rioting, the inquiry found.
Analysis of 1479 areas in England where rioters live found that 70 per cent of those areas are in the 30 per cent most deprived.
However, some relatively poor cities such as Sheffield and Bradford did not experience riots, while some fairly wealthy areas like St Albans and North Hertfordshire did.
The inquiry found that many of the areas affected by rioting had other things in commons, such as “attractive shops” and good transport links, allowing people to come in to the area with the intent of stealing.
One of the reasons Sheffield escaped the disorder was because local rail links are poor.
• How the media helped - and made things worse
The media was a source of useful information to members of the public throughout the riots, but also helped to encourage some of the disorder, the report warned.
Television news reports showing police unable to cope were actually used by looters to decide where to target next.
The study warned: “Television channels showed repeat footage of the fires, looters stealing trainers and TVs, police being subject to attack, mobs breaking into shops and London as a city under siege.”
It added: “Convicted rioters discussed how the news became a source of information about where police resources were stretched. One offender told us: ‘I just needed to watch the TV to see where I needed to head to’.”
The report’s authors stressed that television reports were an important source of information for ordinary people, but added: “In some instances, news coverage of the riots provided information which could be used by the rioters against ordinary citizens.
“In other cases, the prospect of media coverage was an added attraction for rioters, an appealing prospect of ‘15 minutes of fame’.”
The panel praised local and regional media.
“Many people we spoke to particularly commended regional and local news outlets for their coverage of the riots, the clean ups and their efforts to support police investigations to bring rioters to justice.”
• The role of social media
Social media such as Facebook, Twitter and the Blackberry messaging service BBM allowed looters to organise themselves, and encouraged a herd mentality.
The report’s authors said: “It seem clear to us that the spread of rioting was made worse both by televised images of police apparently watching people cause damage and loot at will, and by the ability of social media to bring together determined people to act collectively.”
But they came out against suggestions that the Government should shut down social media when riots take place.
“Many local authorities and other agencies used social media during the riots to get information to local people and businesses, to alert parents to keep their children at home, to ask youth workers dealing with young offenders to take them off the streets and to support and promote instant community fight back groups.”
• Did the police fail?
The panel insisted “we are not in a position to judge police tactics”, but was nonetheless highly critical of the police’s failure to control the disorder.
The report said: “Our view is that the police, when carrying out their own review of tactics, must take account of this widely held perception that they abandoned some communities.
“Victims felt they did not receive police support when they were in considerable danger. Businesses told us they lost everything they had worked for. Communities felt they had been left without protection.”
In some cases, police officers were deployed to areas where there was no violence – which meant there were too few officers available to protect shops and homes in places where riots took place.
“The wider impact, both within an area and nationally, of the perception that individuals can riot without response is a key lesson of the riots.”
• Generation greed
Britain’s materialistic culture was also a factor in the riots according to the panel, which devoted a section of the report to the power of brands.
They noted that looters typically attacked specific shops, such as JD Sports, Footlocker and mobile phone shops.
And although they insisted they were not blaming businesses, they also appeared to blame “creative marketing strategies” for promoting greed.
The report said: “Over the last 20 years, we have witnessed the rise of the brands. They have employed creative marketing strategies which positioned products not only as symbols of success but also as markers of individual self-esteem.
“Increasingly we live in a society where conspicuous consumption and self worth have become intrinsically interlinked.”
They added: “In the Panel’s conversations with communities and young people, the desire to own goods which give the owner high status (such as branded trainers and digital gadgets) was seen as an important factor behind the riots.
“In addition, the idea of ‘saving up’ for something has been replaced by the idea that we should have what we want when we want. Levels of personal debt are in part a scary testimony to this.
“When asked why he rioted, one rioter responded simply ‘greed’.”
The panel said: “It is important to clarify that we are not in any way condoning this behaviour, it is wrong to steal, nor do we blame the brands for what happened.
Rather, we are considering all the features which made these riots so extraordinary, in order to help prevent events like these from happening again.”