Oliver Letwin – 2003 Speech at Conservative Spring Conference

Below is the text of the speech made by Oliver Letwin at the 2003 Conservative Spring Conference on 16th March 2003.

On our minds today, we have two great matters: the war with Iraq and the threat of terrorism in this country. But we cannot allow these matters to prevent us from considering the abiding problems of our society – in particular, the problems of crime and disorder. Just as Rab Butler took his great Education Act through Parliament in 1944, against the backdrop of war, so, we, today, must attend to the nature of our society, notwithstanding the dangers in which we find ourselves.

2003 did not begin well for Britain.

It began with a tragedy.

On New Years Day two teenage cousins Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis – out at a party in Birmingham – died in a hail of sub machinegun fire.

Alas, this was not an isolated incident.

Gun crime has risen; violent crime has risen; burglary has risen; drug offences have risen; and criminals contemplating a crime know they have only a 3% chance of being caught and convicted.

In almost every sphere of criminality it is the criminal that is winning.

What kind of country are we now becoming?

We are facing a retreat from civilised values.

Things happened yesterday that didn’t happen last year. Things happened last year that didn’t happen ten years ago.

First fists, then knives, then guns. First pot, then smack, then crack. First cities, then towns, then villages. First men, then women, and then children.

Only a few years ago we were worried about knives. Now we are worried about sub machine guns.

In some of our inner city estates, those who can get out do so. The poor, the old, the weak retreat from parks and playgrounds, from streets and shopping areas to live behind closed doors.

But, despite this crisis of criminality, despite the retreat from civilisation that is occurring in many of our most vulnerable neighbourhoods, I am still optimistic we can turn back the tide.

Across the country, I have met and seen remarkable individuals who are determined to reduce crime on their estates.

These are individuals who refuse to give up. We Conservatives must do everything we can to support them.

I want to tell you this morning about some of these people.

Recently, I visited Handsworth in Birmingham where I met two groups, Parents United and the Partnership Against Crime. These groups were set up in response to the shootings in Aston. They are determined to work with local churches to draw their young people away from the gun culture and off the conveyer belt to crime.

They are doing everything possible to ensure that the tragedy that befell the families of Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis does not happen to another family.

Recently I also went to the Clarence Way Estate in Camden, North London. This is an Estate riddled with drug users, dealers and drug related prostitution. Residents often have to step through needles, excrement and vomit just to get out of their front door. Young children see addicts injecting in front of them on their way to school, as often as other luckier children might see their friends on swings in a park.

The whole Estate has just one part time WPC who manages to patrol every Tuesday, Wednesday and every other Saturday. I doubt that the drug-dealers wait politely to let her arrest them when she arrives!

I am not sure that the drug dealers regard the police as having a right to be on the estate. When I was there, I saw at first hand drug addicts waiting for their next drop and dealers providing it. They even shouted at us to move on as we were on their “territory”.

I was told of a man who lives in the block and is a leaseholder. He hasn’ t seen his daughter for three years because she is too afraid to make her way through the drug addicts on every corner. He has had excrement and firebombs put through his letterbox because he had the temerity to ask the drug addicts to get away from the outside of his front door. The police couldn’t deal with it because they were tied up with other crimes in the area, or as it was described “with paperwork”.

Mental torture is not too strong a term for this man who suffers day in, day out, for months, for years.

This is an Estate which has been virtually taken over by the forces of criminality…

Almost.

I say “almost” because of the efforts of a remarkable woman, Silla Carron who lives on the Estate.

Almost single handedly she has worked hard to make her Estate a better place to live. She has established a Tenants Association and she has organised petitions for more police on her Estate. Through vigorous campaigning she has secured funding for a dog patrol that provides some safety on the estate.

When Silla Carron decided to do something about her estate, nobody told her to do this.

She did it out of a sense of service and responsibility to her family and neighbours.

You can’t teach good neighbourliness from on high or for that matter from Downing Street.

This is something the Home Secretary doesn’t understand. He is well intentioned. He talks tough. But he delivers very little.

Every time there is a crisis, every criminal outrage we face, Mr Blunkett responds with initiatives and targets, ably designed to create favourable newspaper headlines to show that he is doing something.

He thinks that every problem can be controlled by pressing buttons at his desk in Queen Anne’s Gate.

But, what is really needed, is to find ways to encourage and motivate the networks of individuals, families and community associations that are doing their best to keep their neighbourly society alive.

Over 5 years we have had over sixteen Criminal Justice Bills and over 100 initiatives. We have had targets galore. But the targets have not been met. Targets for recorded crime, for class A drugs and for reducing robbery have been missed. Other targets on drugs, vehicle crime, burglary and asylum have gone missing altogether.

Then there are the inevitable “summits” at the Home Office and Downing Street.

An American philosopher George Santayana once said:

“trust the man who hesitates in his speech and is quick and steady in action. But beware of long arguments and long beards”.

Thinking of David Blunkett, I agree.

It is time he was reminded of that old proverb “saying is one thing, doing another”.

All this tough talk by the Home Secretary impresses for a while. The problem is that the failure to deliver in the long run breeds at best cynicism and at worse despair.

If we are not careful, the public will turn away from traditional politicians to local, dangerous extremists whose only appeal is that they are ‘outsiders’ and offer quick and simplistic solutions. Their success will cause immense damage to the fabric of our society.

That is why all of us have to work hard to ensure that the success of the BNP in some towns in the North is not replicated across the country.

We face the threat of ever growing apathy and of ever-decreasing turnouts at elections. We face the danger of ever-increasing support for the kind of people who want to make this country a nasty and brutish place to live.

We must not and we will not allow the contrast between rhetoric and the Government’s reality to be exploited by such people.

Nowhere is that contrast between rhetoric and reality greater than in the case of asylum.

Britain has lost control of her borders. Last year a record 110,000 people sought asylum here – the highest number in Europe. Of these, just 8,000 and their dependents were judged to be genuine refugees.

Yet of the tens of thousands who were turned down, a mere 3,000 were removed from the country.

The whole system is in chaos.

David Blunkett’s response to this problem has been the same again: talk tough but do very little.

Now we have the implausible spectacle of the Prime Minister, clearly under pressure, pledging to halve the numbers of asylum seekers by September. Unless the Government intend to manipulate the statistics by issuing in-country work permits or visas without restrictions on work to people who would otherwise claim asylum, this is a very rash promise indeed.

A future Conservative Government will scrap our entire asylum system.

We will replace it with a system of rational quotas for genuine refugees. We will accept around 20,000 refugees in a quota identified offshore with the help of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. That 20,000 is larger than the number of genuine refugees admitted each year at present, but only one-fifth of the number of people currently using our asylum system to enter the country.

Conservatives are determined to end the asylum chaos. We can no longer tolerate a system in which the genuine refugee, sometimes suffering from the most horrific persecution, is pushed way down the queue by those who are brought here frequently by people traffickers, to seek economic security.

We can no longer support a system on which the taxpayer is spending £1,800 million a year. The quota system eliminates the need for asylum centres and costly processing. There will be no need for processing here because those within the quota will already have been identified as genuine refugees in refugee camps overseas. All those who arrive illegally and outside the quota will be removed. Our scarce financial resources could be better spent elsewhere.

And I have a clear idea – which I am glad to say I share with the Shadow Chancellor – about where the money we save on the asylum system could and should be spent.

We will spend it on the police.

I know very well that policing is not the whole answer to the breakdown of order.

That is why we have set out a range of policies that will offer long-term solutions to crime rather than quick fixes.

For over fifteen months we have been meeting and consulting with hundreds of experts and practitioners in the field. We have travelled to America and countries across Europe visiting prisons, young offenders institutions, drug offender projects and neighbourhood policing schemes. In Bournemouth last October I set out to you the direction of our policy.

We are determined to tackle crime at its source by lifting young people off the Conveyer Belt to Crime. We will intervene early when children show signs of disruptive behaviour, giving support to parents struggling to provide necessary authority and guidance. We will tackle persistent young offenders by providing for longer but more constructive custodial sentences, in which there is an intensive effort to rehabilitate and in which support continues long after they have been released. And we will focus effort on getting children off heroin and crack cocaine, providing a choice for every addict between compulsory, intensive treatment and rehabilitation or the penal system.

But before we can do any of these things effectively, we have to reclaim our streets for the honest citizen.

We have to ensure that once again police become the custodians of our neighbourhoods and the guarantors of authority and order.

We can do this only by putting police on the streets where they can apprehend criminals and deal with social disorder.

Often politicians promise more police on the beat but the reality is empty. The Government have been doing this for the past six years.

It is time for real policemen and real neighbourhood policing.

That is why I make this pledge to you today that the next Conservative Government will increase police numbers by 40,000.

That is 5,000 extra police officers a year over eight years.

This commitment will cost money.

For those of you wondering where we will get the money from, let me reassure you: I have never been a serial spender! And I do not intend to start now.

As I mentioned to you a moment ago, Britain pays a heavy price for the shambles on asylum.

Total spending on asylum seekers is now – I remind you – £1.8 billion a year. This is a crazy figure given that most of the cash goes on those who are not genuine refugees.

Were we to have an efficient and working system we could make significant savings on this amount and spend it where it is needed the most: waging the battle against ever rising crime by having tens of thousands more policemen on our streets.

Our strict quota system for refugees will in due course save more than £1.3 billion a year. We know that, because the Australian quota system shows how much such an arrangement costs.

These savings will allow us to provide 5,000 extra police officers a year, starting one year into the next Conservative Government. And amazingly enough we will have money left in the bank.

Our proposals will enable our chief constables to put police officers back onto the streets in every Parish and neighbourhood across Britain.

A long time ago, the Prime Minister promised to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime.

The truth is that under Labour there has been very little serious, concerted and effective action to achieve a long-term change in the level of crime.

There are no coherent and focused programmes to take young people off the conveyer belt to crime. There are no substantive measures to get people off hard drugs. There are no efforts to recapture the streets through real and sustained neighbourhood policing.

The Government have missed an opportunity to get to grips with crime.

It is time to offer a real alternative.