Mark Oaten – 2005 Speech to Liberal Democrat Conference

Below is the text of the then Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesman, Mark Oaten, at the 2005 Liberal Democrat Conference in Blackpool on 21st September 2005.

On the 8th of July, a journalist came up to me and asked if it was difficult time to be a liberal.

I had no hesitation in saying no. Why? Because it’s never been more important to be a liberal than today.

Never more important to speak up for freedom.

Never more important to speak up for justice.

Never more important to make sure the terrorists don’t change our way of life.

I am proud to be a liberal in these difficult times because I know our values are the values that can defeat terrorists.

But conference as a party we must recognise the ways in which these events in July have changed our country.

We face an evil enemy.

An enemy where 4 young men are so dedicated to their appalling cause that they are prepared to kill themselves and others.

So we must take steps to stop these terrorists and in doing so protect our freedom – the freedom to live our lives without fear of bombs and attacks.

That is why I want to speak to you today about the new anti-terror laws and  about our vision for stronger communities

Charles Kennedy and I, in the weeks after July, felt that if possible the political parties should seek consensus.  We agreed to support three measures that have been put forward by the Home Secretary:

Making it an offence to train terrorists; to prepare for a terrorist attack; and to incite terrorist activity.

Now we know the measures on indirect incitement will be hard to draft – they must be robust enough to work in court, but not so wide that they are open to abuse.

But – last week the Home Secretary went further and in doing so has tested the growing consensus and created two new measures we can’t support.

We can’t support a wide and vague offence that allows glorification of terror to become a crime. What on earth does that mean. One person’s terrorist is another freedom fighter. This is a dangerous proposal, hard to define in theory, unworkable in practice, and putting freedom of speech at risk.

And we can’t support plans to hold people for three months without charge. The case is simply not made.

Let me be clear Liberal Democrats will not support what amounts to a new policy of internment.

Labour tells us we must give up our hard-fought civil liberties in exchange for more security.

But, conference, if we abandon traditions and values like the right to a fair trial, we are abandoning our identity.

If we give up the fundamental principles of justice, we are giving in to the terrorists.

And if we sacrifice our liberal society we will be weaker, not stronger.

So conference,  measures on terrorism will have our support.

But here are our conditions.

First, measures must be effective and necessary and not just showpiece.

Second, they should not encroach on our values and principles of justice.

Third, they should be subject to full Parliamentary scrutiny – because we know that rushed laws are bad laws.

So conference, today we send a message to the Home Secretary:

Yes, we will work with you.

But we will also defend the rights and liberties of the country.

There will be no blank cheque from the Liberal Democrats.

I also want to say a word about the victims of that outrage in July.

Hardly talked about these days.

Victims who may have to wait 15 months for compensation.

Many face expensive bills as they can no longer work.  Many require specialist treatment for the loss of limbs and need money to adapt their homes to cope with their new disability.

This literally adds insult to inquiry.

So today I call on the government to speed this up and may quick and fair payments.

It is the very least we can do.

But we don’t solve terrorism with new laws alone.

You bury your head in the sand if you do not ask uncomfortable questions.

So much of Labour’s response to the events of 7th July has focused on deportation that you would be forgiven for thinking the bombers were foreign.

They weren’t.  They were British – born and bred.  Britain created them.  And they turned on us.

But why?

Britain is home to and enriched by the contributions of a hundred different cultures. In the aftermath of the bombings the vast majority of Britons refused to be divided.

And that is a great tribute to the British tradition of tolerance.

But we cannot ignore the upsurge in racially and religiously motivated violence that British Muslims have suffered in recent weeks.

These communities are our communities.  We must stand united against those who seek to attack them.

Neither can we ignore the deep anger that is felt across the Muslim community about the war in Iraq.

Let me be clear. We should not be ashamed to point to that link. By doing so we  begin to understand the causes.  And if Mr Blair wants to understand terrorism and work with the Muslim community, he needs to acknowledge that link too.

But there are other ways in which we can combat the long-term causes of division in our country.

It often seems that, in this country, rather than creating a melting pot, we have created a mosaic society.  From a distance, it looks healthy enough.  Get up close, and you start to see the gaps.

A society in which communities co-exist, yet lead parallel lives – a community of communities, too often unaware to the concerns and realities of their fellow Britons.

Just because several communities live within one of our cities, it doesn’t mean that the city is multicultural.  Not if they live separate lives, in separate parts of the city, never meeting or mixing.

Terrorism plays on these gaps in our society.

On our ignorance of each other’s way of life.

On our lack of confidence as a society about who we are and what we stand for.

If we want to create a safer society then it is our job to address these problems.

We must work to address the genuine concerns, which exist throughout our country, about the state of multiculturalism.

We must make New Britons feel that this is their society. That it is a society in which they and their families will be able to fulfil their potential.  And we must in particular address the appalling deprivation experienced by second, third and fourth generation Muslims.

We must, as a political party, do more to encourage greater participation in the political process.

Following the July bombings I remember waking up and watching Breakfast TV. Three young Muslim men were being interviewed – they were passionate, articulate and enthusiastic. These people would make great champions of their communities.  As a party we must do more to get them involved – standing for councils, standing for Parliament and representing our country.

So whilst we seek to try and unite our parties on terrorism, there is much that separates us from New Labour, and in particular Charles Clarke.

In a recent interview, he said: “I don’t like liberals. I am not soft. I am neither woolly or liberal or a woolly liberal. I have never been liberal in my life. I don’t like liberal with a capital L or a small l” !!!

Well Mr Clarke, I’ve got a message for you from conference. Here, we’ve always been liberals, we are liberals, and we always will be liberals. Big L, small, L medium sized L?

And we’re proud to be liberal.

But you know, I think perhaps he protests just a little too much. There’s a liberal in him somewhere, just fighting to get out.

After all, he’s the one with the beard, not me.

And as far as “soft liberal” goes. No way. I’m not having that.

There is nothing soft about our liberalism, last year I argued that our liberalism was tough, tough Liberalism. Tough because our solutions are not quick fix solutions. Tough because are solutions can take longer, tough because they are harder on the individual it is aimed at but, and here’s the point – its more effective in the long run.

And I get annoyed when the media ask if this left or right- when they ask about our future direction.  Our new policies for the future should come from one set of values alone- liberal values.

We are 21st century liberals with ideas for the future and today I want to set out some new ideas on tackling crime in this country.  Ideas on Prison, Police and Respect.

I believe now is the time for the most radical reform of prisons this country has ever seen. Prisons in this country are an national disgrace.

Crumbling Victorian buildings.

Cramped over crowded prison cells.

The highest prison population in Europe.

Already in this year alone 60 prisoners have committed suicide.

Drugs are freely available.

8,000 prisoners have serious mental health problems.

And within 2 years of release, 59% of prisoners are back in court with another addition to their criminal record.

The consequences of which mean more crimes and victims and more people whose lives should have been turned round by prison end up turning straight back into prison.

So here’s a different way forward, a tough way forward and a liberal way forward. Getting prisoners out of the cells and into the classroom. Teaching them skills to read and write. Investing in training and proper backup and support on release.

But I’d like to go further than just reforming the prisons themselves. A negative culture is built into the very bricks of our older jails.  Charles Clarke wants to re name them as community prisons- but you don’t get change with just a new name.

Now is the time for these crumbling prisons to be knocked down and for new modern secure units to be built. So the next generation of young criminals experience a tough regime in these centres which will prevent them from committing crimes in the future and end the revolving door of re-offending.

Education – rehabiliation- a liberal solution

I believe these reforms could drastically cut crime in this country. But we also need a strong, well-resourced police force to tackle that as well. I believe we have one of the best police forces in the world. But lets as a party have an ambition to make it the very best in the world. Properly resourced, properly accountable and with the tools to tackle the problems from international terrorism and street vandalism at the same time.

At the last election we talked about a technological revolution. Techno cop not paperclip cop – was all about giving police 21st century equipment to tackle 21st century crime.

But I want to go further today and suggest that police become more accountable to local communities and become more open to the outside in meeting their difficult challenges.

Two weeks ago I visited the NYPD – I’ll admit not natural ground for liberal thinking, but I was taken with the way the police in NY had been revitalised by bringing in officers with non-police backgrounds. Why is it that people that have run large hospitals, companies and charities, people who are experts in intelligence and investigation, are excluded from senior positions in the force?

We need to move away from the position where all our senior police officers started as bobbies on the beat.

We must encourage fresh ideas but let’s not restructure just for the sake of it. On Monday the Home Secretary announced plans to merge and abolish some of our police forces.

We should be making them more local, not more distant. People want to have the confidence that police know the area, that Chief Constables will visit and know every town and village in their area.

So we say keep the forces as they are but provide a national resources unit with senior officers and experts to provide back up in complex cases.

So Home Office – hands of our local forces- lets keep them as they are.  We don’t want Clarke police, we want community police.  And that’s a liberal solution.

Let’s go out and campaign to keep our local forces.

But prison and police are about when its gone wrong.

What about stopping crime in the first place?

Labour’s solution is always the nanny solution. A new law here, a regulation there. A ban today and a dispersal order tomorrow. It’s an alphabet of mismanagement.

A is for ASBO

B is for banning

C is for curfew

D is for dispersal order

But it’s all about E

E for elections.

The problems of anti social behaviour-  the respect agenda – are not going to be solved by focusing simply on the symptoms and not the causes.

That’s why our support for ASBOS is limited as they are quick fix solutions.  Our policy of ASBOS plus- which links punishment with measures to tackle the problems is more effective

And as for respect- well you don’t create respect by banning hoodies in town centres.

That is Labour’s answer, not ours.

Conference, we must do better.  We know that society has changed.  Longer working hours, more time spent commuting and sitting in front of the TV, less time with the kids, more families splitting up.

We’re less likely to chat to the neighbours over the garden fence.  We’re more likely to put up a taller fence so we don’t have to talk to them in the first place.

Conference, we didn’t come into politics to watch British society become a society of strangers.

We need new ways of knitting communities together.  New ways of building bridges between individuals and between the generations.  And new ways of inspiring our young people and showing them that there is so much more to life.

As Liberal Democrats have been good at talking about freedom from oppression, regulation and conformity.

But we have not been good at articulating a vision of our ambitions for individuals and communities.

Liberal Democrats have always understood that strong families and strong communities matter. This is our natural terroritory.  We should reclaim it.

Charles Kennedy has asked Ed Davey, our education spokesman, to join with me in putting forward measures to link education and community to help tackle this. We will be reporting to the spring conference.

But it strikes me there is a golden opportunity to re think the end of the academic year. At 16 all the focus and money we spend is aimed at passing exams.

Imagine this. A scheme which allowed all 16 year olds the opportunity to spend a month away from home, in different communities, volunteering for one of hundreds of different projects. To take a 16 year old, perhaps for the first time, away from his estate or troublesome peer group could create enormous opportunities.

Because we should remember that not every child has the opportunity of  a gap year

And we should use sport to achieve much more. Our Olympic bid success can be used to help a generation. Imagine every child with access to a sports academy place learning team spirit and healthy activity.

So conference, in the months ahead we have much to do. As the Conservatives tie themselves up in yet another attempt to find a new leader, it will be left to us to make the case for police reform to keep local forces working with the community at the heart of tackling crime.

It will be us who will continue to demand a prison service fit for the 21st century, that goes beyond punishment and actually rehabilitates offenders.

It will be us who will develop the long term solutions for tackling today’s problems with anti social behaviour – giving as well as expecting respect from the younger generation.

And above all, as terrorism legislation begins its passage through parliament, it will be left to us to defend the values of justice and freedom – the values of our party – the values that make us proud to be Liberal Democrats.