Ann Widdecombe – 2001 Speech on Setting Public Services Free

Below is the text of the speech made by Ann Widdecombe, the Shadow Home Secretary, on 6 June 2001.

My political roots lie in the Sixties, at a time when rules and values were often seen as not only being irrelevant but positively dangerous. If you were young at that time, you were led to believe that the world owed you a living, and all you had to do was to shout loud enough or demonstrate long enough and it would be handed to you on a plate. It won’t come as much of a surprise if I tell you that I saw things rather differently.

I went into politics from a sense of vocation. I suspect I might have had a far more comfortable life if I had gone into the City or into PR or anyone of a hundred different professions, but the Sixties were after all about passionate convictions and I suppose I must have picked up something.

Doesn’t mean I have a closed mind. Many of you will know that I’ve thought long and hard about my religious views, and some time ago that caused me to change my Church. But I haven’t changed my Party, not because I’ve stopped thinking about my political values but because I’ve tested them, and challenged them, and found Conservative values as relevant today as they have ever been.

And that’s about making sure that Government serves, and doesn’t end up so grand and so overbearing that it stifles the very service it aims to give. Which, of course, is what’s happening today. Don’t take my word for it….

· Ask any doctor or any nurse, and they will tell you – they spend more and more time sitting in front of computers and filling in Government forms rather than sitting with patients.

· Ask any teacher. If you’re lucky they’ll come out from behind a mountain of Ministerial directives just long enough to tell you how every day they have to wade through a swamp of red tape before they get anywhere near a classroom.

· And our police, too are filling in forms. Or job applications.

I entered politics from a sense of vocation, just as others – our doctors, nurses, teachers, policemen and the rest – also followed their sense of vocation. But that’s where the similarity ends, because in politics you expect to find obstacles thrown in your way at every turn. It goes with the territory.

But that wasn’t the deal for those who’ve devoted themselves to caring for our sick, our elderly, our young, or keeping our law and order. They’re not politicians, and they shouldn’t find their careers turned into an obstacle course by politicians. Or otherwise they will turn away, as tens of thousands have turned away in recent years.

I don’t blame them. A country in which clinical decisions are made not on the basis of medical priority but on the basis of some politician’s pledge card is a sick country. A country in which schools get Ministerial directives before they get new books is a neglected country. A country in which our police are fighting red tape rather than criminals is a country that has been cheated by its government.

The Sixties were all about passion. Some invested their passion in –shall we say – quite exotic areas, while I invested my passion in politics. Because I wanted to change things.

And things need changing, nowhere more so than in our public services.

That is our commitment. To set our public services free, to do their jobs as they know best. It’s a commitment that will be there long after those tawdry little pledge cards that others hawk around have become no more than a pile of litter.