The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1996Prime Minister (1990-1997)

John Major’s Speech to the 1996 Conservative Political Centre – 29 January 1996

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech to the Conservative Political Centre (CPC) on 29th January 1996.


Political beliefs rest upon principles. Fundamental principles which guide our policies, decide our actions.

Labour have principles too. ‘Don’t do as I do, do as I say’ is the principle they live by these days.

And Labour have policies. But they’re poorly thought through and designed to show Labour today isn’t so obviously vindictive as yesterday. Both their policies and their principles fall apart upon even cursory examination.

They’ve had an easy time over the last two years. Now they’ve been rumbled.

The lesson of the past week is clear: you can’t trust what Labour say, because given half a chance they’ll do the opposite.

Unlike theirs, our beliefs are refreshingly constant.

We believe in a Britain of enterprise and prosperity.

A Britain of opportunity and ownership.

Of first class public services.

Where law and order is safeguarded.

And where a proud, united sovereign nation is defended against any threat, at home or abroad.

Conservatives hold fast to these fundamental beliefs even though our policies move with the times. That’s why, over the years, we’ve dictated the pace and direction of change more than any other party.

The subject I want to talk about tonight is law and order. It concerns everyone, of all parties or of none, wherever they live. A subject where the approach of the two main parties is very different. And another subject where Labour’s words are completely divorced from Labour’s actions.

‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ is their slogan. And yet they have opposed almost every tough piece of action we’ve taken.

Let me make three points that underpin my attitude to crime.

For every crime there’s a victim. For that victim, that crime isn’t a dry statistic. It’s something personal.

For every crime, there’s a criminal. Not a product of society, but an individual who has made a conscious decision to harm someone for personal gain.

And, third, every crime is wrong. Whatever the case, whatever the excuse.

I believe the public share this attitude. And I believe they want to see it reflected in our law and order system.

To stop crime, we have to realise that to commit one is a decision, not a disease. It’s a decision freely taken in most cases. We’re dealing with an individual who flouts our laws and spurns our moral code.

I reject the view that absolutely everything is responsible for crime except the criminal.

The view that individuals should not be held responsible for their actions.

The view that the rights of the criminal come before those of the victim.

This is the same sort of well-meaning thinking that assumes you can’t teach children the difference between right and wrong.

That tells us discipline suffocates self-expression in children and has no place in home or school.

If I overstate the case – though frankly I don’t think I do – it’s to make the point that this kind of thinking is not just mistaken, it’s plain wrong.

Punishment is not a dirty word.

In my book, being tough on crime means being tough on criminals.

And I’ll tell you why so you can see how I approach policy making.

When I think of crime, I think firstly about the victims. The victims are not always selected by criminals because they’re confident, robust, well-heeled individuals who can easily brush aside the trauma of crime or the personal and financial loss involved. Quite the reverse.

Most often they’re vulnerable. Easy targets. All too frequently they’re relatively poor, underprivileged people who live where progressive thinkers wouldn’t dream of going. Because never forget, crime batters on the door of three room flats on the twelfth floor of tower blocks in unsought after districts, just as much as at the homes of more affluent members of society.

With professional criminals the loss of possessions is often large. With amateurs less so – but is often accompanied by wanton vandalism. In either case the invasion of privacy is brutal. And when was stealing the small possessions of people with very little a minor offence?

I put the point vividly because crime is vivid to the victim. For many it isn’t just a passing experience. It lives with them for a very long time.

It’s too easy to explain crime away by blaming social causes. Too simplistic. Wrong. And offensive to the vast majority of people who strive to live decent, law-abiding lives whatever their circumstances.

Crime is a choice whether it’s burglary by a young tearaway or sophisticated financial crime.

To suggest otherwise totally neglects the role of the individual. This marks a fundamental difference between us and Labour.

The left mistakenly talk about economic success in terms of grandiose national plans and ignore the individual. The state everywhere. The individual nowhere.

They talk about education in terms of blanket prescriptions – levelling down, not levering up.

My experience is a world apart. I see individuals with varying ambitions, different abilities, making their own opportunities, their own choice. Individuals responsible for their own actions – and content to be so.

That’s why we want a criminal justice system which recognises that individuals have the power to fight crime – but are also responsible if they commit it.

If we are to achieve long-lasting success in the fight against crime, I believe we should start quite literally at the beginning – with our children.

We owe it to each of them, individually, to help them grow up knowing the difference between right and wrong, respecting the rules of society, understanding the penalties for transgressing them. If this discipline is taught to the young, it’s likely to be a discipline for life.

I don’t believe in a harsh society, but I do believe in a self-disciplined society.

All of us – parents, teachers – anyone in a position of responsibility – need to pass on the values of right and wrong that underpin any civilised society. This begins as a role, first and foremost, for individual parents.

But later on schools obviously have a role to play. Teachers can re-enforce what parents are teaching their children, or help make the difference if children are missing out at home. They deserve all our support in maintaining discipline in the classroom. So Gillian Shephard is reviewing some of the sanctions available to schools – in particular, some of the current restraints on schools’ ability to exclude pupils and schools’ rights to detain pupils after school.

But when children do turn to crime, the first step down the slippery slope often starts by playing truant. Truancy is a problem for the community if there are children out on the streets making mischief during the day. And if children are out on the streets, they’re failing to learn the skills they need to get a job. And they’re also more likely to fall into criminality.

We’ve taken action to identify those children who are at greatest risk of turning to a career of crime. We must make sure that the child who persistently plays truant becomes a concern not just of their school, but of all other agencies who can help – the police, probation, social services and voluntary bodies. Wherever possible we must support parents and schools in their fight against truancy.

But sadly some children still end up in the courts. Sometimes one appearance in court is sufficient – the jolt of a salutary experience prevents any further misbehaviour. But too frequently that isn’t the case.

The court is lenient and the child is relieved. He offends again – and again. And he learns that courts can do very little. So he begins to think there’s no proper sanction against anti-social behaviour.

That’s very dangerous to an immature mind. Children, in their own interests, need a line in the sand. And they need to know that, if they cross it, there’s a price to be paid.

They must learn that society will not tolerate this behaviour. And they need to understand this lesson early on. The courts must have the power to deal with them.

So we will build five secure training centres for 12-14 year aids who persistently offend. They’ll be put through a disciplined and rigorous routine – regrettably, often for the first time in their lives – to put them back on the straight and narrow. And we’re trying a similar, disciplined approach for some 18-21 year olds, who will face a tough 16-hour day, starting with drill before breakfast, ending at 10 at night.

But behind too much of today’s crime – from youth crime onwards – lies the growing menace of drugs. For many, drug addiction can be the first step in a life of crime. The defining experience that leads to an addiction that’s paid for by petty theft – and then more serious crime.

Our strategy against drugs is wide-ranging. Tony Newton set it out last year. It covers both supply and demand. It addresses drug-related crime, the threat to young people and the health risks of drug misuse.

We’ve set up teams to work with schools, health authorities, and the police to fight drug abuse in the community. But drugs aren’t simply a social problem. They’re a problem fuelled by greedy, ruthless, international criminals who see drugs as a cynical route to profit. As with all crime, it’s those individuals we have to deal with. Catch the drug pusher and you cut off the supplier. Stop the drugs supply and you cut off the problem.

Drug supply is international. So we’re giving the Security Service the power to support the police in tracking down drug dealers and putting them behind bars. This is a new responsibility for the Security Service – but it’s justified. We must tackle the international drugs problem at its source – and we’re working with our European partners to do so.

But Mr Chairman, fighting crime on the front line means fighting it on the streets. There’s no more reassuring sight than the bobby on the beat. He both prevents crime and removes the fear of crime.

Since 1979 we’ve recruited 16,000 more police officers. 700 more are expected this year alone. Over the next three years we’ve budgeted for 5,000 more. And also since 1979 more than 17,000 civilians have been recruited by the police – freeing up police officers to do the work which only police officers can do.

But obviously we can’t have a policeman on every street corner. The public have a role to play too. The famous silent majority can turn the tide against the criminal. And they’re doing so. Through 143,000 Neighbourhood Watch schemes. Or by becoming one of the 20,000 Special Constables.

I could swamp you with figures galore to show how successful these schemes are. But what matters as much – or maybe more – is involving people in taking a stand on crime, fighting crime in the community, a community.

Of course criminals are now more sophisticated – but increasingly the police are ahead of the game.

Security cameras cut crime. There’s no longer any argument about who saw what. In Newcastle 870 suspects have been caught on camera in the last 3 years. Already, three quarters of these have come to court. 99 per cent pleaded guilty. 100 per cent were convicted.

DNA – the genetic fingerprints of the twenty-first century – is another weapon in our armoury. A single hair can identify the criminal. There are now over 26,000 records – 26,000 who know they’re marked men.

This is how we’re helping the police to take the fight to the criminal. And not only with science. For too long, police had to sit by while known criminals carried on committing crimes. So we’ve given them new powers to get the evidence they need to arrest them – including strengthening the power to stop and search.

But having caught criminals, we must ensure that the guilty are convicted. Trials should be a search for the truth – not a game of cat and mouse. That’s why we have reformed the right to silence. And why we’re changing the procedures to stop defence lawyers playing procedural games to get their clients off when they’re guilty. Criminals mustn’t be allowed to make a mockery of the law.

We’re delivering a level playing field in court. But what is a ‘fair’ sentence if the accused is convicted?

Tolerance and understanding are characteristic of our people. I hope they will always be. But punishment – whatever form it takes – is central to our system of justice.

The public want criminals to pay a price for their actions. Not out of vengeance. But because the feeling that the criminal has been allowed to get away with it adds a sense of injustice to the pain and loss of the victim.

I have lost count of the times people have said to me that criminals should serve their sentence in full. I agree.

At present a burglar sentenced to six years can expect to be out in four – no matter what. That’s wrong.

It’s particularly wrong when we know a small number of hardened criminals are responsible for a high proportion of crimes. People want to know that professional criminals get tough sentences.

The average sentence for a burglar on his first offence is 14.4 months. And he can expect to be released after 7.2 months.

But what do you think is the average sentence for burglars who have ten or more convictions?

16.8 months with automatic release – with the expectation of release after 8.4 months.

Commonsense suggests that cannot be just. And commonsense says that, if a persistent criminal is not behind bars, he’s more likely to be out on the street offending again.

No wonder many people feel the law is letting them down. Too many criminals are raising two fingers at justice. We’re determined to put that right.

We’ve been consulting on plans to end automatic early release from prison. Under our proposals model prisoners will be eligible for time off for good behaviour. Everyone else will serve their sentences in full.

Anyone convicted for a second time of a serious offence of sex or violence would automatically get life. They would only be released when they’re no longer a danger to the public.

And for persistent burglars and drug dealers, we propose stiff minimum sentences. Behind bars, crime is out and they’re in.

These are tough proposals. They will be controversial. Of course, we will consult on them. But I believe it’s right to have greater certainty in sentencing. And I believe most people will support this approach. They will see it as fair. And so do I.

You might have thought that all this would be common ground with our opponents, the Labour Party.

So would I. But we would be wrong. Their record shows it. No matter what they say about crime, they persistently do something else. On another subject, one of them recently said ‘Watch my lips’. Well, we watched. And we saw what they did. And it was quite different from what they said. And so it is on law and order.

We gave the police better powers to deal with riots. Labour opposed us.

We raised maximum sentences for serious offences – like taking a gun to a crime. Labour opposed us.

We gave the Attorney General right of appeal against lenient sentences. Labour opposed us.

We decided to set up the secure training centres for young offenders. Labour opposed us.

We are cracking down on bogus asylum seekers. Labour oppose us.

And when the Home Secretary announced his 27 proposals to fight crime, the Shadow Home Secretary – now leader of the Labour Party – dismissed them as ‘gimmicks’.

And this from the man who, only tonight, is saying that ‘the only strategy with an ounce of honesty or commonsense is to insist that serious crimes require serious punishment’.

But let me be fair. When it came to the last Criminal Justice Act – which, amongst other things, gave the police new rights to stop and search, courts the power to clamp down on bail bandits, and allowed for drug testing in prisons – what did Labour do? They abstained.

Day by day, Labour show themselves in their real colours. And the colour they reveal is not soft focus blue. It’s the colour of envy and hypocrisy.

Mr Chairman, our aim is to prevent crime where we can. Detect it where it takes place. And punish strongly but fairly. In short, to get a law and order system that works. And we’re making some progress. We’ve seen the largest ever drop in recorded crime over a 2 year period. 572,000 fewer recorded crimes. 380,000 fewer thefts. 175,000 fewer burglaries. 4,800 fewer violent crimes last year alone – the first annual drop in violent crime for almost 50 years.

We’ve taken a few knocks along the way. I don’t mind that. The irony is that those who have opposed our reforms almost always claimed to do so under the banner of freedom. I’m more than happy to argue about freedom with our opponents. Our reforms are all about freedom.

Where is the freedom if victims see their aggressors released after derisory punishment?

When the persistent burglar gets little more than a slap on the wrist?

People have a right to live in safety, without fear.

And if that means sterner sentences to make professional criminals more fearful, so be it.

If that means thugs in balaclavas are put out of reach of their prey, so be it.

Crime isn’t one of those trivial issues which grabs the headlines for a day and is then forgotten.

It runs much deeper than that. For many it makes their blood boil. For others, it saps their morale. For all decent people it offends their sense of right and wrong.

As Prime Minister, my aim is to ensure we have a system of justice which protects the public and the innocent. Which respects the victim. Which punishes those who break our laws.

The vast majority of our people are law abiding citizens. They are the backbone of this country we all share. Our job is to maintain a system that defends their rights, their children and their property. And that’s what we’re determined to do.