Below is the text of the speech made by the then Leader of the Opposition, Michael Howard, on 19th February 2004.
Thank you very much for inviting me to speak to you today. It was good to hear from Simon Woolley from Operation Black Vote, and I thank him for coming. Operation Black Vote is an important organisation which encourages more people from our ethnic communities to take part in politics. We in the Conservative Party support their work and we’re pleased to take part in the MP shadowing scheme run by them.
I’d also like to thank some other people who are here this morning, in particular Councillor Peter Doyle, who is the Chairman of Burnley Conservative Association, and who has been extremely helpful in organising this visit.
I am also very pleased to see Yousuf Bhailok from the Muslim Council of Britain. When I was Home Secretary, I supported moves to establish a strong voice for the Muslim community in this country, and I was delighted when the Council was established. I am also grateful to Saladiin Chaoudry, the Consul General of Pakistan, for attending.
Burnley has a long and proud history. Although it received its market charter at the end of the thirteenth century, it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the town truly began to expand – driven by the growth in coal mining, cotton manufacturing and engineering.
Burnley trebled in size in the first half of the nineteenth century, and in 1886 was officially recognised as the biggest producer of cotton cloth in the world. Burnley cloth was recognised throughout the whole world for the consistency of its quality and reliability. The decline of such industries caused real hardship for many people in Burnley, in common with the residents of other textile towns in Lancashire. It was not just about prosperity, it was also about civic pride.
There was, alas, nothing very remarkable about this. The fate of Burnley and other local towns rarely attracted national publicity. In Burnley’s case when it did, it was usually for its sporting achievements – when its football team won the FA Cup or topped the First Division.
All that changed three years ago when Burnley suffered serious disturbances that shocked us all.
As is often the case, that turned the spotlight on the town and its problems. They are serious problems. The town is home to some of the most deprived local government wards in the country. Four out of ten homes in Burnley are dependent on some kind of state benefit. Four out of ten children are eligible for free school meals. People in Burnley suffer disproportionately from ill health, high levels of teenage pregnancy and low levels of educational achievement. Death rates for cancer, heart disease and chronic respiratory problems are almost a fifth higher than our national average.
There is too much crime. According to the Burnley Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnership, violent crime, robbery and sexual offences have increased by nearly 50 per cent since 1999. And people here believe that criminals all too often escape punishment. As one teenager, Kerry Barnes, movingly wrote after the disturbances:
“We have crime all around us, and know it as a fact that the criminals will get less than five months, if they get that. We want more cameras and more police …”
The Way Forward
Burnley’s problems are serious. There are no easy answers. I have come here today to listen and to learn from local people and to pay tribute to those who have worked hard to improve matters and to bring the people of Burnley together.
The people of Burnley want what we all want – the ability to make the most of their individual talents and abilities. That means decent schools, safe streets, good healthcare, and more control over their own lives.
For too long, there has been a poverty of aspiration in our schools which has failed the people who most need help. In Burnley, while some schools have high standards, others are less good. There is a major problem of over subscription by parents for the best schools. Indeed, a couple of years ago a group of parents tried to set up their own school as an answer to this problem. They were trying to do something which the Conservative Party wants to encourage. Their experiences led them to the same conclusion that I have reached.
Most parents in Burnley, like parents all over the country, recognise that the chance of a decent education lies at the core of any community. We Conservatives want to give parents more control over their children’s education. If there was a Conservative government, it would be easier for parents to set up their own schools. It would be easier for good schools to expand to cater for the demands from parents. And it would be easier for parents to choose where to send their children to school.
Education was the ladder that helped me to fulfil my potential. For any community, education that puts discipline and rigour at its core becomes the foundation stone of achievement. It is the first step to living what I call the British Dream.
Towns like Burnley need effective policing too. The poorest in our society are the ones that suffer the most from crime. Time and again, people tell me that they want to see more policemen on their streets. That is why we are pledged to increase the number of police officers, listening to what Kerry Barnes wants.
But there is no point having more police officers if they are tied up with red tape – their time spent form filling and box ticking at the police station. Almost half a policeman’s shift is spent in the police station. And it takes three and a half hours of a policeman’s time – and often far longer – to arrest someone. Our police need to be out on the beat – working with their local communities to catch criminals and combat anti- social behaviour.
We need to free the police from the tyranny of bureaucracy that currently stops them doing their job. I was staggered to discover that detection rates for burglary in England and Wales have halved. They are now just 12 per cent – down from 23 per cent in 1997. And the percentage of convicted burglars going to prison has fallen too. If we are to cut burglary we need to ensure that persistent burglars are caught, convicted and sent to prison.
Most crimes are committed by a few persistent offenders. They repeatedly flout the law – making people’s lives a misery. Serial offenders need to be caught and taken out of circulation. The criminal gangs, who believe that they can operate beyond the law, need to be faced up to and faced down.
And as Burnley knows only too well, much crime is drug-related. That is why we are pledged to increase ten-fold the number of drug rehabilitation places and why we will force young offenders on hard drugs to go into rehabilitation.
The British National Party
Much of what I have to say today – about the need for decent schools and more effective policing – applies to communities across the country.
But there is a specific reason why I have come to Burnley. I want to address directly what I see as a stain on our democratic way of life: the British National Party. There are those who say that it is better to ignore their presence on the political stage – that talking about the BNP gives extremists the oxygen of publicity.
I do not agree. It is important for politicians from mainstream parties to face up to extremists in any form, to tell people why we disagree with them and why they should be defeated.
Let’s not mince our words. The policies of the British National Party are based on bigotry and hatred. Its approach is entirely alien to our political traditions.
Their leader, Nick Griffin, has described his party as “a strong, disciplined organisation with the ability to back up its slogan ‘Defend Rights for Whites’ with”, as he puts it, “well-directed boots and fists. When the crunch comes”, he says, “power is the product of force and will, not of rational debate”. He denies the existence of Nazi death camps and has written that he has “reached the conclusion that the ‘extermination’ tale is a mixture of Allied wartime propaganda, extremely profitable lie, and latter day witch-hysteria.”
I happen to know that he is wrong about that. My grandmother was one of the millions of people who died in those camps.
In 1998, Griffin was found guilty of distributing material likely to incite racial hatred, for which he received a two-year suspended jail sentence.
He is not alone in his Party in having criminal convictions. Tony Lecomber, the Director of Group Development, has convictions under the Explosives Act. He was also imprisoned for wounding a Jewish teacher whom he beat up on the day of the BNP’s annual conference in 1990. Other BNP activists have convictions for assault, attacks on bookshops, football violence and distributing racist literature to schoolchildren.
This is not a political movement. This is a bunch of thugs dressed up as a political party. But they have enjoyed electoral success beyond their wildest dreams. They are organised at the local level and capitalise on scare-mongering and distortion. Now, they have set their eyes on a seat in the European Parliament, something they could only hope to achieve because of our system of Proportional Representation for the European elections. PR always magnifies the opportunities for small, extremist parties, as other countries have found to their cost. That is one of the reasons why I am so resolutely opposed to it.
Imagine the shame of this great nation if Britain sends a member of the BNP to Brussels.
Diversity in Britain
The BNP preaches a message of racism, intolerance and brutality that flies in the face of this country’s history and heritage. For centuries, Britain has welcomed energetic, ambitious and optimistic people from every part of the world. My father was one of them. We are a stronger and better country, rich in our cultural diversity, because of the immigrant communities that have settled here. People of all races and religions are to be found in every walk of life, doing as well as their individual talents and efforts deserve. Many of them came to Britain and had to start again from scratch. But hard work, ingenuity and determination have propelled them forward. They are a credit to our community.
I do not see our society as a collection of minorities, but rather as a wide spectrum of individuals, all with their own talents, all British. It is in the liberation of these individual talents that society achieves its best.
Britain has an enviable record of racial integration. Over decades and centuries, this country has successfully absorbed many immigrant communities. They have held on to their traditions and culture while at the same time embracing Britain’s and playing their full role in our national life.
This country now boasts hugely successful black British and Asian British entrepreneurs, black cabinet ministers and senior black and Asian police officers. Our National Health Service depends in part on the talents of immigrants – many of the East African Asians who came here in the 1970s were GPs who have made a real contribution over the last thirty years, as have the many nurses from ethnic minority backgrounds.
In fact, we should be making even more progress than we already have. Despite the success stories, ethnic minorities are still under-represented in many of our major institutions. That, I’m sorry to say, includes the Conservative Party. But we’re doing a great deal to remedy this. Our recently-selected candidates for Conservative-held seats include Adam Afriyie in Windsor and Shailesh Vara in Cambridgeshire North West. A number of seats which we expect to win at the next election are being contested by candidates from ethnic minority backgrounds. So we too are making progress and it is very encouraging to see those who would reach the top do so on their own merits, not as a consequence of any kind of quota system.
Immigration and Asylum
Britain is refreshed and renewed by the influx of new people from all over the world. Our industries and businesses depend upon skilled labour and expertise which can often be found abroad.
But people want to know that immigration is controlled. They want to know that the asylum system is being used to protect those genuinely fleeing persecution, and not abused by those seeking a back door into Britain. You cannot have a credible immigration policy if anyone can circumvent it by entering our country illegally, uttering the words “I claim asylum” and be allowed to stay here even if they have no genuine claim.
I want to see a new approach to immigration and asylum – an approach based on clear principles. No one should be allowed to claim asylum when they reach Britain. Asylum applications will instead be processed abroad, near the claimant’s country of origin, in reception centres run by the British authorities and will be dealt with quickly. And anyone wanting to come here to work will have to apply for a work permit.
In the last few weeks I have highlighted the mounting concern about the failure of the Government to put in place arrangements to deal with immigration from those countries which will join the European Union on 1st May. The Conservative Party has always supported the enlargement of the EU to take in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe. We continue to do so. If the European Union stands for anything it is healing the divide that has scarred our continent since the Second World War.
But almost every other country in the EU has quite rightly taken the precaution of putting in place transitional arrangements to deal with immigration from the accession countries. It is still not too late for the British Government to put in place transitional arrangements as well. If we were in government, we would do so.
The Government has approached this problem in typical fashion. First it failed to address it, then it ignored it, now is it claiming to face up to it. It has called a summit to discuss it only after I raised the issue in Parliament. Yet this is a problem which it has known about for three years and which will be upon us in less than three months.
It would be a tragedy if the failure to respond to people’s concerns led to a decrease in respect for and tolerance of our immigrant communities. The answer does not lie in the false solace of extremism. The political parties that exist on the fringes of our public life offer a snake oil solution to the problems of our country. Complex issues are presented in simple fashion and brutal policies dressed up as reasonable approaches. People’s fears are played on in an unscrupulous way.
The events a fortnight ago in Morecambe Bay, which I visited yesterday, threw into sharp relief how our failed immigration policy is contributing to the growth of crime in this country, and how the victims are the very people who most need our help. It is a fact that many of the people coming to this country illegally are at the mercy of criminal gangs. There is now a network of human traffickers and gangmasters, living like parasites off human misery.
The Government refuses to acknowledge the scale and urgency of the problem. It has shown itself quite incapable of dealing with it. As a consequence, the Government is tolerating a state of affairs in which entire communities live in the shadows, beyond our reach and beyond our help.
Everything I have and everything I have achieved I owe to this country. It is a great country and we are a great people with noble traditions. We owe the people who live here and the people who settle here the opportunity to live the British Dream.
The answer does not lie with a bunch of thugs dressed up as a political party. The answer lies in mainstream politicians listening to people’s concerns. It means acting justly but decisively on issues such as immigration. And it means providing people, in Burnley and elsewhere, with the opportunity to better themselves, by providing them with safety and security and by removing the obstacles that prevent them getting on.
My task is to show the British people that there is a better way. A better way that gives them back control. A better way that makes it easier for them to fulfil their potential. A better way to make the most of their lives.
That is the responsibility I shall continue to discharge as my party truly becomes a party for all Britain and for all Britons.