British PM Cameron Proposes Tactics To Quell Riots

In an emergency session Thursday on the violence sweeping British cities, Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament that authorities will consider tougher police action and other tactics, such as disabling instant messaging services, to deal with rioters. Cameron and his ministers are facing criticism over their handling of the unrest.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: The riots in Britain seemed to have died down for now, but Prime Minister David Cameron is promising tough measures to prevent future unrest. He addressed a special session of parliament today. As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, the prime minister argued that the riots should be treated as criminal, not as political protests worthy of a public inquiry.

ERIC WESTERVELT: As a leader of the opposition in 2006, in what he called a bold new approach, David Cameron said troubled young kids need, quote, "a lot more love if society is going to stop them from committing crimes." Today, in parliament, Prime Minister Cameron said they needed a stiff jail sentence and tougher police action. He called for water cannons, not hugs. He blames parents in part, saying they needed to take more responsibility to rein in what he called a culture of violence.

Prime Minister DAVID CAMERON: This is not about poverty. It is about culture. A culture that glorifies violence, that shows disrespect to authority and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibility.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CONCURRING)

CAMERON: In too many cases, the parents of these children - if they are still around - don't care where their children are or who they are with, let alone what they are doing.

WESTERVELT: Cameron said there is evidence street gangs helped coordinate some of the unrest but lamented that too many ordinary people eagerly joined in the orgy of looting, vandalism and arson. There was little talk today about what might have sparked or contributed to the unrest: wealth inequality, economic woes or gangs. Cameron fiercely resisted calls for a wide-ranging government investigation into the causes and responses to the riots, saying an Interior Ministry report would be sufficient.

CAMERON: This was not political protest or a riot about protest about politics. It was communal garden thieving, robbing and looting. And we don't need an inquiry to tell us that.

WESTERVELT: The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband, largely struck a tone of unity. He called on the prime minister to meet face to face with members of those communities hit hardest by the riots, saying to seek to explain is not to seek to excuse.

ED MILIBAND: Of course, these are acts of individual criminality, but we all have a duty to ask ourselves: Why are there people who feel they have nothing to lose and everything to gain from wanton vandalism and looting? We cannot afford to do this, to let this pass, to calm the situation down, only to find ourselves in the same position again in the future.

WESTERVELT: Meantime, the prime minister said police will be given expanded powers to restrict the use of facemasks and coverings. In a statement quickly slammed by civil liberties advocates, he said the government, police and intelligence services were exploring the possibility of restricting Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry instant messaging amid evidence some looters used them to coordinate violence and looting.

CAMERON: Free flow of information can be used for good, but it can also be used for ill. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.

WESTERVELT: The director of the Open Rights Group, Jim Killock, blasted that idea, saying that would deprive citizens of their rights to secure communication, privacy and free speech. Members of parliament, meantime, questioned the prime minister's plans to reduce police budgets nearly 20 percent over the next four years. The mayor of London, fellow conservative Boris Johnson, this week joined others in criticizing the proposal. Cameron today defended the plan, part of a massive package of austerity cuts, as possible without reducing the number of police on the streets.

CAMERON: The point I'd make in Wales as in England there are opportunities to get officers out from desk jobs and IT jobs, and they shake their heads. That is what is so hopeless about the party opposite: a sense that there is no reform you can make to try and get better value for money. That is why, frankly, the country isn't listening to you.

WESTERVELT: Cameron promised compensation to those affected by the riots but offered no estimate of the overall cost of the damage, police overtime or the price tag of rebuilding. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, London.

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