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Oliver Letwin MP, shadow home secretary
Oliver Letwin MP, shadow home secretary

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: The issue of crime is much to the fore this weekend as well, while lurid stories of car jackings and muggings continue to shock the Home Secretary is backing more use of the controversial stop and search policy to try and reduce street crime. In New York the police have adopted a high profile campaign of active intervention known as zero tolerance and achieved remarkable results. Street crime plummeted and some see this as a model for Britain. The Shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin has been in New York patrolling with the NYPD and he's just got back and he's just arrived here, Oliver, welcome.

OLIVER LETWIN: Good morning.

DAVID FROST: I want to come on to the stop and search in a second but while we're talking there about New York, were you impressed by what you saw in New York, did you think zero tolerance had further application for this country?

OLIVER LETWIN: Well I was impressed, I don't actually think that the phrase zero tolerance captures the point, I think the two essential features of the difference are that in New York there are policemen on the streets, there are policemen walking the streets, there are policemen 24 hours patrolling the streets. Very small areas and that means the police are getting to know what's actually going on on the streets and arresting people who are engaged in street crime. The second thing that happens which I think we also need to import is that right the way through the force there is an understanding of what is going on street-by-street so that right up to the level of the equivalent of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police here, the police chiefs and lower down the cops on the street know that there's a problem in a particular avenue or street and they have to produce a plan to deal with that and they have, there's accountability right the way up the force for that.

DAVID FROST: What's the difference between the two Oliver, in terms of the percentage of bobbies, as we'd say here, on the beat, I mean are there just lots more people on the beat in New York?

OLIVER LETWIN: There are lots more focused on the streets and there's much more attention right the way through the force on street crime. So here if you go to a Chief Constable and you ask them what is happening in a particular village or a particular street in their city they would look at you with amazement because that's not the role of the Chief Constable of Britain. The role of the Chief Constable of Britain has to do with opening fetes and dealing with big macroscopic management issues and filling out forms for the Home Secretary and achieving targets and going to meetings. But actually focusing on the crime where it is isn't something that our forces yet do and I want to refocus them towards the streets.

DAVID FROST: And what about, in that context, very much relevant to that is, as you will have read today, Blunkett gives backing to stop and search. The Home Secretary is going to reignite the whole debate about race and crime when he gives his wholehearted backing to controversial police powers to stop and search people being suspected of being involved in crime. Now increasing that figure which went down partially because race fears and so on like that, now is this, is this a good, a good initiative by David Blunkett or not?

OLIVER LETWIN: I think it is a good initiative by David Blunkett, actually I don't think he's going to reignite, notwithstanding that you are a journalist, I don't intend to reignite huge rows about race, he and I were both approached recently by a magazine called the Voice which is a black community magazine. They want to reinstate stop and search properly, they want to see it come back to the force because many people who are upstanding citizens in Brixton or Southwark who happen to be black are just as worried about crime which they suffer from more than you and I do actually, as we are and they want to see it stopped. So more police on the streets, stop and search certainly, but also focus of the police in Britain towards street crime and the, the one thing I would say about David Blunkett's admirable proposals there is that sort of thing is meant to be coming forward in a series of bills and unfortunately at the moment two of the bills, the Criminal Justice Bill and the Extradition Bill have been shelved for hunting. So I admire his initiative, I wish he would carry it through.

DAVID FROST: I see but as it stands you don't think it will be a lot of opposition because it makes sense?

OLIVER LETWIN: I think it does make sense.

DAVID FROST: What about in terms of policies, Justice Wolf was saying this week that in fact fewer people should be sent to prison because there are 69,000, we're nearly up to the over flow limit of 70,000 and so on and let's have less sending by Magistrates and others of people to prison and at the same time we've got today the editorial in the Sunday Telegraph saying what we need is more cells, where do you stand on that?

OLIVER LETWIN: Well in the long run I would like to see less people going to prison because in the long run I'd like to see less crime on the streets, that would mean fewer people to be convicted. But in the short run I fear we're going to have to find ways of arresting and convicting a much higher proportion of the criminals before we're going to put people off crime, that's the whole experience of cities where they've succeeded in conquering crime and if we have to have more prisons to deal with that in the short term then I think that's something the government has to face up to. Now we'll see whether in fact they are going to face up to that but what I'm clear about is that trying to run sentencing policy and trying to run policing on the basis that you mustn't arrest and convict people, and you mustn't send them to jail simply because you've got a problem with the prisons is not the way to solve crime in this country.

DAVID FROST: And so in terms of policies on that, you take that particular line. What do you feel about all the, the statements that have been, been made about freedom for judges and so on, I mean if we had to make a choice between judges and politicians should we choose judges or politicians?

OLIVER LETWIN: I think you should always choose the professionals over the politicians. Politicians are good at reflecting public mood and I hope collectively, most of the time, half-way reasonable at legislating. But politicians should not be in charge of the operations, that's why I object to the Home Secretary's attempt at the Police Reform Bill which I hope we will defeat to control every police force in Britain from his desk in Whitehall and I would also object to efforts to control the judges. We need a police force and judges who are independent of politicians.

DAVID FROST: What about in your field, in your bailiwick, the big news of probably Lib-Dems conference about the decriminalisation of, of cannabis and of not sending people to jail for drug offences and so on, in the changing world we live in are they being modern and enlightened or not?

OLIVER LETWIN: Well I don't think there's an easy answer to this problem, I would prefer to refocus the debate completely and that's what we're currently working on. To my mind the thing we all ought to be agreeing about is that drug dependency in the UK ought to be much lower. I don't see any sign of the Liberal Democrats or indeed the government currently having and we need to develop a policy for actually reducing drug dependency right the way across the spectrum of drugs. Now which way would you see it, I don't know but simply decriminalising is not an answer to reduction.

DAVID FROST: If you'd been in the Shadow Cabinet when all your colleagues were asked whether you'd ever tried, whether they'd ever tried cannabis would you have said yes?

OLIVER LETWIN: I was one of those who did admit because we were told that we should be honest about it and I was as a matter of fact my own particular case was entirely involuntary because I was very cross with some friends who put some cannabis in a pipe, I used to smoke a pipe, a rather pretentious undergraduate. So I, I have had the experience although unwillingly but the fact is that the cannabis that's being smoked today as I understand it is vastly more powerful than what was going on when I was a student and has real effects on people's brains and their ability to conduct a normal life and we surely want to see a reduction in the dependence on it rather than an increase.

DAVID FROST: Right so that's a target for the future, but I mean in basically we can't battle against drugs in the old-fashioned way?

OLIVER LETWIN: I don't think we can battle against any of these things, crime or drugs in the way we have been doing because the evidence is it's failed. Drug dependency's on the increase, street crime is on the increase, something is clearly wrong. We need to start looking again and what I've been trying to draw attention to in a series of speeches is the need to get people off what I call the conveyor belt to crime. We have to have not just very tough policing on the streets arresting people but also a plethora of actions to try and lift the young people who are getting into drugs and onto crime out of that pattern of life and that will mean a huge involvement of the voluntary sector, much more coordination with the local authorities and the police.

DAVID FROST: Oliver thank you for being with us this morning.


DAVID FROST: Much appreciated, Oliver Letwin there.


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