LONDON—Britain must confront its “slow-motion moral collapse” Prime Minister David Cameron declared Monday, following four days of riots that left five people dead, thousands facing criminal charges and at least 200 million pounds ($326 million) in property losses.
Cameron said his coalition government would outline new policies designed to tackle a culture of laziness, irresponsibility and selfishness which he believes fueled Britain’s unrest.
He also pledged to toughen rhetoric from ministers and officials, who he claimed had too often had shied away from promoting strong moral standards.
His government would no longer be timid in discussing family breakdown or poor parenting, or in criticizing those who fail to set a good example to their community.
“This has been a wake-up call for our country. Social problems that have been festering for decades have exploded in our face,” Cameron told an audience at a youth center in Witney, his Parliamentary district in southern England.
“Just as people last week wanted criminals robustly confronted on our street, so they want to see these social problems taken on and defeated,” he said.
Cameron insisted that racial tensions, poverty and the government’s austerity program—much of which is yet to bite—were not the motivations for the riots across London and other major cities.
Criminality and a lack of personal responsibility were at the roots of the disorder, Cameron said, pledging that the government would intervene to help 120,000 of the country’s most troubled families before the 2015 national election.
“One of the biggest lessons of these riots is that we’ve got to talk honestly about behavior and then act—because bad behavior has literally arrived on people’s doorsteps. And we can’t shy away from the truth anymore,” he said.
Standing before a backdrop of graffiti, Cameron said Britain’s damaged society had for too long been one which “incites laziness, that excuses bad behavior, that erodes self-discipline, that discourages hard work.”
Amid recklessness by bankers, the lawmakers’ expense check scandal, and media phone hacking saga, the leader also acknowledged that all sectors of society had a share of the blame.
“Moral decline and bad behavior is not limited to a few of the poorest parts of our society. In the highest offices, the plushest boardrooms, the most influential jobs, we need to think about the example we are setting,” Cameron said.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said Monday that he was already examining whether those involved in the riots should have their welfare payments cut. Cameron has said those in government-subsidized homes could be evicted.
In a rival speech, main opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband criticized Cameron’s plans and demand that lawmakers focus less on blame, and more on delivering better opportunities for young people.
“The usual politicians’ instinct—announce a raft of new legislation, appoint a new adviser, wheel out your old prejudices and shallow answers—will not meet the public’s demand,” Miliband said.
He spoke at his former school in Camden, north London, half a block from the scene of intense rioting Aug. 8, when shops were trashed and police came under attack.
“Does it matter whether young people feel they have a future, a chance of a better life? Yes it does,” he said. “Are issues like education and skills, youth services, youth unemployment important for diverting people away from gangs, criminality, the wrong path? Yes. They matter.”
Police said Monday they had uncovered a cache of weapons and hidden loot buried in flower beds in Camden. Knives, a hammer, metal bars and two cash registers from a looted cycle store were found after officers combed the area with metal detectors.
“This is an amazing result,” said Det. Chief Insp. Eric Phelps. “Several knives which could have been used as lethal weapons have been taken off the streets.”
On Sunday, several hundred residents of Birmingham, England’s second-largest city, rallied for peace and racial unity in memory of three Pakistani men run over and killed during last week’s riots there. Asian, black and white locals joined hands with police officers during the ceremony.
Birmingham police have charged two men in their 20s and a 17-year-old with the murders of Haroon Jahan, 20, and brothers Shazad Ali, 30, and Abdul Musavir, 31. The three men died Wednesday after a car struck them at high speed as they guarded shops in west Birmingham, 120 miles (190 kilometers) northwest of London.
The attack raised fears of gang warfare between the area’s South Asian and Caribbean gangs because residents identified the car-borne assailants as black. But public appeals for no retaliation, particularly from one victim’s father, Tariq Jahan, have helped keep passions at bay.
England’s gang-fueled rioting began in London Aug. 6 and spread to several other English cities. Police were criticized for responding too slowly, particularly in London, but eventually deployed huge numbers of officers at riot zones to quell the mayhem.
The Association of British Insurers has estimated the cost from wrecked and stolen property at 200 million pounds ($326 million) but expects the total to rise.
Police are still questioning two men over the fatal shooting of a 26-year-old man during riots in Croydon, south London. And police arrested a 16-year-old boy Sunday night on suspicion of fatally beating a 68-year-old man who had tried to put out a fire set by rioters in Ealing, west London.
Across the country, more than 1,200 people have been charged so far with riot-related offenses and thousands have been arrested. Several courts opened Sunday for the first time in modern history to try to reduce the backlog of cases.