Why did you do it? Rioters to be asked their views on disorder

While the Tories want to punish offenders, the Lib Dems are adopting a more conciliatory approach

As the debate among politicians, police and commentators about how harshly rioters should be treated rages on, the Government has announced plans to send an army of researchers into the inner cities to ask young people involved in disturbances last week a simple question: why did you do it?

The job of analysing the causes of the looting and vandalism will be carried out separately from the work of the victims' panel, announced by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg yesterday, which will hear the stories of those whose lives were blighted by the riots.

The community and victims' panel will be chaired by a prominent public figure and will carry out its hearings in the glare of publicity. Its report is to be ready by next May and will be submitted simultaneously to the leaders of all three of the main political parties, Mr Clegg announced.

But the Government has not set a deadline yet for the more sensitive research, about which Mr Clegg gave very little detail except to say it will look into "what happened, who did what and why they did it".

A Government source indicated that the job will be done by researchers with specialist experience in this kind of work, who will interview former rioters, and young people from the same backgrounds as the rioters who chose not to riot. Those interviewed will have the option of remaining anonymous.

Mr Clegg's speech yesterday set a different tone from announcements by Conservative ministers, including David Cameron, who have emphasised the need to punish the offenders and declare war on gang culture.

In a speech the previous day, the Prime Minister specifically denied that the riots were about race, Government cuts, or poverty, and asserted that they were about "people showing indifference to right and wrong" – which seemed to imply that there are no social causes for the researchers commissioned by Mr Clegg's office to investigate.

But it suits the Government to have the Tory half of the Coalition wielding the stick while the Liberal Democrats are more conciliatory. One Tory minister, asked yesterday how the Tory right would react to Mr Clegg's proposals, replied: "Oh they don't mind all that as long as they know the rioters are going to have their goolies chopped off."

Mr Clegg promised that from March 2010 every released prisoner "will be met at the prison gates by providers in the work programme who will make sure that those offenders will be put through a tough process so that they find work and they stay on the straight and narrow."

The idea of helping ex-prisoners into jobs is to discourage them from re-offending, but in case the measure sounded like a reward for wrongdoing, the Department for Work and Pensions added a warning that those who turn down a job offer will have their benefits cut for up to three years.

Mr Clegg also confirmed that there will be a Community Payback scheme under which former rioters will have to help clean up the mess they made. He said: "In every single one of the communities affected you will see people in visible orange clothing making up for the damage done, repairing and improving the neighbourhoods effected. I also want them to face their victims. I want them to face people like the woman I met on Monday last week in Tottenham who said to me that she was still wearing the clothes she was wearing when she ran out of her flat before it was burnt down.

"The offender who did that, who set fire to that building, should have to face her and understand that there are human consequences, to explain why he or she did what they did and to apologise."