Compromised riots report covers up policing problems

CROYDON COMMENTARY: He was an eyewitness to events and has been writing on the riots and their aftermath since about 6pm on August 8. ANDREW PELLING reviews the work of Croydon’s local inquiry published this week

The Croydon Independent Local Review Panel report into the 8/8 Croydon riots has received a frosty response from two of the town’s MPs, Malcolm Wicks and Gavin Barwell, from either side of the political divide.

The inquiry was hampered from the start by the refusal of the police to co-operate with the panel. Only after Wicks, the Labour MP for Croydon North, complained to Theresa May, the Conservative government’s Home Secretary, did the present Borough commander appear before the panel. But His Honour William Barnett QC and his panel remained unable to interview other police officers involved on the evening of August 8.

The report, published this week, is the result of five months’ work, 64 cross examinations and 200 written contributions from members of the public. At least two council officers were delegated to the panel for the duration of the inquiry. Yet what has been produced  is a thin document, with a desultory timeline of events on the night.

In his chairman’s foreword, Barnett tries vainly to make a merit of the report being 48 pages short. He hopes it means that the report will be read. He boasts that the panel did not bother to provide an executive summary either. The report has the hallmarks of being a botch job.

Many of the “findings” were available on Inside Croydon within days, hours, of the riots.

Croydon on fire six months ago, with the Minster tower lit by the flames from Reeves Corner

The voice of the victims entirely fails to come through in the report. None of the witnesses’ evidence is quoted. Nor is there a summary of those who were willing to be reported as providing evidence.

After the Brixton riots 30 yars ago, a very substantial report was written by Lord Scarman. The report was pivotal in driving debate about policing, community relations and turning around the long-term decline of Brixton.

But this is no Scarman Report.

It’s low calibre stuff.

There are some interesting observations but overall the report seems meekly deferential to the police. It tamely accepts that Croydon police are unable to deliver a significant proportion of its 700-strong officer team on to the streets in a public emergency.

It is worth considering that the “independent” report was effectively commissioned by Croydon Council. Thus, while the report is justified in its judgement that the council’s immediate response post-riots was “highly commendable”, there is little analysis of how, six months on, care for businesses and people remains very patchy indeed. For example, this report makes only a passing remark about how there have been zero payments made under the Riot Act.

Perhaps the fault behind the report lies in the original composition of the panel as chosen by the council. As Inside Croydon observed at the time of its commission, at least three of the five members, including the chairman, have very close ties with political leaders of the town. The panel proved entirely bashful of asking the politicians about their performance on the day and night of the riot.

His Honour is a member of the Court of Governors of the Whitgift Foundation. So “Willy” works closely with Gavin Barwell, the MP for Croydon Central, with Dudley Mead, the deputy leader of the Conservatives on Croydon Council, and his wife, Councillor Margaret Mead who are also members of the Court of Governors.

The night that Croydon burned

Panel members drawn from outside Croydon might have been truly independent, and been able to take a more robust approach to their enquiries.

Gavin Barwell is more diplomatic than Malcolm Wicks in his comments about the inquiry but he is bang on in expressing reservations about the lack of breadth in the report.

Barwell’s cool response is evident in his words: “The panel say that they decided to limit the length of their report to around 50 pages to encourage as many people as possible to read it in full. I can see why they took that decision but it does mean that the report focuses on what could have been done to stop the riots from a policing/security perspective – a better police response, better communication between agencies, better information gathering, a better relationship with young people, shop shutters etc – at the expense of what could be done to ensure that people don’t behave in this way when they think they are going to get away with it eg better parenting, better school discipline, tougher punishment but also action to deal with people’s underlying problems while they are in prison, having a less materialistic culture and spreading opportunity more equally.”

Barwell will likely have had the same response as Inside Croydon received from many black parents who expressed concern about the role of the state in intervening in the discipline of their own children and Barwell highlights very important omissions in the report.

Croydon riots report chairman "Willy" Barnett

Wicks is hugely critical of the report, concluding that it is “disappointing and shallow.”

It had been Wicks who forced the reluctant Croydon Council leadership into even having an inquiry. As the MP for that part of the borough most heavily affected by the riots, he demanded a heavyweight report to help him make the case for proper investment in London Road.

Wicks feels that “the inquiry has produced an extraordinarily brief document and a somewhat shallow one”.

Among the faults Wicks highlights are:

  • The report constantly gives the benefit of the doubt to the police – about their abandonment of West Croydon to the mob; the deployment of Chief Superintendent Adrian Roberts to Scotland Yard; and the early relocation of all of Croydon’s level 2 riot-trained police to other parts of London.
  • The inquiry was handicapped by the resolute failure of the Metropolitan Police Service to allow senior police officers, those on duty in the critical early stages of the riots, to appear before the inquiry. In so doing, the MPS shows contempt for public accountability. Consequently the report has little to say about this critical period.
  • The report fails to reflect the anger and pain of victims – those whose businesses were ransacked and looted; those whose lives were put at risk; and those whose homes were burnt to the ground.

Wicks concludes, damningly: “No testimony from victims is included in the report. It is as if the victims were frozen out of the enquiry.”

Wicks does make one further, important observation: “The inquiry report does, however, provide some useful information, notably about the delay from Croydon police in calling for extra help and the extraordinary fact that it took more than two hours before extra police arrived.”

Richard Ottaway, the MP for Croydon South who went sailing in Cowes in the week of the riots, has not issued any comments on the report. Nuffink to do with him, guv.

The panel lets Croydon’s political leaders off the hook entirely. No reference is made to their role.

The report notes that even at 9am on August 8 there was intelligence that Croydon would be hit by the violence and looting that had been going on elsewhere in the capital over that weekend. Within a month of the riots, Inside Croydon was told by Superintendent Jo Oakley, a senior officer on duty on the day who was not allowed to speak to the panel, that Croydon’s shops were immediately informed of pending trouble.

The panel has not deigned to ask the politicians what they did that day to help to defend Croydon. After that 9am warning, half a day passed before Steve O’Connell, the local London Assembly Member and a member of the then Metropolitan Police Authority with close relations to local police, managed to pick up a phone to call another Assembly Member for help.

Gavin Barwell was hardly any more pro-active: he simply left a message with the Home Secretary’s private office. You cannot imagine truly great parliamentarians Jack Weatherill or John Moore nor GLC members David White or Steve Stewart being so slow to act, or so complacent, when it came to speak out for their town with such an impending emergency.

To his eternal shame, on 8/8 Barwell drove away from his constituency as it burned, looking at the flames in his rear view mirror and later keeping abreast of events from the safety of his living room.

Barwell’s account of that fateful evening says: “I was at the AGM of the South Norwood Residents’ Association this evening. As I drove home, I saw several plumes of smoke rising from Croydon town centre.

“Given what’s happened elsewhere in London over the last two days, I feared the worst and sure enough when I got home and turned on the TV I saw the shocking pictures of Reeves, a family business that has been in Croydon for generations, burning to the ground. My heart goes out to the residents whose homes and businesses have been devestated [sic] by this mindless criminality.

“Tomorrow morning, I will have to explain what has happened to my eight year-old son. He will ask why. What can I tell him?

“The initial information I have received is that those who started the trouble weren’t from Croydon.”

Well, that’s just one piece of “information” that was wrong. Not surprising that Barwell made poor judgements based on misinformation because he was not there, unlike Inside Croydon.

The report shows that 64 per cent of those suspected of involvement in the riots are from within the borough of Croydon. Many live close to the site of the riots. Only 46 of the 324 Croydon suspects come from the Croydon South parliamentary constituency; 20 of those come from Waddon, right next to the centre of the riot activity.

The Blitz-like image of Croydon from 8/8 which could take two decades to overcome

In the House of Commons, Barwell has chastised those who said that the perpetrators were “young”. “Members on both sides of the House will want to regret the demonisation of a whole generation of young people,” Barwell said.

According to the report, 69 per cent of Croydon riot suspects are under the age of 25.

Barwell asserted that those responsible “came from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds”.

The report highlights that 55 per cent of riot suspects are Black African or African Carribeans.

Which all goes to show what ought to be obvious to many: the perspective of the Croydon riots are clearer on the ground than they are watching Murdoch-owned Sky News from the safety of a suburban living room in Sanderstead.

Denying the ethnicity of the rioters denies aid to those parts of the community most needing the support they require.

In the report, there is only one implicit criticism of politicians, for the council’s and politicians’ lack of community relevance and outreach. That is surely the consequence of the political parties’ tendency to select candidates from active political campaigners, rather than worthy people with connections in the community.

Proper plans for the re-generation of West Croydon and New Addington are called for. Yet much of the regeneration money pledged so far has been handed over to unaccountable outside organisations, to be squandered on facile but expensive PR campaigns from West End agencies, or is being frittered away outside the riot zones.

The police’s failure on 8/8 to protect London Road and Reeves Corner is seen by the panel as circumstantial rather than purposeful. After six months of hearing evidence and poring over submissions, the report confirms what was observable in Croydon on that long summer’s night: that there were no riot trained officers on duty in Croydon, with all those so qualified sent out of town elsewhere in London.

The report recognises that the lack of a police presence for 2 hours and 45 minutes allowed lawlessness to take hold and it accepts that police abuse of “stop and search” was a contributory factor in the riots. In that respect, at least, the Croydon riots report had something in common with the Scarman Report of 30 years before.

But this report lets Croydon police get away with its complete failure to maintain law and order. The report uses information provided by the police, so the figures are not independent figures. Yet even Croydon police admits that only 155 officers were available out of the 700, with a further 60 riot-trained officers sent elsewhere in London.

No questions were asked by the panel as to why only 60 to 100 of these 155 officers were out on the streets as Chief Inspector Nanji (another officer not allowed to speak to the panel) told a public meeting late last summer. No questions were asked, either, why, in Croydon’s worst public emergency, only 215 out of Croydon-based 700 police officers were out on duty.

This report has palpably failed to address Croydon’s concerns.

No wonder that Malcolm Wicks sends a stark warning for the future: “The Metropolitan Police need to learn lessons and learn them quickly. There is already speculation about what would be different if riots on this scale occurred again.

“If riots occurred during the Olympics, when our most senior and experienced officers will be deployed securing the Games, can we be sure that Londoners will be protected and that the police response will be rapid?”

With London Mayor Boris Johnson’s police cuts seeing Croydon town centre’s police numbers more than halved, to just 10, it is apparent that Wicks’ concerns should be shared by all of us. It is just six months since 8/8, yet already the most obvious lessons of the Croydon riots are already being forgotten, conveniently. The 48 pages of the altogether superficial Croydon Independent Local Review Panel report seem simply to assist in that process, sweeping the events of that infamous night under the Town Hall carpet.

  • Inside Croydon: brought to you from the heart of the borough, free of charge, an independent voice standing for freedom of speech for the people of Croydon

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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