Riot punishments divide coalition MPs

By Alex Stevenson

Harsh responses to last week's rioting are justified, the prime minister has insisted, after plans to strip rioters of their benefits were described as "bonkers" by Liberal Democrat MPs.

The coalition's junior party signalled its discomfort with some of the steps being taken to deter further disorder in the face of an increasingly authoritarian response from Conservative ministers.

Yesterday Jordan Blackshaw, 20, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, both previously of good character, each received a four-year sentence for inciting people to riot on Facebook.

"I think it's right that we should allow the courts to make decisions about sentencing," prime minister David Cameron insisted this lunchtime.

"They decided in that court to send a tough sentence, a tough message, and I think it's very good the courts feel able to do that.

"What happened on our streets was absolutely appalling behaviour and to send a very clear message that it was wrong and that it won't be tolerated is what our criminal justice system should be doing."

His comments reflect the uncompromising tone of Conservative ministers dealing with those responsible for the disorder – like work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who is examining the case for stripping all those involved of their benefits.

But Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Tom Brake told BBC2's Newsnight programme that he wanted to see sentences aimed at "restorative justice" rather than "retribution".

Tessa Munt and David Ward described the harsh steps as "bonkers" and "nuts" respectively.

Ms Munt told the Guardian newspaper: "Frankly, this all smacks of headline grabbing by Conservatives, not calm, rational policy-making."

Communities and local government secretary Eric Pickles defended the sentencing policy on the Today programme this morning, however.

"We need to understand that people for a while thought that this was a crime without consequence," he said.

"We cannot have people being frightened in their beds, frightened in their own homes, for their public safety.

"That's why these kind of exemplary sentences are necessary and I think the public would be rightly alarmed if that incitement to riot got off with just a slap on the wrist."

Tory backbencher Douglas Carswell suggested that the "stiff" sentences given to many rioters and looters were opening the eyes of the criminal justice system.

"The public prosecutors have discovered that cases can actually be brought to trial swiftly. The courts have discovered that the Sentencing Council's softly-softly guidelines can be tossed aside. Offenders are being sent down as a result," he wrote.

"Imagine if our criminal justice system worked like this all the time?… perhaps if judges, magistrates and public prosecutors had to answer to the law abiding majority all the time, we might start to get effective justice all the time."

Last week a 23-year-old man from Borough, south-east London, was jailed for six months after stealing a bottle of water from a Lidl supermarket in Brixton.

And yesterday three men were jailed at Manchester crown court for their role in last week's events.

One, 18-year-old Michael Gillespie-Doyle of Tameside, was sentenced to two years in prison for attempting to steal a packet of cigarettes.

Another, 31-year-old David Beswick of Salford, mouthed the word "ouch" when he heard he would serve 18 months for handling stolen goods, the Telegraph reported.

The newspaper quoted Judge Gilbart QC as saying: "Those who choose to take part in activities of this type must understand that they do so at their peril.

"It is a message which I trust will deter others from engaging in this type of behaviour in the future."

Nearly 2,800 people have been arrested in connection with the mass civil disobedience seen last week.