Chris Huhne – 2008 Speech to Liberal Democrat Conference


Below is the text of the speech made by Chris Huhne on 16th September 2008 to the Liberal Democrat Conference in Bournemouth.

Conference, there is a Tory and Labour conspiracy on crime.

Both are guilty of putting forward measures to tackle crime that are ineffective or even counter-productive.

These parties are not tough on crime. They are soft on hard thinking and tough choices. Just as our party has changed the public debate on climate change, we need to change the debate on crime and punishment.

We need a new consensus on what works, not what titillates the tabloids.

We need common sense not sensationalism. That’s why we proposed on Sunday a National Crime Reduction Agency to report on the evidence of what works in justice and policing as thoroughly as we assess medicines in the health service.

Instead, we now have a crime debate totally removed from reality.

Take an example in July. A Labour Home Secretary announced she would march young offenders into hospital to see the consequences of violence. She ignored the evidence from the United States that such programmes do not cut crime, but put it up. Four days later, she ditched the idea.

Or take David Cameron. He knows that you can get four years in jail for just carrying a knife, but he thinks that judges tiptoe around knife crime. So he wants to send every knife carrier to prison automatically.

Just a small problem. If he did, the prison population would nearly quadruple. The basic rate of income tax would go up by a penny in the pound.

Oh, and another problem. The evidence shows it wouldn’t work.

What works is visible policing to reassure people they do not need to carry a knife. Intelligence led stop and search of hot spots to catch knife carriers. Working with the local community to gather leads and encourage witnesses. Telling it how it is in schools and colleges. Taking back control of the streets.

But Labour and the Tories are addicted to punishment posturing, and that means legislative diarrhoea as a substitute for enforcing the law that we have. In their first decade in government, Labour’s new legislation takes the same amount of shelf space as 200 copies of War and Peace.

And it is twice as heavy as John Prescott. Labour has introduced 3,600 new criminal offences since 1997 even though nearly every offence that people care about has been illegal for years.

My favourite is a new offence which shows ministers getting really tough. You will be relieved to hear that it is now against the law to set off nuclear explosions.

Labour and the Tories have pretended that prison is the most effective way of deterring crime. They say that if someone is locked up, they cannot offend. But that ignores the fact that prisoners leave when they serve their time.

The whole point of prison ought to be to stop people reoffending. But if you put a young man into prison for the first time, there is a 92 per cent chance he will offend again. Our prisons are colleges of crime.

If prison works so well, why has crime gone down in Denmark while the number of prisoners has gone down? Why has crime fallen in Canada when the prison population is the same? The Government’s own top-notch research found no evidence that tougher penalties deterred crime.

Let’s be clear. We need prison for serious offenders and for serial offences. But we need reformed prisons that educate, occupy and prepare prisoners for life outside.

There’s another reason why prison does not work well. It is because so few people are caught. For every hundred crimes committed in Britain today, just one criminal will end up with a conviction in a court of law. That’s a 99 per cent chance of getting away with it. And if you don’t catch offenders, no amount of threatening punishments will work.

So if we want to cut crime, we should stop posturing about penalties because they are tough enough. The answer’s simple. Catch criminals to cut crime.

Yet Labour, like the Tories, has done the opposite of what works. The average prison sentence has gone up – that the ineffective bit that does not work. Meanwhile, the key factor that does work – the detection rate for crime – has fallen by nearly a fifth since the end of the eighties.

If the prison population was still the same as when crime peaked in 1996, there would be enough cash for 25,000 extra police officers. If the ID card scheme were scrapped, we could hire a further 10,000 police. That’s 35,000 extra police officers – a quarter extra – on the streets catching criminals and cutting crime.

Of course, more does not always mean better. Year after year, Labour and the Tories have ducked the tough choices on police reform. Sheehy, Flanagan, HM Inspectors’ reports. All have come and gone.

We need more police, but better policing too. Detection rates even for serious offences vary widely. For violent crime, just a third of recorded offences are detected in London compared with two thirds in North Yorkshire.

Spreading best practice would mean more detection. And more detection would mean less crime. Detection works.

That is why police performance matters. Poor performance is not tackled strongly enough. A senior police officer who has lost motivation is usually left alone. That’s not good for morale. It is not good for ambitious young officers to see deadwood prosper. The force needs to be able properly to reward not just time served, but effort, talent and skills.

Worst of all, police pay has become a political football. Police officers cannot by law strike. They suffer the same squeeze on pay and costs as the rest of us, but they cannot get a second job without their Chief Constable’s permission. In exchange for those restrictions, ministers must accept the recommendations of the independent police pay tribunal. Police need a pay system which is fair, independent and respected.

And we need local policing. The Tories and Labour have set central targets that meddle, but do not deliver. They have distorted local priorities. By awarding the same points for minor and serious crimes, they have sucked thousands unnecessarily into the criminal justice system.

Central targets mean wasted effort and resources chasing the wrong priorities, which is why they must go. We need local accountability to local people with the powers to set local priorities. If local people do not like the results, they can get rid of the decision-makers.

If the Liberal Democrats did not exist, all there would be on crime and justice from the Tories and Labour would be show-boating and grand-standing.

And if the Liberal Democrats did not exist, who would stand up for civil liberties? Not the so-called liberal Conservatives, who just this summer have called for tougher bail conditions, automatic sentences for knife-carrying, more prisons, and the removal of checks on police surveillance. I just hope the Conservatives can still be relied upon to vote against more detention without trial or ID cards. Goodbye David Davis, it was nice knowing you.

And if the Liberal Democrats did not exist, who would rebuild our fading democracy? Not David Cameron, who has gone strangely quiet on constitutional change. I’ve got a challenge for you David, Do you even stand by your commitment in your leadership campaign to fixed term parliaments?

And if the Liberal Democrats did not exist, who would stand up for our children’s future in a time of climate change? Not the green Tories. The first thing Boris Johnson did when he became London’s mayor was ditch green taxes on the biggest cars. As for George Osborne, he has already ditched green taxes in favour of cutting petrol taxes. Not the planet’s champion, but the gas guzzler’s friend.

And if the Liberal Democrats did not exist, who would stand up for fairness? Not Labour, who thought it was a good idea to increase income tax on the worst off to give better-off taxpayers a cut. And not the Conservatives either, whatever they now pretend. David Cameron and George Osborne both abstained on Labour’s budget. Remember their first tax cut promise? Abolishing stamp duty on share dealing for their friends in the City. And their second was a cut in inheritance tax for households with £2 million.

We are now told that David Cameron and George Osborne were idealistic young people who cared about fairness. Perhaps they agonised over their options as they adjusted their fancy tailcoats – mirror, mirror on the wall, which party is the fairest of them all? Tory, Lib Dem or Labour?

Well, when young David and young George were wondering which party to join, we had a Conservative government. For eighteen years. And during that period the poor got poorer and the rich got richer, and the gap got wider. And the reason was not some force of nature, but Tory policy decisions that were hard-nosed, sharp-eyed and mean-minded.

A Tory decision to scrap the link between pensions and earnings. Result? More pensioner poverty.

A Tory decision to scrap the uprating of out of work and in work benefits. Result? More working poverty.

A Tory decision to scrap the uprating of child benefit. Result? More child poverty.

These chaps are not stupid, so why do they think we were born yesterday?

George Osborne will go fair when George Bush goes green. Fairness will be a Tory value when hell freezes over, Notting Hill becomes a workers’ republic, and the Bullingdon club affiliates to the Socialist International.

I’ve got news for David Cameron. You don’t make society fairer by hoping for it, or by talking about it. You can only make society fairer by helping the poor and the powerless, and that means giving them more money and more power over their own lives.

And I’ve got a challenge for David Cameron. Name a single period of Conservative government when Britain has become more equal. Name a single Conservative measure which even helped.

David Cameron, like Tony Blair, wants to be all things to all people. Tories would have us believe they are the party of the environment, and of owners of big cars. Of  traditional values, and of change. Of equality, and of lower taxes on the best off. Of liberty, and of removing checks on police surveillance. Of European membership for Georgia, and of pulling out of Europe’s social chapter for us. If politics is about making tough choices, the Tory party is about ducking hard decisions. A party which has every priority is a party that has none. A party with no heart, no core values and no direction.

There’s only one party committed to the environment, and always has been. Only one party committed to civil liberties, and always was. Only one party committed to fairness. Only one party committed to handing power back to the people. And only one party for building a world based on the rule of law not the law of the jungle.

Conference, Labour can’t deliver the change that our nation needs. The Conservatives won’t. Only the Liberal Democrats will.