British union leader says riots exposed social divisions

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The leader of Britain's trade unions said Monday last month's riots had exposed deep social divisions and warned cuts to public services would only deepen the gulf.

Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), launched a fierce attack on the coalition government's response to the unrest in England, saying it was failing to address the underlying causes of the violence.

City neighbourhoods were looted and burnt and five people were killed in four nights of riots that erupted in London on August 6 and then spread to other cities in England's worst unrest for a generation.

Debate has raged about what sparked the frenzy of destruction, with Prime Minister David Cameron blaming a "slow-motion moral collapse" and pledging to fix Britain's "broken society."

But Barber hit back at Cameron's stance, instead blaming the widening gulf between rich and poor as a major factor in causing the riots.

"As our cities burned amidst the worst rioting in decades, social divisions in modern Britain were laid bare," Barber said in his opening address to delegates at the TUC's annual congress in London.

He said British society now ranked "among the most unequal anywhere in the developed world" and lashed out at the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government's failure to tackle the problem.

"Rather than addressing the complex long-term factors that lie behind the alienation -- the poverty, the lack of social mobility, young lives stunted by hope denied -- they have instead reached for simplistic cliches about moral decay," he said.

While he accepted the austerity measures unveiled by the government last year were not behind the unrest, Barber said they could make the problems worse.

"Of course I accept the riots were not caused by the cuts, but, as any fair-minded person must see, the cuts will undoubtedly make the underlying problems much worse," he said.

The TUC, an umbrella organisation which represents 58 unions and some 6.2 million workers, has been at the forefront of opposition to the government's programme of deep spending cuts, which are aimed at cutting a record public deficit.

© 2011 AFP

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