Michael Howard – 2004 Speech to Welsh Conservative Conference


Below is the text of the speech made by the then Leader of the Opposition, Michael Howard, to the 2004 Welsh Conservative Party Conference on 5th April 2004.

Bore da I Chi Gyd.

It’s very good to be back here in Wales.

I’m very proud to call myself a Welshman. Growing up in Wales gave me the confidence to go out and make my way in the world. We are a confident and ambitious people, loyal and steadfast but also adventurous and bold.

I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone here who works so hard for the Conservatives in Wales. Bill Wiggin, our excellent shadow secretary of state. Nick Bourne and his team, officially the hardest working Assembly Members in Wales. And our local councillors and activists.

One of the greatest attractions here in Llandudno is “The Alice in Wonderland Centre”. It was built in honour of Lewis Carroll, who often came here on holiday.

Labour live in their own version of wonderland.

They came to power with a golden economic legacy, a huge majority and the overwhelming trust of the British public. People genuinely believed things could only get better.

Labour could have achieved so much. But they have achieved so little.

Labour have had seven years to make things better. But what difference have they really made? Far too many children still leave school unable to read, write and add up properly. Too many elderly people still suffer the indignity of mixed sex wards. And too many of our neighbourhoods are still terrorised by young tearaways.

Labour have let you down.

In 1996, Tony Blair promised that Labour would not put up taxes.

But in Britain today, people are paying much more in tax than they did when Labour came to office.

Gordon Brown – the Clickety Click Chancellor – has imposed 66 new taxes since 1997.

We’re paying almost £42 a week more in tax for every man, woman and child in the country. That’s £5000 more a household a year.

And British business is now paying an extra £15 billion a year in taxes and red tape.

Last month’s Budget made Third Term Tax Rises inevitable if Labour wins the next election.

But despite all these tax rises, Labour hasn’t delivered the improvements to our public services that they promised.

Labour have let you down.

In Britain today, despite a 37.5 per cent increase in health funding, hospital treatments have increased by less than 5 per cent. In Wales, waiting lists have almost doubled#. One in ten people in Wales is waiting for an appointment. Almost 12,000 of them have waited more than 18 months.

In Britain today, despite a 65 per cent cash increase in education funding, more than a million children play truant from school. And one in three leave primary school unable to read and write properly.

In Wales, schools are closing and targets are not being met. The party that promised “education, education, education” has delivered “closures, truancy, illiteracy”.

In Britain today, despite an 85 per cent cash increase in spending on crime reduction, crime is on the increase. Serious violence and anti-social behaviour, once a rarity, are now commonplace. There were a million violent crimes in Britain last year. In Wales, violent crime has gone up by a half and last year more than one in every hundred Welsh homes was broken into.

So where has all the money gone? All that spending. All that taxing. All that borrowing. What’s happened to it?

Sadly, so much of it has just been wasted.

If you seek monuments to Labour’s waste, all you have to do is look around.

The Dome. £750 million.

The London Assembly building. £100 million.

The Scottish Parliament. £430 million and rising.

The Welsh Assembly building. £55 million and rising, four times more than planned.

I know that house prices have gone up since Labour came to office. But this is ridiculous!

And they’re spending another £6 million – on the furniture! They’re certainly not sensible enough to get it from somewhere like Happy Home Furnishers!

Labour are also spending more and more on bureaucracy. In Britain as a whole they are hiring 511 extra civil servants every week. That’s right, 511.

In Wales, the cost of employing the civil service has increased by a third, to almost £90 million. That’s enough money to pay for four children’s hospitals or to employ 700 consultants.

There are now more bureaucrats in the Welsh health department than there are practice nurses in GP surgeries.

In last month’s Budget, Gordon Brown claimed he was going to tackle waste and bureaucracy. He claimed he would cut the number of bureaucrats by 40,000 over the next four years. The trouble is he’s hired 40,000 more in the last three years! Talk about boom and bust!

Sometimes, just sometimes, I think that Tony Blair understands why his government is failing. Sometimes, just sometimes, I think he understands why, despite the largest peace time majority in living memory, he has utterly failed to make the changes that our country so desperately needs.

But however much he understands, he will never succeed. He can’t succeed because when push comes to shove he is a Labour Prime Minister. His party won’t let him. The trade unions won’t let him. And Gordon Brown won’t let him.

Unlike Labour our party is open-minded, not dogmatic.

I have spent a lot of time recently outside London – talking to people, listening to people, learning about their concerns.

They tell me how fed up they feel when they see government wasting the money they have worked so hard to earn.

They tell me how angry they are when they see criminals treated like victims and victims treated like criminals.

And they tell me how insecure they feel when they see that Labour has lost control of Britain’s borders.

Labour have let people down. The Conservatives will stand up for people.

We want to reward the people who do the right thing – those who work hard for their families, who save for their future, who give back to society.

We will get a grip on government. We’ll cut waste and regulation. And we will stop Labour’s Third Term Tax Rises.

Taxes in Britain are too high. We want people to keep more of the money they earn because we believe they are better at spending it than politicians. Goodness knows, we’ve learnt that lesson in Wales.

And we understand that low tax economies are the most successful economies. They create more jobs, attract more investment, make people wealthier.

I don’t apologise for my ambition to take less of your money. And I will not be put off by Labour’s scare tactics. As Conservative councils up and down the country have shown, you can have lower taxes and deliver first class public services. Because we know that real improvement in public services doesn’t come just from investment. It comes from genuine reform.

In most other European countries, people don’t have to put up with what we have to put up with in Britain. It makes me angry that in this country people die of diseases they would not die of if they lived across the channel.

In Germany, there are no waiting lists.

In France, people are free to consult whatever doctor they like.

And in Denmark, people can choose any hospital they want to go to for an operation.

In Britain today it’s people with money that get better education and better healthcare. Because they have choice. In other countries, every one has choice, which is why their standards are higher than ours.

I want to give choice to all, not just those with the money to buy it. You shouldn’t have to pay more for choice. I want to end a world where people have to shut up and take what they’re given.

That is why our patient’s passport is such a sensible and refreshing idea. For the first time, the patient will choose. They can choose their local hospital. Or the hospital nearest their family. Or the hospital that can treat them the quickest.

Labour hate our proposal. They have attacked it and distorted it. They can’t stand the idea of people having choice. They think people should have to do what they are told. Labour still believe that big government knows best.

Labour still don’t understand choice. And choice is the key to better standards in our hospitals and in our schools.

Education is at the heart of our success as a nation. In an increasingly global economy, we need to give our children the best possible education to help them compete in the modern world. So we need teaching that is rigorous, that suits every child’s talents, that helps people to achieve their best.

The best schools, whether state or private, selective or comprehensive, offer the things which every parent has the right to expect for their child – discipline and the pursuit of excellence.

No-one can learn – and few can teach – in an atmosphere where shouting, loutishness and violence prevail. So we will make it an absolute priority to give teachers control over their classrooms. Heads will have the final say over expulsions. Schools should be allowed to offer legally-enforceable, tough home-school contracts, giving teachers the clear right to impose discipline.

Our education passport will give parents a choice as to where their children are educated, and make it easier for popular and successful schools to expand – even to take over neighbouring schools. This will give opportunities to thousands of children. The opportunity to find out what it is that they can do best and develop the talent to realise their dreams.

People want security in their lives too. They want to know that their children will be well educated. They want to know that their relatives will be cared for if they fall ill.

And they want to know that they can walk their streets in safety. Labour have lost control of crime. The most important duty of any government is to provide security for its citizens. I understood that when I was Home Secretary. And I am proud of the fact that there were nearly a million fewer crimes when I left office than when I took up my post.

Cutting crime will be a major priority for us. Using significant reductions in the cost of the asylum and immigration system, we will recruit 5000 more police officers each year – 40,000 more over eight years, 2000 of them here in Wales. It should be the mugger who lives in fear, not the elderly lady walking home from the shops.

People want our borders to be secure too. I know that Britain has benefited hugely from the immigrant communities that have settled here over the years.

But immigration must be controlled. And Labour have lost control of our borders. Their policy is a complete shambles. Only this week, we found out – through leaks of course – that Labour have waved through thousands of immigration applications without checks of any kind. Waved them through against the advice of their own diplomats on the ground.

Officials have been calling for action for more than a year. But Ministers sat on their hands. Officials saw their concerns ignored, their warnings unheeded, their objections overruled.

It has been a scandal.

A scandal that officials have had to work under an intolerable burden.

A scandal that sham applications – from one-legged roof tilers, fake electricians and bogus builders – have had to be rubber stamped.

A scandal that those who finally blew the whistle have been suspended while the Minister who was responsible clung desperately to office, before finally being forced to resign.

But perhaps things might turn out OK. I read in yesterday’s papers that Tony Blair will now take personal charge of immigration policy and sort it out. Then I read the date. April the First.

A chaotic immigration policy helps no one. It doesn’t help those who come here illegally, who fall prey to criminal gangs. It doesn’t help those who use the proper channels, who are shoved to the back of the queue. And it doesn’t help the people who live here because of the pressure it puts on our public services.

We will get a grip on illegal immigration and those who claim asylum without being genuine refugees.

We will set up processing centres near people’s country of origin. No one will be able to come here and claim asylum. They will have to apply at one of our centres abroad, where they will be dealt with quickly, fairly and humanely.

We will take a quota of genuine refugees – probably more genuine refugees than we take now. But we will no longer be obliged to support the tens of thousands of asylum seekers who are not genuine refugees.

Of course, in a matter of months, we may lose more control of our immigration policy. The European Union is planning to create its own constitution. Tony Blair is already signed up to it. He wants it rushed through “as soon as possible”.

I think a European constitution is wrong in principle. Nation states make treaties with each other. Countries have constitutions.

If this constitution is accepted, the EU would gain many of the attributes and trappings of statehood: its own president, its own foreign minister, its own legal system. For the first time, the supremacy of EU law would derive not from Acts of national Parliaments but from a supra-national constitution.

That is a profound and radical change.

It is dishonourable to pretend that this is merely a tidying-up exercise.

It will involve the large-scale transfer of powers to Brussels.

It is more honest to call this the capstone of a federal state. That’s how the Belgian Prime Minister describes it. Or to call it Europe’s “Philadelphia Moment”. That’s what former French President Valery Giscard D’Estaing said, making a direct comparison with the American constitution.

They are being straight. Tony Blair is not.

So let me make it clear. I believe that any proposal for a new constitution must be put to the British people in a referendum.

Whatever your view, you should have a say. We have had 34 referendums since Labour came to power. On a Welsh Assembly, on a Scottish parliament, even on a mayor for Hartlepool.

But when it comes to transferring power from Britain to Brussels, Tony Blair says “Trust me”.

Well, Conservatives say “Trust the People”.

That is why, here today, with your help, I am launching our nationwide petition calling for a referendum on a European Constitution.

Sign it. Get your friends to sign it. Get the friends of your friends to sign it.

Because whatever their views, they should have their say.

You know, when I became a Conservative as a schoolboy in Wales, people said I was a rebel. You don’t join the Conservatives round here, they said.

Well, I don’t think of myself as a rebel. Although, whisper it softly, I do prefer soccer to rugby.

I became a Conservative because of what I believed.

I believe that the people should be big and the state should be small.

I believe that people are more likely to succeed when they are not nannied or over-governed.

And I believe that people want to be the masters of their own destinies.

That is why I came into politics. That is why I returned to front-line politics. And that is why I believe that we can win the next election.

Seven years ago, Labour came to power with high hopes and the public’s blessing. They promised that things could only get better.

But Labour have let you down. Instead of the improvements they promised, they’ve given us seven years of tax, spend, borrow and waste.

Britain is a great country, full of the most talented and energetic and ambitious people. We could and we should be doing so much better. We need a government that is united in its desire to give power back to people.

A government that will listen to people. A government that will trust people. And a government that will serve people.

That has always been our historic mission. Britain needs it now more than ever.

The battle lines have been drawn.

We are ready for the fight.

We are ready to win.

Here in Wales.

And across Britain.

And with your help I know we can do it.