A bitter rift has opened in the Coalition Government over plans to strip looters and rioters of their benefits and council houses.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith is investigating how to strip looters of their benefits, while a series of councils have begun proceedings to strip social housing from offenders and their families.
But senior Liberal Democrats dismissed the plans as a ‘knee-jerk response’ to the crisis and urged Tory ministers ‘not to make the situation worse’.
Deputy leader Simon Hughes said: ‘We need to demonstrate ambition to have a responsible society. This means we must not cut taxes for the rich or take away public support for the needy.
‘We should be careful not to rush into knee-jerk solutions including over-hasty moves to change the social contract and approaches to sentences which may have the reverse effect to that intended.’
Lib Dem welfare spokesman Jenny Willott said she was ‘very worried’ about moves to cut benefits.
Senior government sources insisted that evictions would go ahead on the grounds that by rioting the offenders had ‘intentionally’ made themselves homeless.
There are no plans to rehouse those booted out in other council accommodation.
Nick Clegg has indicated that he is comfortable with the idea of council house evictions in cases where people have helped destroy their own communities.
But the Deputy Prime Minister is likely to oppose further benefit cuts. He will also give the green light for his MPs openly to fight Tory plans to bring in elected police commissioners, which are due to pass through the Commons again next month.
A senior party member said: ‘We need to be careful that we don’t do anything to make the situation worse. There are a lot of things we agree on.
‘Most people would back calls for zero tolerance against thugs but some Lib Dems will be a little nervous about plans to take away welfare payments.’
Lib Dem Lord McNally will be his party’s representative on an inquiry into gang warfare being drawn up by Mr Duncan Smith and Home Secretary Theresa May.
Mr Clegg is expected to call for a mechanism to be established in government to ensure plans are followed through, saying: ‘We don’t need a public inquiry but we do need a structured way to make sure we get things done this time.’
One of his advisers said: ‘We’re not in full Lib Dem hand-wringing mode. Nick has said that there is a case to be made for removing council houses where people have shown contempt for their own communities.’
But the Deputy Prime Minister gave a speech at the weekend cautioning his coalition partners from going too far, warning against a ‘knee-jerk’ policy reaction to the riots.
He told Lib Dem activists that he would commission research into the riots before making party policy.
He said: ‘Our policy response will be guided by our values of freedom, fairness and responsibility. It will also be based soundly on evidence, not anecdote or prejudice. Knee-jerk reactions are not always wrong–but they usually are.’
Mr Clegg will also resist any attempt to water down Britain’s human rights legislation or membership of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Police chiefs say their hands have been tied on a robust response to violence by the Convention. And David Cameron will today say he wants to review the implementation of human rights laws.
‘That’s a no-no for us and it’s not possible to change that under the coalition agreement,’ a Lib Dem source said.