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banner Thursday, 5 October, 2000, 12:08 GMT 13:08 UK
Widdecombe stands by drugs policy
Ann Widdecombe
The speech went down well - at first
Ann Widdecombe has vigorously defended her policy of a mandatory 100 fine for possession of even the smallest quantities of soft drugs.

In an interview with BBC News Online, the shadow home secretary said she had no regrets about her speech and denied that the Conservatives were rowing back on it.

Ann Widdecombe announced zero tolerance of drugs again yesterday - but... unfortunately displayed almost zero common sense

The Daily Telegraph
Miss Widdecombe rounded on commentators and newspapers such as the "normally very respectable" Daily Telegraph for distorting what she had said.

She also denied that the policy had not been approved by the shadow cabinet, saying it had gone through all the proper procedures.

 The Widdecombe webcast in full

Miss Widdecombe's speech, delivered to the party conference on Wednesday, was well received at the time but provoked immediate criticism - not only from drugs workers and rights groups, but from the police, and members and supporters of of her own party.

'I said no such thing!'

Miss Widdecombe, however, was in no mood to back down.

It is also untrue to say we are rowing back today - we are not

Ann Widdecombe
She said the Telegraph had reported her as equating small amounts of possession to drug-dealing: "I said no such thing!"

The shadow home secretary said that she had actually proposed a new law of "substantial possession" for cases where the amount of drugs was clearly more than for an individual, but where intent to supply was difficult to prove.

Penalties for that crime would be similar to those for dealing, she said, not just for possession.

On the issue of criminalising a whole generation of young people, Miss Widdecombe said people get police records - not criminal records - now if they are cautioned for drug use.

That situation would remain the same with the 100 fine for a first offence - second offences would go through the courts and those guilty would indeed get criminal records.

However, Miss Widdecombe was at pains to point out one important fact about the mandatory fine - that it sent a message that drug-taking was wrong.

She said it was all very well saying that trivial amounts of soft drugs were no threat, but if thousands of people used cannabis then that amounted to a powerful incentive to supply drugs and therefore to commit crime.

Not a problem of principle

Questioned about criticism from the police, Miss Widdecombe said she had "for many months" been talking to senior officers and to those on the beat, and they had no trouble with her proposals.

"It is not a problem of principle. It is a problem of resources", she said.

The police were concerned as they did not have the manpower to deal with what could be a lot of cases because they had been starved by Labour. That was something the Tories would reverse and which she had explained in her conference speech.

The shadow home secretary also denied suggestions that her proposal had not been approved by the shadow cabinet.

"There is no mechanism whereby a shadow cabinet member can stand up at conference and announce a policy that has not gone through the clearance mechanisms. Mine has gone through them," she said.

"It is also untrue to say we are rowing back today. We are not. We are sticking with exactly the same policies I announced yesterday," she declared.

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