The recall of Parliament today went better than I expected. In the Lords I think the questions on public disorder were measured and appropriate, and the tone continued that set in the Commons by David Cameron and Ed Miliband in avoiding political rancour. Today was the day for standing shoulder to shoulder against criminality, for being clear that there is no excuse for that criminality, and for being clear in support of the police and community representatives.
When Parliament resumes again in September I trust we will be at more distance from the unrest, in the hope that there is no resumption of the riots and looting. If so it will be important that other questions are put.
The Government faces a big challenge. It has to manage two crises. One of economic growth and the other of social breakdown. As the Prime Minister said in his statement, “crime has a context, and we must not shy away from it.”
The global economic difficulties are compounding our own problems of very sluggish growth in the UK economy. Slow growth means less money coming into the Treasury in taxes and more going out in benefits. It is estimated that borrowing will rise by an additional £43 billion over the predictions of a few months ago.
The Government’s strategy of deficit elimination this Parliament has been clear, even if the pain involves limited jobs growth, education places being reduced and welfare entitlements being scaled back. Now they have as difficult an additional challenge in responding to this week’s disorder.
We can argue about whether some of the measures in response to the economic crisis will exacerbate the social crisis, but most important is the Government putting an absolute priority on tackling the twin challenges.
Parliamentary time is limited between now and next May when the current session finishes.
This unprecedented set of economic and social problems are such that I don’t think Parliament has the luxury of being able to legislate and debate anything else of substance.
I think the Government should use the next three weeks to review the current legislative programme and retain only those measures that will either assist growth and deficit reduction or help to rebuild safety on our streets, confidence in the police and the re-engagement of those people who have lost touch with mainstream values of right and wrong.
If that means dropping spending £100 million on elected police commissioners, so we can spend the money on police on the streets, so be it. It may mean reducing our involvement in Libya. If it means postponing NHS and Lords reform, both measures that will absorb huge amounts of Parliamentary time, then that is part of the tough choices of Government.
I am not suggesting the Government should abandon other measures indefinitely, but I do think they should now be ruthless in prioritising what is important for the people Parliament and politicians are there to serve. It would be hard, but if the Prime Minister were to grasp this opportunity it would show true leadership in a time of unprecedented national difficulty.