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Widdecombe: Time for common sense on crime

In a speech to the Police Federation annual conference in Blackpool today, the Rt Hon Ann Widdecombe, Shadow Home Secretary:

"Fred, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for inviting me here today. And let me say what a pleasure it is to be here. I am sure many of you remember William Hague's speech at your conference last year, and I know that you certainly made a great impression on him.

This is, of course, my first speech to your conference. Let me assure you now, I am not going to use it to make a party political attack.

This week's conference has hit the headlines for a number of reasons. And this has meant that the ongoing debate on policing in this country has gone right to the very top of the political agenda, which is where it should be.

You spoke of the importance of the officers on the ground. And all too often, it is easy to forget about just how much individual police officers contribute.

We have a truly professional and dedicated police service. Truly, the best in the world - day in, day out. That was an impression that was reinforced by what I saw in London on 1st May. Beyond a doubt, those police officers did the people of this country proud. In the face of extreme provocation, they managed to thwart the efforts of the thugs who were hell-bent on violence and destruction. The Queen's Peace was maintained in London.

But I don't think that many could have done the kind of job those officers did in London a little over two weeks ago, nor the kind of job that all police officers on the ground do - day in, day out. As someone who lives in London myself, I know how all Londoners were grateful to, and very proud of, the Met.

But I know also how proud you were that they were proud. A stable society requires not just respect for the law but for the law enforcers, too. Public confidence in the police is crucial.

The public and the police share the same priorities. But for confidence to be maintained they must be seen to share the same priorities too. You know what the public want you to do, and you want to do that. It is wrong for politicians to interfere with those priorities.

And you only have to look at some of the nominees for the Police Bravery Awards to see the tremendous dedication to serving the public that all police officers, not just in London but right throughout the country, have. From saving the lives of those attempting suicide, to restraining violent killers, to coolness under pressure when confronted by armed criminals, it is clear that the bravery and devotion to duty of British police officers is second to none. There are, of course, many thousands more incidents which are not brought to public attention.

But, tragically, some incidents are reported for all the wrong reasons. The past year has seen the senseless killings of PC Alison Armitage in Oldham, and PC Jon Odell in my own county of Kent. I very much hope that those responsible for their deaths will be brought to justice and that the punishments will fully reflect the gravity of the offences.

And in the last three months alone, we have also witnessed the tragic deaths of Rod Daniels in Essex, Peter Evans in Suffolk and Tony Haines in the Met.

I can only imagine the kind of courage that all these officers, and thousands like them, have shown in the course of their duty every single day of the week.

You brought to our attention earlier this week the fact that the country needs more officers. I agree with you.

On Monday, you called for 140,000 officers by 2004. I am going to be straight up front and honest about it. Much as I would like to see that number of police on our streets, and in that timescale, I am afraid that I can't give you that commitment today.

But I think that you and your colleagues have done your members and indeed the whole country a very great service by ensuring that the issue of just how this country is policed, and how many officers are needed to do it, has been put back right at the top of the political agenda.

Whichever Party wins the General Election will have to take the Federation's concerns on the level of policing extremely seriously indeed. And I think that the kind of analysis produced by the Federation this week, which looks at the levels of policing that the citizens of other countries have come to expect, will drive the debate forward and the numbers upwards.

We will start by restoring the cuts in police numbers that have occurred since 1997. After four years of neglect, the Government are claiming that they can increase the number of officers to 130,000. Our changes to current spending plans do not affect the Home Office, so of course we will match that target.

But cost has never been the issue. Other things are driving officers out of the force and making attracting new recruits difficult. You acknowledged yesterday, and not for the first time, that morale is a problem. It shouldn't be, because the police have a great deal to be proud about.

Not least the professionalism and dedication to duty shown by so many thousands of officers. But morale isn't helped by directives from on high and constant political correctness, like being told that it's offensive to call someone "love" or "dear".

The kind of political correctness that prevents the police from using the powers at their disposal fairly but firmly.

Piling on new bureaucracy, the kind of bureaucracy that some people don't want to talk to you about. That keeps the police behind their desks rather than out in communities and on our streets preventing crime and catching criminals.

I don't want a police service that is built on those foundations. I agree with you that policing should be based on decency, fairness and above all common sense. We need more PCs, and less PC.

I was struck by your call for stronger leadership from politicians on Monday. Because the fact is that stronger leadership is needed.

But you don't need a focus group to tell you about what is happening. Talk to any victim, talk to any police officer.

While politicians may trade statistics, people rely on their own experience. And there can't be many who think that things are getting better.

Indeed, earlier this week, you said that there should be action, not words, from politicians. And quite right, too.

You will appreciate that it is a little more difficult to get things done in Opposition than it is in Government. But we have been doing our best. Over the past year, we have pressed the Government hard on a range of issues.

Like increasing the maximum sentence for child pornography offences from three years to ten years. Cutting the time which convicted sex offenders have to register their details with the police after their release from prison. And new powers for officers to take action against crack houses under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

These are just some of the things that we have proposed and driven through. Things which are even now making a real difference to the way in which you do your job of protecting the public. I am glad that when we proposed them they received cross-party support, although in some instances it took a little time for them to do so. They are now the law of the land.

We also went to great lengths to minimise the bureaucracy for officers on the ground associated with fixed penalty notices, which as you know are the final incarnation of Tony Blair's famous cashpoint fines for drunks.

We've tried wherever possible to work with you and your team at Federation headquarters. I would like to thank you today for the helpful advice that you have given us.

So we have been taking what action we can on behalf of you and your members, and more importantly on behalf of the public. I hope that in a few weeks time we will be able to take even more.

I agree that we need more officers out and about in the community. Not only does that improve public confidence, but it helps dialogue and understanding. Mutual respect.

I want to see officers back in all our communities. Fred, you talked earlier this week about the experience in New York. Last year I visited Washington DC and saw for myself how officers spend time working out of bases in local shops and other premises. "Cops in Shops". This sort of thing increases visibility and allows the police to gain not only more intelligence but also more trust from the community.

It works in America - why shouldn't it work in Britain too? More community policing. More officers working in and with the communities that they serve.

We will continue to engage with the Federation on the future of the policing. I have already made clear that I want to see a comprehensive review of police functions, including the role of the special constabulary, to see how we can free up more officers to prevent and fight crime. The Federation will have a central role. You can come and talk to me any time, Fred.

And on pay and conditions, I cannot promise you the earth. You wouldn't believe me if I did. But what I can promise you is an open mind, not a hidden agenda.

I welcome the efforts which the Federation and forces across the country have made over many years and continue to make to improve relations and dialogue not just with the ethnic minority communities but also with serving black and Asian officers. Yes, all of us need to learn the hard lessons from whatever mistakes have been made in the past, but having learnt those lessons we need to build on them and move forward.

I agree that too often the system is on the side of the criminal, not the victim. Criminals are not the victims. Victims are the victims. Criminals are criminals. They choose to commit crime and there is no excuse for what they choose to do.

I want the victims of crime to feel that they have had justice. I want the law-abiding people of this country to feel free from fear in their homes and on the streets. I want to overhaul the law so that it is on the side of the victim, not the criminal. I want to see new legal rights for the victims of crime. Such as the legal right to know why the CPS may have dropped or downgraded a case.

I know how many of you, and many victims of crime, feel about the level of sentences imposed by the courts for many offences. So we will further extend the powers to appeal against unduly lenient sentences. And we will also reform the Double Jeopardy rule for the most serious offences to ensure that if compelling new evidence comes to light which could not have been brought forward at the original trial, the prosecution can apply to the courts to have someone who has been acquitted tried a second time.

And I want to see the regime of minimum sentences for some repeat offenders that was introduced in the Crime (Sentences) Act further extended.

But in some cases the time served at present is very short indeed. Under the special early release scheme that was introduced two years ago, 35,000 criminals have been released early from prison, up to two months before the half-way point of the sentence. Which allows those sentenced to six months to get out of jail in just six weeks - 25 per cent of the sentence.

So far 1,500 robbers, 3,000 burglars and nearly 5,000 convicted drug dealers have been released early on that scheme. And more than 300 criminals jailed for assaulting police officers and resisting arrest.

And those released early have gone on to commit more offences when they would normally have been in prison - including 25 more assaults on police officers, and, sadly, some even more serious crimes including two rapes.

We have tried in Parliament both to end this scheme and to exclude the most serious offenders from it - including those who assault police officers.

We've also tried to ensure that the existence of the scheme is spelt out at the time of sentencing. However, the victims of crime, the public and the police are all kept in the dark.

I want to end this nonsense of six month sentences meaning six weeks time inside.

When I travel the country, one of the things that police officers tell me frustrates them the most is the way the system deals with younger offenders.

It's much easier to make someone see the error of the ways at 13 or 14 than it is when they reach 17 or 18.

So I want to see an huge expansion of secure training centres, with an emphasis on changing persistent younger offenders before it is too late. Taking them off the streets, away from the environment which has failed them, and which they in turn and making difficult, and giving them a real chance to change. I want to see a system that focuses on rehabilitating by linking their release to real change, real achievement on their part.

At the outset, the governor of the centre will set a realistic level of achievement. This could be a qualification, a standard level of attainment, or even the basics - like learning to read, or basic good conduct. They will serve at least six months, and will only be released if they have made sufficient progress towards that target. Otherwise, they will serve the rest of their sentence.

And if they make sufficient progress, reform and stay out of trouble for a further two years, they should be able to enter adulthood without a criminal record, except where their offences are serious ones.

I believe that this is the only way. Giving younger offenders a chance to change, and coming down hard on them if they don't take that chance.

Today, things do need to change. Crime is indeed too high.

Today criminals given six months in prison are being released after just six weeks.

Today so-called protesters complain about breaches of their human rights and demand compensation from the Metropolitan Police when officers were keeping the Queen's Peace.

Today victims feel like criminals and the criminals are treated like victims.

But the victim's rights must prevail over the criminal's. Compensation payouts must be commensurate with suffering rather than dictated by political correctness. A system which cannot cope with significant crime must not be invoked to deal with childish spats.

Parents who try to restrain their children should not find themselves on the wrong end of the law. Citizens who try to defend themselves or scare off villains shouldn't have to fear the law rather than be protected by it.

Today I reaffirm the commitment that William Hague gave to you last year. We will back you to win the war against crime and help you to scare the hell out of criminals.

Some people say that you who serve in the police are the problem. I know that you're the solution. You and your 125,000 colleagues up and down the country are, quite simply, the very best.

It is indeed time for some common sense."

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