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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 November, 2003, 16:56 GMT
Text of Michael Howard's speech
Here is the text of Michael Howard's first public speech as Conservative leader.

A week ago I set out why I was seeking the leadership of the Conservative Party.

Today, with a speed and degree of consensus that has confounded the pundits and astonished me, I am excited, if daunted, to find that it has happened.

I wanted my first public statement as leader to be away from Westminster, here in Putney, on an estate in a constituency where Conservatives must start to win again. And surrounded by those who as candidates will be in the front line of our campaign.

I said I would lead this party from its centre. A party that is uniting around its central principles. Our task is to put these principles to the service of 21st century Britain.

I also said that we would offer a different kind of politics. Something better. Rigorous honesty, measured criticism and realistic alternatives.

A different kind of politics does not mean that there are no longer any differences.

Labour's preferences are still for state control and central diktat. Faced with a problem they are still programmed to tax and regulate their way out of it.

Our approach is based on different solutions, on what people themselves can do in their own communities and families.

People are already disillusioned with Labour's approach. They see the inadequacies of Labour's delivery; and above all they see that Labour continually present public service failure as success.

The only result is a growing cynicism about the whole political process, from which we suffer as much as they do.

Our task is to be once again a credible and appealing alternative government. 21st century Conservatives must show they understand 21st century Britain.

Of course a great and historic party has a strong feeling for Britain's history. We feel no need to reject Britain's past.

We are proud of it. We know that Britain's future has to be built on what is already there.

But we have to look forward, not back. We must understand how Britain has changed in the last twenty years. And that means we have to be respectful of decisions people make about how to live their lives.

I want us to be a party for all Britain and all Britons. Conservatives know that most of what we do is done together - with others, whether in the family, at work, sports, clubs, church.

A living thriving community is one where people come together to make things happen.

They don't assume that everything is someone else's responsibility. Self-help, mutual support, neighbourliness in action.

In Britain today, people are making choices all the time in their daily lives.

We live in a free and sophisticated society, in which every day people make myriads of decisions which determine the quality of their lives.

They want the opportunity to do the best for themselves and their families. Parents know their own children best, better than any bureaucrat.

So parents should have more say and more choice over their children's education. And greater choice in health care.

And people work hard for the money they earn. They want to keep more of it, to save more, to support better their families and communities.

People want a sense of security. They want to know they can get the health care they need. To feel secure in retirement. To be safe in their homes, and on their streets.

And they want fairness. No one should be over-powerful. Not trade unions. Not corporations. Not the government. Not the European Union.

Wherever we see bullying by the over-mighty, we will oppose it, and stand up for people's rights and freedoms.

There is a growing consensus today that our public services are inadequate.

Let me be clear about what I mean.

There are many thousands of talented and dedicated people working in our schools, hospitals and other services.

They strive to provide excellence - and often they deliver it.

But the quality of the services used by most people no longer matches our greatly increased expectations.

This is emphatically not the fault of those working on the front line. On the contrary, they are as much the victims of the system as the patients, pupils, parents and passengers.

It is the system of central control that needs changing. For too long, politicians have preferred to offer false assurance and increased expenditure as a substitute for serious thought and action.

I'm quite sure that Tony Blair and some of the people around him now realise that things cannot go on as before.

But he knows that the Labour Party will never accept the reforms needed to build first class public services.

For too many of his MPs words like 'choice' and 'competition' are as welcome as a clove of garlic to Dracula.

Indeed it is an exquisite irony that the prime minister who railed against 'the forces of conservatism' now finds himself at the head of the forces of reaction.

We are different. We are passionately committed to the transformation of our schools, hospitals, transport and policing.

The modern Conservative approach for modern Britain is to trust people. Trust the users of services to make choices.

Not to patronise them by assuming they're not capable of it. Give people choice and people will generally make good choices.

And trusting those who deliver services to know how best to do it. We'll cut the fly-by-wire controls that lead straight back to a dashboard in Whitehall.

We want the police to be answerable directly to the residents they serve, not to remote target-setters and bean-counters in London SW1.

Central control stifles initiative and innovation. If people don't have the freedom to make mistakes then they will never have the space to make the huge step changes that fuel human progress.

For as long as I've been in politics Labour have claimed that Conservatives would destroy public services.

The scare stories flow off the word-processors as if hard-wired into the system.

Even Mr Blair's half-hearted reforms have been condemned as vandalism by trade union reactionaries.

And no doubt the same Mr Blair will use the same language to denounce us at the next election.

I don't think people will be swayed this time. Because the ideas we put forward won't come out of thin air.

They have been tried and tested in other advanced democracies - and have worked.

Britain has the fourth largest economy in the world. We are a first class country with second-class public services.

It isn't good enough, and it's our challenge to put it right.

But the election won't only be about public services. It will also be about tax.

Tony Blair said he wouldn't raise taxes but he's presided over sixty tax rises.

We'll do something different. We won't promise tax cuts unless they are backed by rock solid savings in wasteful spending.

Nor will we play ducks and drakes with Britain's precarious public finances.

Not for us the spend today, pay tomorrow approach into which Labour are now falling.

We will be responsible custodians of the public finances.

The next Conservative Government will be a reforming administration. Our priority will be to shape our public services to meet the legitimate expectations of the British people.

Some will say: 'Why can you not do that AND deliver tax cuts?'

To them I say this: when the public services have been reformed the money will certainly go further. And yes, we would like to cut taxes. I hope we can.

And we will make the case for low taxes. You don't just have a stronger economy; you have a more cohesive society when people pay less tax.

They do more not just for themselves but for each other and for their communities. But we will be responsible.

My approach is a simple one: Promise less, deliver more.

I said last week that a Conservative Party that aspires to lead a great nation cannot ignore the pockets of desperate poverty that disfigure modern Britain. I meant it.

The poverty that traps generations is concentrated in inner city neighbourhoods where communities have been failing for a generation or more.

So often these failing communities suffer from very high levels of crime, failing schools, poor quality housing, poor health.

Breaking the cycle of failure requires concerted action and strong new local leadership with the power to force through change.

I don't claim for a second that we have all the answers yet. But our policies to enlarge choice and opportunity point the way forward.

It's not just in terms of geography that we will not accept no-go areas. On policy too we insist on our duty to talk frankly and directly to the voters.

We aren't going to duck any of the problems that face Britain. No retreat into blandness. No turning the other way.

I am proud of Britain's history as a safe haven for refugees over the centuries. People have always wanted to come to Britain, as my own family did.

But like every other country, we know that immigration has to be strictly controlled. We have a choice.

We either create an orderly system in which those who are entitled to come here are admitted, or we can persist with the chaos of the status quo.

And let no one argue that the current muddle is in any way humane. It is not humane to allow desperate deprived people from the third world to believe that they will be able freely and lawfully to enter Britain, making them prey to the human traffickers who exploit them. It is no kindness to genuine refugees to keep them waiting sometimes for years before their cases are resolved.

I said last week that I had learned quite a bit in my time in politics. I'm probably a bit more mellow than I was. I've had more time in recent years to see and enjoy this amazing country of ours; to meet lots of people.

I've learned quite a lot more about Britain and its people. And I'm constantly inspired by their qualities.

Generosity. Respect. Humour. Ingenuity. And sheer enjoyment of life. Every one of us can do the most astonishing things. But only if we get the chance.

If we have the space, the freedom, the education, the good health, the opportunity, to do great things, great things will be done.

There is no higher privilege I can imagine than to be entrusted with the government of this country.

It will not be easy to win that trust. The Conservative Party will have to show day by day through what we say and what we do that we are fit to govern.

When the day of decision arrives, if we have earned it, we will be called to serve. We must be ready to answer that call.




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