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Thursday, 31 May, 2001, 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK
Ann Widdecombe quizzed

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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Ann Widdecombe, the Conservatives' home affairs spokeswoman, answered your questions in an online debate on 31 May.

Issues discussed included the early release of prisoners, asylum, homelessness, the House of Lords and the privatisation of the prison service. She was also asked whether she would like to be Prime Minister.

Ann Widdecombe answered a selection of your questions.


Below is a transcript of the interview

News Host:

Hello and welcome to the BBC News Online Election Forum and my name is Vicky Berry and I'm joined today by Ann Widdecombe the Shadow Home Secretary. Miss Widdecombe we've had hundreds of emails on many contentious issues so let's get straight on to the first one which is on drugs from Gary Sercombe in Lychfield. He says, the Conservative Party appears to be in a pitiful muddle over your suggestion about first time drug offenders facing a fixed penalty, can you tell us what the actual Tory policy is and do you have one?

Ann Widdecombe:

Yes we certainly do and as I made clear at conference the, the policy ranges right over the whole gamut of drugs from a heavy supply of hard drugs all the way down to small possession of soft drugs. Now all that policy stays in tact except for the issue of how we curtail demand for soft drugs. At the moment there's a very cumbersome procedure whereby the law gives you a penalty of up to five years in prison, it involves court appearances, that is not sensible from the police point of view because very often it can be a one off and something they'd rather deal with much more quickly. And so that was what the fine was attempted to bridge. Now because of the concerns and anxieties that were expressed we said that we would consult on the best way to curtail demand and we would also consult on the fine and whether we needed to refine it or abandon it or whatever. We're still in that process of consultation so for the moment the law stays exactly as it is which means that if a prosecution is mounted on the basis of possession it can up to five years in prison.

News Host:

And will you be looking at that if you get into power?

Ann Widdecombe:

We, we, we are still consulting on the best way quickly and effectively to try and combat demand.

News Host:

Okay, on to immigration and asylum, Janet Ellis in Brighton wants to know whether when you talk about returning asylum seekers to approved safe countries are you advocating the return of the white lists, how do you equate this policy with the logic that a country may not be safe for all its citizens and that each asylum application should be based on the circumstances of that particular individual?

Ann Widdecombe:

Yes I am advocating that we run a list which was nicknamed the white list but we simply called it a list of safe countries of origin. Now we said right at the.. And what we are going to reintroduce is that if you do come from a safe country of origin you'll be fast-tracked, it will be presumed it's unfounded, you'll be fast-tracked through. If something arises to make us believe that this is something wholly exceptional then it simply gets slowed and moved into the normal procedures.

News Host:

Right, Alex Fine from Stourbridge wants to know, on penal policy now, how your party's going to pay for the increase in the prison population that would result if the prisoner release scheme were to be abolished. Now this is the scheme that the, the Labour Party have at the moment, that releases some prisoners extra early. The Prison Reform Trust has estimated in the increase in prison numbers of 65,000 at a cost of 6 billion?

Ann Widdecombe:

No, no, no, that's nonsense. The early release scheme means that at any given time about 2,000 prisoners who would otherwise have been serving their sentence out, this is Labour's special early release scheme. Over the course of a year you might get up to those numbers but at any given time you're finding places for another 2,000. Now Labour say that the scheme saves them 37 million, so if it saves them 37 million it would cost us 37 million and there is a half a billion unallocated sum in the Home Office budget.

News Host:

Okay, Andrew Checkett asks what do you think of Martin Nary saying that all prisoners should be called Mr or by their first name?

Ann Widdecombe:

I think it's a very extraordinary sense of priorities, I mean you've got a situation at the moment where in our jails assaults are up, assaults on staff are up, suicides are up, over-crowding's up, slopping out is back in some wings of some prisons, purposeful activity is down, it's very dismal picture compared with four years ago and therefore I could not give a priority to this in the middle of all of that. I also think you've got to allow prison officers to make judgements, they know when somebody's to be spoken to sharply, they know when somebody needs to be encouraged because they're feeling depressed, perhaps then you use a Christian name. They know when somebody's made a supreme effort and, and has got a real chance of making something of their lives outside prison, that's the time to introduce the note of respect and reward. Let prison officers make the judgement.

News Host:

Well one of those people who work in the prison service has also written to us. Peter Speller from Hythe, he wants to know what the Conservative Policy is on privatisation of the prison service?

Ann Widdecombe:

It's worked phenomenally well, the four privatised prisons that went out initially have got the best reports from the Chief Inspector, the best reports from the Select Committee, it was a policy that was fiercely resisted but sold itself through its success and that is why this government, although just a fortnight before the election it said it was going to discontinue the privatisation programme, has in fact gone ahead with it and why we certainly would continue to do so.

News Host:

Steve Handley in Finchley quotes your colleague Michael Howard who used to say prison works, he says over the years millions of pounds have been invested in prison workshops, most of which remain greatly underused because prisoners...

Ann Widdecombe:

Yes...

News Host:

Are rarely out of their cells long enough and even if they do they don't want to work. So how will you ensure that this industrial investment is properly utilised?

Ann Widdecombe:

It's a really good question because prison works in two ways. It protects the public in the short-term by keeping somebody off the streets, works very well at doing that. But it's also supposed to work in the longer term by making sure that the person who is returned to society is more capable of leading a law-abiding life than he was when he went in and that is where it fails hopelessly with some 57 per cent reoffending. And I believe, along with your correspondent, that a part of that is that we don't actually supply full working days in prisons. Now one of the reasons is that we have for some how got into the habit in this country of expecting the taxpayer just to fund prison work. In other countries industry, real contractors, real employers set up contracts with prisons and they become self-financing workshops. That is why in 1999 I announced that we would have a programme of self-financing prison workshops so that people from chaotic and disorderly lifestyles got into the habit of the full working day, it can be done.

News Host:

On policing now, Andy Hulme from Charlton, he says as with many other public services the police force has had trouble attracting suitable committed candidates into its ranks, how would the Conservative Party make becoming policeman or woman an attractive career option again for school leavers, especially in areas like London and Kent where high house prices make it very difficult for even the moderately well-paid to be able to enjoy a reasonable standard of living?

Ann Widdecombe:

Well of course the police hardly ever take people direct from school, they like to take older applicants and that is one of the problems because people who do have an interest, perhaps while they're at school, then go away and do something else and they don't want to come back into policing. So I've said, for example, let's set up a national police cadet force to try and keep the interest up while they're maturing enough to join the police. But of course one of the big things is that the job that you join up to do is the job that you actually do and what I find, people are saying to me, they knew what the pay was when they joined up, they knew that, what they didn't believe was that the job was just going t be so much form filling, stuck in police stations when they wanted to be out fighting criminals and that is why we've said that a part of our policy of getting the numbers of will be retaining policemen by making the job worth doing, taking away much of that paperwork - can't take all of it away but taking away much of that paperwork and getting the police actually out there visible in their communities.

News Host:

On to homelessness now, Dave Harley from Birmingham, in the event you do become Home Secretary on June the 8th in a Conservative government led by William Hague, what will your policy be regarding homeless people, he says given that the Conservative government's response was to lock them up?

Ann Widdecombe:

Not at all, actually our last response was not to lock them up and by refusing to do so we were very often accused of just having too many on the streets. Now all you can do with homeless people is to make sure that there is an option, you can clamp down on aggressive begging and I believe that we should do that and feel that very strongly. But you have to make sure that there are options available. Now there are, you know there are social security officers in every social security office who will deal with homeless 16 and 17-year-olds, there are in most towns reception centres and charities and night shelters and day shelters and places which deal with the homeless and they don't just give shelter they give advice as well on how to make a serious start again. I don't know where he's got the idea that we lock them up from, I mean I can never remember us locking up homeless people.

News Host:

When, when you mention you're going to crack down on aggressive begging...

Ann Widdecombe:

Aggressive begging.

News Host:

Are you referring to the zero tolerance policy that we've seen recently say in New York?

Ann Widdecombe:

No when I'm talking about, I mean the zero tolerance policy in New York I think has huge lessons for us and that we can take some of that and we can transplant it here and other bits of it we can't. But when I talk about aggressive begging I mean just that, I mean begging that is just persistent, that is intimidating, that is, you know somebody who won't go away and I do think that that is a crime, I mean that is a crime. I mean technically all begging is a crime but that sort of aggressive and intimidating stuff can be very frightening.

News Host:

The House of Lords, now Don Fatchen from Stepney Green, he says what does the Tory Party intend to do about the constitutional reforms to the House of Lords. Now at the moment the Upper House seems to be in a kind of limbo, he says, thanks to Labour's constitutional reforms, now where do the Tories stand on this reform and how do you go about finalising these reforms or undoing them?

Ann Widdecombe:

Well what it comes down to is we've got to clear up Labour's mess and it is a sizeable mess and it's profoundly irresponsible because what they did was to actually make a fundamental change to our constitution without having the slightest notion what they were going to do next. So they took away, they didn't even take away all the hereditary peers, they took away all but 92, so it wasn't even as if some great principle was at stake, and then filled the place with their own patronage which, with their own appointments which has been an appalling way to manage the Upper Chamber. Now what we have said is there will have to be very wide consultation and hard work done on this to try and get the right mix but we do commit ourselves to an elected element, to try and get some democratic accountability. We would not have made the changes in the first place, certainly we wouldn't have done it this way and certainly we would have done it without widespread consent and I think that if, you know if you really want the hallmark of this government's arrogance and its utter contempt for Parliament just look at the way it's treated the Upper House.

News Host:

So are you going to undo what's been done?

Ann Widdecombe:

Well we will, we will have to build in an elected element, we will have to, as I say, consult on exactly how we form the future House of Lords. So, yes, we will undo the, the present situation whereby the Prime Minister simply fills the place with his own appointments, we will undo that, what, but if by undoing do you mean will we just repeal the whole thing and go back to the original, no that is not our intention.

News Host:

Okay, last question Miss Widdecombe, Will Jackson from Southport wants to know whether you have ambitions of being Prime Minister?

Ann Widdecombe:

I want to be Home Secretary, all these things I've been talking to you about I cannot do if we are still in opposition on June the 8th, I can't do them. To do anything you've got to be in government and I'd rather be Home Secretary in government than anything you like in opposition.

News Host:

Ann Widdecombe thank you very much for joining me.

Ann Widdecombe:

Thank you.

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