British PM confronts 'moral collapse' after riots

PM Cameron pledged "all-out war" on street gangs as Britain seeks answers to its worst civil disorder for decades.

Afp August 15, 2011

LONDON: British Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Monday a sweeping review of government policy to reverse a "slow-motion moral collapse" that he blames for last week's riots in which five people died.

(Read: “London rioters battle police after shooting protest”)

He also pledged "all-out war" on street gangs as Britain seeks answers to its worst civil disorder for decades, which tarnished the country's image abroad a year before London hosts the 2012 Olympic Games.

"This has been a wake-up call for our country. Social problems that have been festering for decades have exploded in our face," Cameron said in a speech at a youth club in his affluent rural constituency in Witney, southern England.

"Do we have the determination to confront the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations?" he asked, against a backdrop of colourful graffiti at the club.

Children as young as 11 joined the four-night frenzy of looting and arson which spread from London to other major English cities including Manchester and Birmingham, leaving dozens of homes and businesses in flames.

The Conservative premier has flooded the streets with police while more than 2,300 suspects have been arrested, but Cameron said the "security fightback must be matched by a social fightback."

He said the coalition government, which came to power in May 2010 promising austerity measures to cut a record deficit, would in the coming weeks review "every aspect of our work to mend our broken society."

A day after he controversially hired US "supercop" Bill Bratton to advise on tackling street gangs, Cameron said there should be a "concerted, all-out war on gangs and gang culture".

Cameron said the government would look at toughening conditions for those who receive unemployment and other benefits, trying to improve parenting skills and schools in deprived areas.

(Read: "British PM Cameron promises crackdown on rioters")

He said Britain would use its current chairmanship of the Council of Europe to seek to push through changes to the European Convention on Human Rights, saying it had "undermined personal responsibility."

Addressing calls for the reintroduction of military service, Cameron added that he was introducing a programme of "national citizen service" to get 16-year-olds carrying out voluntary work.

In a taste of harsher measures to come, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith separately told the BBC that people convicted of being involved in the riots could lose their welfare handouts even if they do not receive a jail sentence.

But opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband blamed the riots on a "values crisis" across society, linking them to the financial crisis and scandals over lawmakers' expenses and over phone hacking at the News of the World newspaper.

In a rival speech shortly after Cameron's, he accused the premier of proposing "knee-jerk gimmicks".

Cameron has also faced criticism from police chiefs who opposed his decision to hire Bratton, who is credited for tackling gang violence in New York, Los Angeles and Boston.

They have also called on the government to reverse its plans to slash police budgets.

Interior minister Theresa May chaired a meeting of the government's COBRA security committee on Monday at which it is expected to decide whether to scale down the surge of officers on London's streets, currently at 16,000.

Courts in England have been working through the night and, in a first, on Sunday to clear the massive backlog of cases from the riots.

Three people appeared in court Monday over the murder of three men who were hit by a car while defending their neighbourhood against looters in Birmingham, Britain's second city.

More than 5,000 people observed a minute's silence at a peace rally for the victims in the central English city on Sunday.

Tariq Jahan, who is the father of one of the victims and emerged as a heroic figure with his calls for peace, told the gathering that the display of unity gave him "strength in my heart".

(Read: “Pair charged with triple murder over Pakistanis’ deaths”)

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