Severin Carrell and Steven Morris
Fri, 26 May 2023 at 1:43 pm BST
The Welsh first minister has accused the UK government of creating the poor social conditions that formed the backdrop to the Cardiff riots by systematically eroding community life, public services and citizens’ incomes.
Mark Drakeford, who represents the Ely area where the riots broke out on Monday night after the deaths of two teenage boys, said public services and people’s standards of living had declined there during 13 years of Conservative rule.
The first minister was a youth justice worker in Ely when the bread riots took place in 1991, and he said there were parallels between the two events. “It’s 13 years of the erosion, the systematic erosion, of the things that sustain community life,” he said. “You fray social fabric at your peril, and we see what happened on Monday.”
Drakeford, who was meeting community leaders in Ely on Friday, said he accepted that the Labour-led Welsh government and Cardiff council had questions to answer about how they were supporting the area. He hinted he believed mistakes may have been made by the police in their handling of the riots.
The disturbance followed the deaths of Kyrees Sullivan, 16, and Harvey Evans, 15, after the electric bike they were on was followed by a police van. Vehicles were set on fire and 15 police officers were injured, 12 of them needing hospital treatment.
Initially the South Wales police and crime commissioner, Alun Michael, said the riot had been started by false rumours that there had been a police chase.
It was only after the Guardian and other media organisations found CCTV footage showing the boys being followed that the police admitted this had happened, but they have still refused to apologise. The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) is investigating South Wales police’s actions.
Drakeford told the Guardian that what had happened was “deeply, deeply distressing”. “First of all, and foremost, of course, for those young men who lost their lives and for their families, and their friends. It’s hard to imagine what they will be experiencing.
“But also I feel desperately sad for that wider community of Ely, which is full of absolutely decent hardworking people, who ask nothing more than to go about their lives peacefully. And for them the reputational damage that is done to the area by these sorts of events, it’s just a huge weight on their shoulders.”
He added, however, that the rioters needed to be accountable. “There are people whose own behaviours were absolutely indefensible,” he said. “They must be held accountable for it and there may have been some service failures on the night – we will learn about that when the independent investigation is concluded.”
Asked if his government should have been doing more for Ely, he said: “I think all layers of government and all aspects of government are right to look at themselves in the mirror and ask exactly that question. So we will certainly be doing that as a Welsh government.”
Related: Nine arrested over Cardiff riot sparked by death of teenagers
Before he entered politics, Drakeford had worked as a probation officer, youth justice worker and Barnardo’s project leader in the Ely and Caerau areas, west of the city centre. He was working in the area when the Ely bread riots of 1991 took place, unrest said to have started with a dispute between two shopkeepers.
“I know it just takes years to recover from these sorts of events,” said Drakeford. “Fundamentally, it seems to me the difficulties of 1991 happened 13 years into a Conservative government and here we are, by chance as much as anything else, 13 years into a Conservative government again.
“What is common between them is that it’s 13 years of the erosion, the systematic erosion of the things that sustain community life.
“Many people in Ely will rely on social security benefits for their weekly income. They have been systematically eroded over the last 13 years. People have less and less to live on and they see their bills going up every day. The struggle is not theoretical for those people, it’s something that matters and bites into their lives every single day of the week.
“And the public services that are there to try to help them through all of that have had 13 years of budgets reducing every single year as well. So I don’t think you can understand what happened in Ely without understanding that sort of fundamental background cause.”
In an update on Friday, the IOPC said it was reviewing the initial accounts of the police officers who were following the boys and that one of its aims was to establish whether they were chasing the pair.
It said it was investigating:
• The nature of the police interaction with the two boys before the collision and the appropriateness of the officers’ decisions and actions.
• Whether at any time the decisions and actions of the officers in the police vehicle constituted a pursuit.
• Whether the interaction between the officers and the boys was reported appropriately by the officers before and after the collision.
• Whether the actions and decisions of South Wales police over the interaction were in line with legislation, local and national policies and procedures.
The IOPC director for Wales, David Ford, said: “We would welcome anyone we haven’t yet spoken to yet, who believes they have footage or witnessed anything relevant between 5.35pm and 6.10pm on Monday, to come forward to us.”