UK’s Cameron under pressure over cuts after riots

LONDON, (Reuters) – Prime Minister David Cameron  risks his government’s austerity drive, particularly its plans  to cut police funding, becoming the focus of Britons’ fears  about the future after the worst looting and rioting in decades  hit English cities.

David Cameron

The Conservative party leader took a hardline approach to  the violence yesterday, vowing “the lawless minority” would be  hunted down and punished, and blaming the police for their  initial response.

Now that the violence has died down, Cameron is under  growing pressure to abandon plans to cut police numbers after  trouble spread from the capital to several other cities over  four chaotic nights, severely stretching police resources.

The country is divided over what caused the looting and  arson, but many fear the reductions in police numbers implicit  in the government’s deep public spending cuts could leave the  country exposed if more trouble erupts.

Community leaders and some commentators say poverty,  unemployment and a bitter sense of exclusion among many young  people cannot be ignored, and public sector cuts are likely to  hit the poorest in society hardest.

Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour party, took  care not to blame the government’s planned cuts directly for the  violence, but told the BBC: “The cuts that are being made are  very bad for our society.”

Cameron blamed the violence on a minority of opportunistic  criminals and on society’s failings. “When you have deep moral  failures you don’t hit them with a wall of money,” he told  parliament in an emergency debate.

Police chiefs were unimpressed with Cameron’s criticism of  their officers’ initial response. “The police faced an  unprecedented situation, unique circumstances,” said Hugh Orde,  president of the Association of Chief Police Officers.

Orde said “honest conversations” were needed with the  government about its spending plans. “It’s the 20 percent cuts  in the present spending period that will lead to less police  officers, we should be very clear about that.”

Cameron’s centre-right Conservatives took power in May 2010  in coalition with the smaller, centrist Liberal Democrats,  promising to cut spending to reduce a budget deficit that peaked  at more than 10 percent of gross domestic product.

Finance minister George Osborne said yesterday that  Britain’s deficit reduction measures were an example to the rest  of Europe, but many fear job losses, benefit cuts and reduced  services.

Labour, in power for 13 years until May 2010 under Tony  Blair and Gordon Brown, have repeatedly said the coalition’s  planned cuts are too big, too soon, and will stunt the economy.

“The events of the last few days have been a stark reminder  to us all that police on our streets make our communities safer  and make the public feel safer,” Miliband told parliament.

UNEASY PEACE     

Britons were appalled at the scenes on their streets, from  the televised mugging of a badly beaten Malaysian teenager by  people pretending to help him, to a Polish woman photographed  leaping from a burning building.

The scale and ferocity of the rioting — not only in  inner-city areas but also in some middle-class suburbs —  battered Britain’s image as a civilised and peaceful society.

Footage of looters kicking in shop windows and stealing  everything from baby clothes to food and large television sets  was repeated for days on rolling news channels around the world.

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