August 14, 2011 6:41 pm

Ministers plan removal of rioters’ benefits

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Ministers are drawing up controversial plans to remove benefits from those convicted of taking part in the riots that engulfed England last week, in a move Liberal Democrats and independent experts have condemned as counter-productive and overly expensive.

Officials in Number 10 and the department for work and pensions are putting together plans for the harsh punishment of those found guilty of even the most minor infringements during the riots after a public petition calling for such a move gathered nearly 200,000 signatures.

David Cameron will lay the ground for such a move on Monday, in a speech a week after the worst of the violence took place in London. The prime minister will argue that there has been a “slow-motion moral collapse” in the country, and argue that the problem needs to be tackled in various ways, including through the benefits system.

He is expected to say: “I and ministers from across the coalition government will review every aspect of our work to mend our broken society: on schools, welfare, families, parenting, addiction, communities; on the cultural, legal, bureaucratic problems in our society too.”

Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, is pushing a system that would see some benefits removed from looters, and others made conditional on attending a rehabilitation programme, which would include counselling and regular behavioural checks. It would apply only to those receiving lesser sentences, as anyone who goes to jail already automatically loses their benefits.

An adviser to Mr Duncan Smith told the Financial Times: “[Mr Duncan Smith] feels very strongly that some of these guys need to be punished.”

The aide said: “It depends on how you see benefits: are they a right or a privilege? Sanctions like this do send a strong message.”

But the proposals threaten to cause a row at the heart of the coalition government, with many Lib Dems uneasy about such draconian measures. Julian Huppert, a Lib Dem MP, warned: “If you say to people there is no way for you to get money then that will lead to an increase in theft.”

Stephen Lloyd, a Lib Dem member of the work and pensions select committee, said: “We need to be very careful to ensure there are no unintended consequences that lead to even more desperate situations.”

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, will make a similar warning today when he makes a speech at Haverstock Comprehensive school in London. He will say: “A new policy a day, knee-jerk gimmicks unveiled without being properly thought through are unlikely to solve the problem.”

Meanwhile experts are warning the move could be expensive and difficult to achieve. Ian Mulheirn of the Social Market Foundation said: “It is really hard to identify people and remove their benefits in an automated system. Doing that is extremely expensive, and will cost more money than it saves.”

Nick Clegg, the party leader and deputy prime minister, is more receptive to the suggestion, however, conscious that his party could lose public support if it is seen as soft on those involved in the riots.

Mr Cameron’s speech today is aimed at regaining the initiative on the issue, after a weekend of spats between ministers, and between the government and senior police officers. Writing in the Independent on Sunday, Sir Hugh Orde, the president of the association of chief police officers, hit out at the government for making “totally unjustified . . . negative attacks” on officers for their initial response to the riots.

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