A WAVE of violence in several widely separated cities is putting pressure on the British government to spend more on policing and to find reasons for a sharp rise in nationwide criminal activity.After two weeks of riots in Cardiff, Birmingham, Oxford, North Shields and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Prime Minister John Major ordered Home Secretary Kenneth Baker to answer what Labour opposition member Roy Hattersley called a "typhoon of inner-city troubles." It was the worst urban violence in Britain since 1981, when several cities were the scene of confrontations between police and bands of rioting youths. As Mr. Baker took urgent steps to mobilize extra police in trouble spots, his department published a report pointing to a deeper problem: Crime in Britain had increased 18 percent in the past year and doubled since 1979 when the Conservatives came to power. Crimes against property (such as vandalism and theft) accounted for 94 percent of the total figure for 1990-91. The latest Home Office statistics show that one-third of all crimes against property are car-thefts.
Answering criticisms Mr. Major demanded to know the causes of the sudden spate of urban violence and asked Baker to review police methods in light of the disturbances. The prime minister, who leads a party which prides itself on its commitment to preserving law and order, also asked the home secretary to explain why Britain is witnessing an escalation of criminal activity. Baker said: "We are going to remain totally committed to increasing resources in the area of law and order." But he was rebuked by the leaders of six metropolitan police authorities. They said government-ordered budget cuts had taken 33 million pounds ($57.1 million) out of police budgets in Britain's largest metropolitan areas and forced big cuts in police numbers. National policies restricting spending on local amenities forced the cuts on local authorities. Douglas Henderson, a Newcastle Labour member of Parliament, called on the government to pour more cash into policing and to admit that "the latest troubles are the direct result of Conservative policies." Law and order problems began piling up for the prime minister on Sept. 1, when violence erupted simultaneously in Cardiff, the Welsh capital, and the university city of Oxford. Gangs of youths stole cars, fire-bombed vehicles and buildings and tried to block off parts of the cities. The trouble later spread to Birmingham and North Shields, near Newcastle, and later to Newcastle itself. "There is a clear copy-cat element in all this," Major said. "Whatever its causes, such behavior will not be tolerated by the government or the public." "There is an underlying background of dismay and despair in Meadow Well," Sir Stanley Bailey, chief constable of the police force in Newcastle, later said of violence in the neighborhood in North Shields. He agreed that so long as unemployment was high among youths who have no "perspective on the future," the problem would continue. Because police in England and Wales are organized locally and have only loose links to the central government, it was difficult to discover how many of the rampaging youths were arrested. A police source in London estimated the number at more than 200, some as young as 11 and 12. Mr. Hattersley said the disturbances were "a product of the despair that comes from unemployment." He blames government policies for the current economic crisis in Britain. Major and other government ministers have denied any connection between the rioting and unemployment, but statistics suggest a link between poverty and violence.
Social problems blamed Criminologists agree with the Labour opposition that more than 12 years of Conservative government have coincided with disturbing increases in criminal behavior. "I believe the increases can be blamed squarely on unemployment and social inequality," said Robert Reiner, professor of criminology at the London School of Economics. He noted that since 1979, when the Conservatives came to power, crime statistics in England and Wales have more than doubled from an annual 2.2 million offenses to 5 million forecast for 1991. In fact, these figures may represent a low estimate. Four years ago a Home Office study showed that only 27 percent of crimes were officially reported. "This suggests that the real figure for 1991 will be more than 20 million crimes," Mr. Reiner said. With a general election due before next July, Major is under mounting pressure to adopt high-profile measures to combat crime. A Conservative Party official said last weekend that more than two-thirds of the resolutions due to be considered at his party's annual conference next month dealt with law and order. This, he said, reflects the deep concern felt by Conservative voters.