Speeches recovered from the Conservative party’s online archive More…

Letwin: Laws must allow us to remove people who threaten our safety

In a speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool today, Shadow Home Secretary, Oliver Letwin MP said:

"I am grateful to all those who have taken part in our discussion this morning.

I wish we had been able to have a different discussion.

I wish we had been able talk about the fundamental deficiencies in our society, which have led to half a century of rising crime. I wish we had been able to begin together to engage in the radical thinking needed if we are to remedy those social deficiencies, and to tackle crime seriously in this country.

But we shall find other occasions on which to discuss those matters.

Today - as in past weeks and in weeks to come - any debate such as ours must inevitably focus on the current threat.

I want to begin by saying something about the scale and character of that threat.

We live in a civilised, free society. It is our most precious inheritance. Our history is the history of efforts to establish and to defend it. There are people in this hall who fought, and others, closely connected with us, who died to preserve it.

Of course, every serious crime is an assault on the peace of our society. Of course, every violent crime is an assault on our common humanity. But acts of terrorism go further - they seek to undermine the foundation of our civilised society, because they seek to use fear and bloodshed, instead of argument and due process, as the means of achieving political change.

On 11 September we saw terrorism on an unprecedented scale. In the scope of its ambitions, the ruthlessness of its undertakings and the sophistication of its execution, what we saw on that day far exceeded any peacetime act of political terror.

We must consider, without descending into panic, the possibility that - if not averted - the next attack may be substantially worse and may be here, in Britain.

Let there be no doubt. The purpose of our military action abroad is not revenge or retaliation. It is not merely to bring those responsible to justice. It is an act of self-defence.

Its aim is to reduce the risk of such an attack happening anywhere ever again.

Its aim is to reduce the risk of such an attack happening here, in Britain.

Our armed forces are not attacking a foreign regime, they are defending our society from attack: that's why they have our unqualified support.

But, for our self-defence, we cannot rely exclusively on action abroad. We must consider also our domestic security.

What is the duty of a loyal Opposition at such a time? What, in particular, is our duty on the Home front?

Our first duty is to recognise that, in a free society, what binds us to our political opponents is greater by far than what separates us from them. In the face of a threat of this kind, we are all on the same side - the side of a civilised, free society.

Our second duty is to weigh the consequences of every word we speak, to ensure that the central values of our society are never compromised by the way in which we discuss these matters of life and death.

Our third duty, wholly compatible with the first and second, is to remain alert, questioning, urging the Government to do the things that need to be done in the national interest.

These, then, are our three duties:

· solidarity

· responsibility

· scrutiny

Under the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith, we have fulfilled the first of these duties - the duty of solidarity. Not only in our discussion of foreign affairs, but also in all our discussion of the domestic aspects of this crisis, we have emphasised our support for the Government in its efforts to combat the threat. We have not allowed, and we will not allow, thoughts of party political advantage to lead us into any partisan action or any partisan statement.

The second duty - the duty of responsibility places a heavy burden on all of us.

In these difficult times, what we say, and how we say it, may have a direct effect on peaceful and civilized conduct in this country.

I know of a British Muslim child who returned home from school very shortly after the attacks in New York. Another child, until that moment his best friend, rang him up and said to him: 'you are a Muslim, I will kill you'.

The words spoken by children can all too easily become the deeds done by adults. Those responsible for the recent, hateful attacks on mosques are not only despicable criminals. They are also trying to do lasting damage to the fabric of our society. They must not be allowed to succeed.

British Muslims make an outstanding contribution to the economic life of our society. British Muslims make an outstanding contribution to our cultural life. British Muslims make an outstanding contribution to the Conservative Party and to the rest of our democratic life. We are, and we have a duty to show that we are, as strongly pro-Muslim as we are anti-terrorist.

The third duty - the duty of scrutiny - falls particularly on us, as the Opposition.

The events of 11th September prompt us to reassess both the extent to which Britain is prepared to meet the current threat domestically, and the extent to which we are able to play our full part in assisting other countries to meet that threat.

We must look at the effectiveness of those agencies that are involved in domestic counter-terrorist activity. I know, from the official briefings that I have received, that much is being done. I pay tribute, also, to the ingenuity and courage of those men and women who are involved. They are amongst the unsung heroes of our society. But we all know that the price of safety is increased vigilance, and that more now needs to be done. Iain and I will continue to press the Government both in public and (where appropriate) in private to make sure that we have the people, the money and the means to get the job done.

But there is a larger problem. Protecting our own security is not just a question of enforcing the law. It is also a question of having the right laws.

The Roman, Cicero, coined the phrase, "the safety of the people is the highest law". And so it may have been in Ancient Rome. But I fear it is not so in modern Britain.

The situation in which we find ourselves is absurd - seriously absurd. There are citizens of other countries, who are either believed by our security services to pose a threat to our safety, or who are wanted by courts in other countries in connection with terrorist offences, who are nevertheless able to enter Britain and to remain in Britain without the Home Secretary being able either to prevent them entering or to remove them.

Lest there be any doubt about what I have said, or any incredulity, let me repeat it: there are people from other countries, who are either believed by our security services to pose a threat to our safety, or who are wanted by courts in other countries in connection with terrorist offences, who are nevertheless able to enter Britain and to remain in Britain without the Home Secretary being able either to prevent them entering or to remove them.

The cause of this absurdity is a tangle of laws, conventions and jurisprudence.

At the centre of this web, lies the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, which has become part of our law through the Government's Human Rights Act.

In Parliament, we shall need detailed discussion of the changes that have to be made. But two things, I want to say now:

n first, we must pass laws to permit the Home Secretary to remove from the country those who threaten our safety; we cannot lecture others on the need for a global war against terrorism if we cannot take effective action at home;

n second, the action we take must be accurately targeted; in seeking, rightly, to protect our free society, we must not jeopardise the very liberty, which makes that society so precious to us.

On this basis, but on this basis alone, we will enter into deep and constructive dialogue with the Government in Parliament.

We shall be a loyal Opposition.

But we shall be an Opposition for all that.

We shall use the Commons and the Lords for one of the great purposes for which our ancestors established Parliament: to scrutinise, to debate, to reveal implications, and - where necessary - to alter the new legislation.

We shall take into account both the present threat to public safety in this country, and the ever-present danger that our fundamental liberties may all too easily be eroded.

We will not listen to the voices of those whose minds have failed to engage with the seriousness of the threat or with the inadequacy of our current protection against it.

Nor, however, will we listen to those who advise us to ignore the protection of our liberties under the law.

This is the balance of safety and liberty.

This is the balance which, in this country, before any other country, and for longer than in any other country, our predecessors knew how to strike. It is the balance that we struck in Magna Carta, struck again in the Glorious Revolution, and have struck - time after time - in the long evolution of our Common Law.

It is the balance which, in the face of what is perhaps the gravest crisis for half a century, we need again to strike.

If ever Parliament had a duty to the nation, if ever the Opposition had a duty in Parliament, now is that time. We will do our duty. We will do it conscientiously, vigorously, advisedly.

We will play our part in making Britain a safer country, but we will play our part also in keeping Britain a free country."

Keyboard shortcuts

j previous speech k next speech