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Letwin: Helping Young People Off The Conveyor Belt To Crime

Speech to Conservative Party Conference 2002

Our mission

Three weeks ago, Debbie Scott, who just spoke so passionately, introduced me to a remarkable young man.

He came from a troubled family in an inner city. By the age of nine, he had joined a local gang. He graduated through petty theft to drug abuse and robbery. He ended up in prison.

He could have continued on the conveyer belt to crime. He could have spent his life mugging innocent victims and moving from one prison to another.

But this man was different. He decided to pull himself back from the cliff edge. He approached a voluntary group in his neighbourhood - Tomorrow's People - who offered him a helping hand, showing him the way to reform his character.

What does he do now?

Instead of stealing he is teaching, offering just such a helping hand to other troubled young people.

What this young man now does, we in the Conservative Party have a duty also to do.

Our task in politics is not to impose upon the nation the dead hand of bureaucracy but, rather, to ensure that the state gives individuals and civil society a helping hand.

Real change, to real lives, in the real world.

The Office for Missing Targets

Alas, in the real world, the story so far, under this Government, is largely one of failure.

Nowhere are the failures more evident than in the Home Office.

I have christened the Home Office 'the Office for Missing Targets'. First the target is announced with a great fanfare. Then the target is missed. Finally, the target itself goes missing.

On asylum, policing, drugs and crime the record is very poor.

We have to be different.

We have to use our time preparing for government to get our thinking straight, to find the real answers to the most intractable problems facing Britain today.

An effective asylum system

Let me turn first to the asylum system.

A year ago, Mr. Blunkett believed that he could restore order to the system that Jack Straw had thrown into chaos.

There were to be accommodation centres for asylum seekers. The processing was to be swift and effective.

A few months on, the bright hopes have faded.

Yes, we are to have accommodation centres. But not the right kind, not in the right places, not very many of them and, above all, not fast.

True, we have to admit that the accommodation centres will make an impact on the backlog of asylum applications. In fact, we have calculated exactly the impact they will make. Mr. Blunkett's accommodation centres can make a proud claim. They will clear the backlog in 43 years and 2 months.

In December 2045, New Labour will have finally delivered. Merry Christmas.

I think we need something a little faster. I think we need small, effective, fast accommodation centres.

We also need a new Treaty with France so that people who arrive here from France are returned there to have their applications processed.

With that Treaty in place, and six-week processing, we could clear the backlog and get the system back into order.

The Conservatives' approach to the problem of crime

But our debate today, is about a wider agenda.

It is about reducing the level of crime in this country.

Crime threatens the very existence of the neighbourly society, driving the elderly indoors, mothers with young children away from the playground, the honest citizen off the street.

Crime victimises whole communities.

I sometimes cannot believe that we live in a country that offers such affluence and choice, and yet allows so many of its people, especially its most vulnerable people, to be victimised by crime:

- a country in which a crime is committed every 5 seconds; that's fifty crimes since I started speaking;

- a country in which crime costs each citizen £1000 a year; that's £120 we've lost in this hall since we started this debate;

- a country in which millions of people fear violence and intimidation;

- a country in which someone contemplating a crime has a 97.5% chance of not being convicted for it;

- a country in whose cities there are children, some as young as four and five years old, wandering the streets desperate for affection, food and clothing - their parents not even knowing where they are.

Our duty in preparing for government is to formulate a coherent, long-term programme to tackle crime in this country.

That means lifting young people off the conveyor belt to crime.

And it means true neighbourhood policing to recapture our streets for the honest citizen.

I want to share with this conference today the results of the thinking we have so far done about these topics.

Neighbourhood Policing

Too little attention has been paid to who controls our streets and neighbourhoods. We need to take them back into the control of the police.

When I visited New York - a city that has cut crime by 60% in ten years - I saw something you don't see much of in Britain.

I saw police on the streets.

I saw a virtual revolution in policing, with 2-minute response times.

That is the way to increase the chance of the criminal being caught.

Let me remind you of what I said a moment ago. In David Blunkett's Britain, a person contemplating committing a crime has a 97.5% chance of avoiding conviction. Those are the Home Office statistics, not mine.

Let me put it another way. Our young criminal knows he is 39 times more likely to get away with it than to be caught and convicted.

What do we need to do to change those ridiculous odds? We need to learn the lessons from New York and other American cities. We need New York-style policing in our cities.

We need their revolution here in Britain.

That means giving the police the tools to do the job.

Mr. Straw and Mr. Blunkett say that they back the police.

But if they really do, if they really have been backing the police for the last five years, why do police officers here - unlike in American cities - feel befuddled and confused?

If the police really are to be freed of paperwork, why are they being required to make a report every time they stop someone on the street?

If they are meant to feel that they are the frontline against fear, why do they actually feel under constant surveillance from Whitehall?

We need to back the police - not with words but with deeds. We need to cut through the red tape that binds them.

We need police officers visible and present, and being seen to be present, on the streets, in every neighbourhood.

In coming months, we will spell out the steps that Conservatives will take in government to bring us nearer to the realisation of that vision.

The Conveyor Belt to Crime

But we need to do something even more difficult and even more profound.

We need to lift young people off the conveyor belt to crime - and we need to start now.

The very young children of 4 or 5 years old, engaged in no criminality so far, but whose minds and emotions have been messed up by failures of parental support, are the potential young offenders of tomorrow.

The teenage drug addicts are in all too many cases these very young children grown older - already, in all too many cases, the street criminals of today.

And amongst those street criminals, the most persistent are young people recycling through the criminal justice system like hamsters caught in a wheel

- mugging an old lady, into court, into jail, back out the other side in little time, the next mugging, the next courtroom, the next jail

- and onwards in a ghastly ceaseless round of self-destruction and social destruction.

This is, indeed, a conveyor belt to crime. And we fail to intervene effectively at every stage.

We do almost nothing to prevent the messed up young child from entering the conveyor belt.

We do all too little to provide the young drug addict with a route out of addiction and off the conveyor belt.

And we tolerate the recycling of the persistent young offender as if it were a fact of nature.

I believe it is possible to change all this.

I believe it is possible to offer the same exit from the conveyor belt that was taken by the determined young man whose story I told at the start of this speech.

This is a mission that springs from the finest and oldest traditions of the Conservative Party.

It is based on a belief in character, in individual choice and responsibility, a belief in the importance of family and upbringing.

It is based on that deepest of Conservative sentiments once, long ago, profoundly formulated by Abraham Lincoln when he said that "you cannot ultimately do more for a man than he can do for himself."

I want today to make three important announcements about Conservative policy.

First, a new approach to the rescue of the messed up 4 and 5 year olds.

Second, a new approach to providing young people with an exit from addiction and drug abuse.

And third, new proposals for the root and branch reform of sentences for persistent young offenders.

Targeted support for parents with troubled children

For the messed up 4 and 5 year olds, we propose a new approach based on sound commonsense.

The work of pioneers like Dr Stephen Scott and Dr Carole Sutton shows the way ahead.

Their solution is to help the children's parents to be better parents, showing them how to play with their children, praise them, discipline them and set limits for acceptable behaviour.

That's the down-to-earth, commonsense way in which most of us were raised, our characters formed, our affections rooted, our lives founded.

Their programmes, in London and in Leicester, have been spectacularly successful.

We need to make these programmes available nationwide - not through an army of social workers, but through voluntary and charitable organisations.

If we are successful in our work with the 4 and 5 year olds and their parents, the number of teenage drug addicts in Britain will decline markedly some years on.

But we cannot wait that long.

Targeted mandatory treatment for young heroin and cocaine addicts

So we also need direct, effective action to tackle such addiction.

We estimate that some 20,000 young people are currently addicted to heroin and cocaine. What do we do about it?

Many commit other crimes; some of these we catch, convict, and put in prison (where most, though not all, are "dried out").

But when they finish their sentences, they are dumped back into the streets where the gangs and the drug dealers, all too often, all too rapidly reassert control.

And these are the lucky ones.

The remaining young addicts, the official apparatus of the state ignores, unless they are apprehended for some other crime.

I submit to you that this is not good enough - that we are failing these young people and that - in failing them - we are failing society at large.

That is why I am putting forward today a second proposal.

It is a radical new approach to dealing with the menace of hard drugs.

I propose that we should actively identify those young people who are on heroin and cocaine, and that we should face them with a choice:

treatment (including all the psychological and other help required to beat the menace) or off to court.

There should be no third way.

Let's be clear about this: this is not an easy option.

This is about tough choices.

We will say: "we can help you find a way out but if you refuse that, we cannot let you go on harming society."

To make a reality of this policy, we will need greatly to expand the amount of treatment available in this country for heroin and cocaine addiction.

We will need to multiply treatment tenfold - to the same level that we see in countries like Sweden.

We will need to develop new attitudes and new methods amongst parents, peers, teachers, the police, probation service and others.

We will need to design detailed mechanisms for increasing the amount of identification of these hard drug addicts, for delivering treatment and counselling, for involving the non-statutory sector.

We will not be able to do these things instantly.

We will need to proceed carefully on the basis of pilot projects and with carefully monitored results to ensure that we implement national schemes that will really work and be cost-effective.

Over the next year, we will be talking in detail to all the experts about how to design such pilot projects.

But I can tell you today that I have agreed with Michael Howard and Liam Fox that a Conservative Government will make the funding for such projects a priority within the health budget.

There is too much at stake for our young people and for our society as a whole to allow this opportunity to pass us by.

If we grasp that opportunity, and significantly diminish the number of teenage addicts, we will automatically reduce both the number of crimes and the number of persistent young criminals - because so many of our crimes are drug-related.

Longer rehabilitative sentences for Persistent Young Offenders

But not every persistent young offender is an addict and we cannot wait until the attack on addiction has been successful.

We must act also, directly, on the causes of persistent young offenders cycling and recycling through the youth justice system.

Just consider these shocking figures.

One quarter of the young people held within Young Offender Institutions have already been convicted on seven or more occasions - often many more.

And for the younger age group held in Secure Training Centres, the figures are even worse. Nearly ninety per cent have been convicted on ten or more occasions.

Needless to say, the reoffending rates are equally grim.

This tells us two things:

Firstly, that these institutions- in which, each place costs significantly more than an education at Eton - can't be holding young offenders for very long.

And, secondly, the work they do with them while they are in custody is doing very little to straighten them out once they re-emerge.

My conclusion is that we need longer and more constructive sentences based on the reform of character.

Not far from here, in Devon, there is a remarkable project which does work.

It is run by a charity, not by the state. It is called the Centre for Adolescent Rehabilitation or C-Far.

The centre takes youth offenders straight from custody.

For three months they are taught self-discipline, personal responsibility and generally how to look and act like a decent human being.

Their education is intensive, fourteen hours a day, seven days a week.

Following this period of open custody, the offenders aren't just dumped on society.

Instead, they are given nine months or more of intensive mentoring to find them jobs or further education and accommodation and to keep them on the straight and narrow.

It is tough, but it isn't uncivilised.

It is caring, but it isn't a pushover.

And it works.

The reconviction rate is hugely reduced.

I can today confirm that a future Conservative Government will base sentences for persistent young offenders on that model.

Not just a period of incarceration - but a long period, beyond, of active rehabilitation and reform.

Making Britain safe again

By providing exits from the conveyor belt to crime - for the very young messed up children, the teenage addicts and the persistent youth offenders - we will reclaim tens of thousands of young people for decent society. We will save the pain of hundreds of thousands of victims.

We will save millions, if not billions, of pounds for more deserving causes.

We will do all of these things because we believe what we say.

We believe Britain can be made safe again.

We know that there is more work to be done, more policies to be developed.

But today, I believe we have made a start.

And we shall keep at it.

Let the message go out from this conference to every citizen in Britain.

Our Party will not be defeatist on crime.

If you believe our police can recapture the streets for honest citizens,

if you believe we can help the parents who are failing the very young,

if you believe we can lead the addicts away from drugs,

if you believe we can reform the characters of the persistent young offenders,

if you believe we can provide exits from the conveyor belt to crime, then come with us and make this happen.

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