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Widdecombe: Party Conference Speech 2000

My birthday only comes once a year. And what a great Party!

But Jack Straw gives the criminals a party every day while victims wait outside in the cold.

His greetings telegram to the criminal is: 'don't worry, there are nearly 3,000 fewer police to catch you, and even if you are unlucky enough to be caught, I'll let you out of jail in record time.'

In The Wizard of Oz, the Man of Straw had no brain. I can show you one with no heart and no courage as well.

He and his friend Tony promised to be 'tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime'. All they've been tough on is the dwindling number of people trying to fight crime. Last year, I warned that the thin blue line was getting thinner. Now it's becoming a row of dots, which nobody wants to join.

High on promises, low on action. Long on spin, short on truth. Drunk on power, incapable of delivery.

It's not that they're short on rhetoric when it comes to victims.

Remember what Tony Blair said in his speech last week?

Tony Blair said that one of the big projects for the second term of a Labour government - and I quote - would be 'standing up for victims'.

Why is he waiting for a second term? It's not as if he's going to get one.

What a sense of priorities. They've spent the first term getting prisoners out of jail early, cutting the police force, multiplying red tape, and dreaming of drunks at cashpoints. The victim has to wait for the second term.

By contrast, my first pledge as Shadow Home Secretary, the very first policy I announced, was new rights for victims enshrined in law.

That shows where this Party's priorities lie. What about the rest of Jack Straw's record at the Home Office?

Police numbers down, crime up, violent crime soaring, the asylum system in chaos, spies laughing at the country they betrayed…

When we were debating rising crime under this Government, I asked Jack Straw whether crime would fall again. He said: 'That depends on the criminals.'

I thought it was traditional for the British people to rely on their Government to cut crime, not on the criminals. It cannot be common sense to fight crime with fewer crimefighters. It cannot be common sense, when the police have spent time and effort arresting people, to see the criminal back on the street before the police officer. It cannot be common sense to let prisoners sit around in idleness. It cannot be common sense to allow persistent young menaces to grow up with the belief that they are untouchable at law. It cannot be common sense to arrest the householder instead of the burglar.

We need common sense.

This country needs a well-motivated, strong police force that can protect everyone, regardless of race, colour or creed. But when the police have done their job, the public must be protected by proper, effective sentencing.

When those sentences include custody, protecting the public doesn't end at the prison gate. It means work and education inside prisons to give inmates the skills to lead a law-abiding life outside.

You are already aware that we have promised to restore police numbers. But numbers alone are not the only answer. We must make sure that every single policeman makes the most effective use of every minute of his time. Yet officers regularly tell me that they can spend an entire shift processing a single criminal through custody, and that they have to fill in the same information on form after form. Indeed, from what they tell me I can only conclude that the police have got more form than the criminals they arrest. For too long, politicians have observed this and done nothing. It is time to relieve the police of this crippling burden.

It is plain common sense that a policeman should come into the station, deliver his prisoner with a short statement and go straight back onto the beat to arrest more criminals. And that's what's going to happen on my watch. And if that means taking a large part of the custody function away from the police, that's what I'll do.

So we're going to restore the numbers. And we're going to make sure they spend their time more effectively. And we're going to make sure that they spend their time in the rural areas as well as the urban.

Many rural people feel isolated from the forces of law and order. They rarely see their local bobby. Where there is an emergency, they wait far too long for a response.

For those who live in sparsely populated areas, this is a real, live problem. So I've been looking for real, live solutions. I believe that there are lots of ways that we can get visible policing in our countryside. Through retained police officers, part-time police officers, specials, greater use of retired officers, and through 'cops in shops'.

Cops in shops is a very simple initiative, which I saw in Washington. The officer doesn't go back to the station to write up his reports, he writes them up in shops and other public places. This has a threefold advantage. First of all, he's visible. Secondly, he can interact with the community. And thirdly, he is a deterrent.

One of the reasons why we have such problems in recruiting is that very often, young people lose interest between the time they leave school and the time they are old enough to join the police. So I want to re-introduce a police cadet force which will not only provide a recruiting and training ground for both the regular police and the specials, but will fundamentally change young people's attitude towards the police at a time in their lives when it is most important.

Instead of being tough on criminals, Tony Blair and Jack Straw operate a revolving door prisons policy.

On Jack Straw's own tagging scheme, criminals sentenced to six months get out of jail in six weeks - even John Prescott gets through more of his sentences.

And so 23,000 convicts have been let out early.

Including 200 convicted killers

Thousands of other violent criminals.

Nearly 150 convicted of assaulting police.

More than 900 robbers

Over 2,100 burglars

3,000 drug dealers

And when, but for Jack Straw's measure, they should have been in jail, these criminals have committed even more crimes - over 700 more.

Dozens of burglaries and thefts

Threats to kill

Drug dealing

Even two rapes

The next Conservative Government will scrap this tagging scheme, this mammoth insult to victims.

I'm against early release in all but one case. There is only one early release that I will be prepared to see in the public interest. That's Jack Straw's early release from the chains of office - and Tony Blair and the rest of the Labour Party with him.

And instead, we will introduce honesty in sentencing. With the complete abolition of automatic early release.

Sentences will say what they mean and mean what they say.

Discounts will have to be earned and will not be substantial - unlike now.

Where a custodial sentence is passed, we will ensure that there is a programme of rehabilitation in place. Too many offenders who are sent to prison go on to re-offend.

By ensuring that they have an alternative to a continuation of their life of crime, we can better protect the public.

Idle prisons are breeding grounds for the disease of crime. We will move towards a full working day in all prisons, based on self-financing workshops that take on real work which real employers want in the real world. Prisoners' wages will go towards the cost of their upkeep, the support of their families, savings to give them a start when they leave prison, and reparations to the victims of crime.

It is all about protecting the public.

And we've got to start with the young criminals. We will take the young menaces off the streets, away from the environment that has failed them, and give them a real chance to change. Last year I set out proposals to do this, placing them in secure training and giving them a stable regime and a real chance to change. This year, I want to look beyond young criminals, at the single biggest cause of crime, particularly but not exclusively amongst the young.

The single biggest cause of crime in this country today is drugs.

Children are 20 per cent of our population but they are 100 per cent of our future. Drugs are the cancer that is eating away at our country and threatening those children and that future.

It's not our children who are the only victims. Crime costs this country £50 billion a year - and at least a third of all crimes are drug related. 80 per cent of burglaries are motivated by drugs.

One third of acquisitive crime is drug-related, costing victims over £2 billion a year.

More than 100,000 people are convicted or cautioned for drug offences every year.

Even if they end up in court, many get a conditional discharge or a small fine.

Not exactly tough.

What do the other parties offer?

The Liberal Democrats toy with legalisation. And they want to end the tough mandatory sentences for drug dealers.

In other words, give in. What they want to do is against all common sense.

Labour promised a war against drugs.

What have they done with the drug dealers? Given them the get out of jail free card.

23,000 criminals let out on special early release scheme, and more than 3,000 have been drug dealers or traffickers.

Drug dealers who on average got 22 months' jail.

Under Labour they served 9 months.

So what will we do?

We have already pledged tougher sentences for drug dealers who sell to our children and a crackdown on drugs in and around our schools. And, needless to say, we will scrap the get out of jail free card for 3,000 drug dealers.

Today I am able to announce a new policy. Earlier this year, I visited New York, where under Mayor Giuliani crime has plummeted. Although we can't replicate exactly what I saw there, we can learn the lessons of tackling crime head on and not conceding a centimetre to the criminals. So today, I can announce a new policy. A policy that means no quarter for those whose trade is dealing in human misery, despair and even death.

And so, from the possession of the most minimal amount of soft drugs right up the chain to the large importer, there will be no hiding place. There will be zero tolerance.

Parents want it. Schools need it. Our future demands it. The next Conservative government will do it.

What does it mean? It means zero tolerance of possession. No more getting away with just a caution, no more hoping that a blind eye will be turned. If someone possesses drugs, the minimum for a first offence will be a fixed penalty of £100. But not for a second offence. Then it's into court.

And no more claiming that no matter what amount you've got on you, it's for personal use. Over and above the smallest amount, the charge will be substantial possession, and the penalties applicable will be of a range comparable to those for dealing.

And as for the suppliers, we will put them out of business.

We will dedicate police resources and police officers to identifying and cleaning up forever those houses and other places where regular supply takes place. And the replacement suppliers, and their replacements, and their replacements, until there are no more replacements.

Yes, this will require extra money, yes this will require extra police officers, and yes they will be forthcoming. That will be money well spent.

And there are other aspects of our drugs laws which we need to change. Why do you lose your licence for drink-driving, but not for drugs driving? In future, anybody caught driving with illegal substances in their bloodstream will be subject to a mandatory ban. Why should it be that you have illegal drugs in your pocket, you're guilty of possession, but when they're in your bloodstream, you're guilty of nothing?

Why do we have laws against opium dens which don't apply to crack houses?

Zero tolerance of the biggest scourge in our society today. That's what's going to happen on my watch.

Other things will change also. Our asylum system will be completely overhauled and we will automatically house all new applicants in secure reception centres. It's extraordinary, but Labour call that racist. Yet the biggest loser in their system is the genuine refugee who comes to this country with not only a legal but a moral case for a safe haven, and finds himself clogged up in queue which has hit more than 100,000 cases - double what Labour inherited. If the message goes out to those who simply seek to play our system that in future they will be detained, dealt with speedily and removed, they will cease to come and we will be able to process the genuine applicant more quickly. However, for the real refugee, reception centres will provide a one-stop point of expertise in education for the children, language support, and social services support.

At the moment such people, with all their vulnerability and needs are turned out to take their chance in areas where the local authorities have no experience in coping and where the provision of such services is a hit and miss affair.

Let me make clear to Tony Blair what I believe - what is my 'irreducible core'.

If you're asking me to stand by and see the genuine refugee stuck in a queue with tens of thousands of other applications;

If you're asking me to tolerate a situation where that man waits months or years for a decision on his case while Ministers dither and officials shuffle paper;

If you're asking me to put up with a shambolic system of support which is letting down both the refugees and the local councils and the local people who have to pick up the pieces, then vote for the other man, because I won't do it.

Letting down genuine refugees. I don't think I could do that. Could you?

Releasing 23,000 prisoners extra-early. I don't think I could do that. Could you?

Cut police numbers when crime is rising. I don't think I could that. Could you?

Surrender to the drugs menace. We couldn't do that. We shouldn't do that.

We won't do that.

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