11/08/2011 08:37 BST | Updated 11/10/2011 06:12 BST

UK Riots Lead To Rethink In Tory Crime Policy

The prime minister has signalled a major shift in emphasis on crime policy in the wake of the riots which have affected parts of England in the past week.

In an emergency meeting of the House of Commons, David Cameron indicated that the police could be given powers to shut down social networks during times of unrest, and widen officers' remit to compel people to remove face coverings.

"This is a time for our country to pull together," said Cameron, praising those who had taken to the streets to defend their communities from thugs. He also mentioned those who had taken to the streets of Enfield in north London, without criticising what some people have branded vigilantism.

The PM told the Commons that over 1200 people had now been arrested across England in connection with the rioting and looting, and hinted that the courts could be given more but unspecified powers to deal with troublemakers. He said the role of the courts would be "kept under constant review."


He announced a £20m fund to support high streets shops and £10m for councils' clean up operations, to be paid for by UK Treasury reserves.

In a packed but subdued chamber Mr. Cameron said that social networks could be "used for good or ill", highlighting their apparent role in mobilising organised rioting and looting, particularly during unrest in London.

On the issue of people covering their faces, the PM said at present police could only demand people remove face masks in specific circumstances. He said this would be expanded to include "any circumstances when there is reasonable suspicion of criminality."

The PM also said the government would look at ways in which the Army could provide backup to the police if rioting returned to Britain. However he emphasised that such plans were "not for today nor tomorrow."

MPs listened to the PM in silence, but there were murmurings from Labour when Cameron said CCTV would be a vital tool in bringing criminals to justice. They see this as a further shift in Tory policy, because in opposition the Conservatives had called for CCTV to be curbed. They've been slowly rowing back from that ever since, and it's obvious the PM now believes the cameras to be extremely useful.

The Labour leader Ed Miliband broadly welcomed the measures the PM outlined. Clearly aware that many of the social problems behind the rioting had persisted - and arguably grown - under 13 years of Labour rule, he claimed the current riots "cannot be laid at the door of a single government." But he seized on widespread concerns that budget cuts to the police would hamper their ability to respond to future riots.

David Cameron insisted that even after the budget cuts police would still have the resources to respond to situations similar to those seen in the past week. This prompted jeers from Labour MPs. On the government benches ministers and junior members of the government nodded in support for the Conservative leader, although backbench Tories looked far from convinced.

The PM didn't directly respond to calls by both Ed Miliband and the Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy for an inquiry into the riots. It seems likely if no such inquiry is set up, Labour MPs may begin to wonder why phone hacking warrants two inquiries, but the worst rioting in the UK for decades doesn't deserve even one.

UPDATE: The Commons Home Affairs Committee says it will begin an inquiry into the riots next month. Whether that's enough to satisfy Labour MPs who're calling for a full inquiry is unclear at this stage.