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Monday, 15 August 2011

Riots: Coalition Tensions Over Benefits Plan

The flames of the riots have subsided, but the political fall-out has only just begun.

One proposal could lead to people losing benefits if they are convicted.

The Government's most immediate concern is what to do with the hundreds of people who have been arrested over the disturbances.

Many people feel the punishments being dished out are merely a slap on the wrist.

Others are concerned about the many young offenders who have been swept up into criminality.

Today both David Cameron and Ed Miliband made speeches trying to unpick the causes of the riots and prescribe their own remedies.

The Prime Minister must walk the political tightrope of reacting decisively and swiftly to the riots, without a knee-jerk response.

David Cameron says he 'fully supports' Iain Duncan Smith.

Ed Miliband has already accused Mr Cameron of "knee-jerk gimmicks".

But the truth is that neither the Prime Minister nor the leader of the opposition have come up with much in the way of concrete policies.

David Cameron’s speech seemed an exercise in re-emphasising what the Coalition is already doing - such as welfare reform, free schools and the British Bill of Rights.

One source close to the Prime Minister confirmed to me that today was more about "re-energising" and "reminding ministers of our priorities" rather than outlining a specific policy reaction.

Meanwhile Ed Miliband bemoaned the "unequal society" and "gross irresponsibility" but refused to nail his colours to the mast of any particular policy initiative - simply calling for a national inquiry.

One new policy is, however, under discussion and it is likely to be extremely controversial.

Lib Dem Simon Hughes says he fears 'knee-jerk' responses.

Work and Pension Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has said the Government is currently looking at removing benefits from people involved in the riots.

When asked about the idea during the question and answer session, the Prime Minister would only say that Mr Duncan Smith had his "total support".

Housing Minister Grant Shapps has already said that he is actively encouraging councils to use their right to evict council house tenants if they have been involved in criminal activity.

But if this is widened to include all benefits, there could be a rocky road ahead for the Coalition.

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes has cautioned against a "knee-jerk" response, and the party's welfare spokeswoman Jenny Willott has said she is "very worried" by the proposal.

And while Nick Clegg is understood to be comfortable with the idea of rioters losing their council homes, it is unclear whether he would be happy if they lost other benefits too.

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