New weapons in the war against poverty
It is nearly three months since Iain Duncan Smith and I visited Glasgow's Easterhouse estate.
Since then Iain has promised to champion the people of estates like Easterhouse and challenged all of us to find ways of involving every vulnerable person in the life of our country. Iain told the Conservative Party's Spring Conference: "A nation that leaves its vulnerable behind, diminishes its own future. Britain will never be all that it should be until opportunity and security mean something to people in Easterhouse. To make this country theirs as much as it is ours. That is a mission fit for the new century."
Today - at this meeting of Scotland's Conservative Christian Fellowship - I want to talk about how Conservatives will address the reality of poverty and vulnerability in twenty-first century Scotland.
Sadly, Easterhouse is not the only estate in Scotland where local people have to daily confront the consequences of crime, community breakdown, drug addiction and failing public services.
Estates like Easterhouse bear the brunt of today's social problems but they are not alone.
Even in some of Scotland's most prosperous neighbourhoods, individuals and families are often struggling to overcome experiences of anti-social behaviour, family breakdown, debt or addiction.
The problems of our age do not respect boundaries of geography, income or ethnicity.
And it wasn't supposed to be this way.
As Scotland and other western countries grew richer the problem of poverty was expected to diminish.
We have never spent more on welfare and the public services but schools in hard-pressed areas are still failing too many children and hospital waiting lists and times are too high and too long.
We have conquered scientific and technological frontiers but many of our society's most vulnerable people lack the most basic kinds of companionship.
Of course we have made progress in the last twenty years. Much material poverty has been alleviated but twenty-first century poverty has new faces and new forms. Poverty used to be essentially material in nature. Strong, resilient families and communities helped people cope with shortages of income. Today the situation has almost been reversed. Most people have more income and wealth but this material well-being does not compensate for the new fragility of family, public order and failing public services.
Those who seek to lead Scotland can carry on pulling the same policy levers and hope that they will eventually work or they can look for new ways to tackle poverty.
Scotland's Conservatives are ready and willing to meet this challenge.
In the recent past we rose to the challenge of Britain's economic crisis.
Today we must rise to the challenge of the social crisis that affects far too many of our communities.
Our people who live in them deserve nothing less. We must open our minds, not turn our backs.
The Labour and Liberal Democrat-run Scottish Executive have talked a great deal about social justice and I would not question their motives or their commitment to help people in need.
But I do want to question whether their policies are actually serving the people they promise to help.
For every social problem Labour and the Liberal Democrats have only one answer - to spend more taxpayers' money.
I strongly agree that our public services need more investment but that investment needs to be focused on key priorities and needs to be associated with reform.
I have five key questions for the Scottish Executive and the Labour Government in Westminster concerning how they spend taxpayers' money.
First, is the extra welfare expenditure helping people move towards independence or is it creating more dependence within an increasingly complex, and often humiliating, maze of means-tested benefits?
Second, is Labour's extra welfare expenditure helping hard-pressed families stay together or is it indifferent to the importance of marriage and the extended family as the best basis for the upbringing of children?
Third, is the money going into Scotland's schools equipping children to avoid self-destructive behaviours or is it ignoring parents' values for the sake of political correctness?
Fourth, is the money being spent on Scotlands vital public services equipping frontline teachers, doctors, nurses and police officers or is it being lost in bureaucracy and administration?
And finally, is the funding of the voluntary sector reaching innovative, neighbourhood-based groups involving local people or being gobbled up by a professional poverty industry and is the contract culture undermining the independence and autonomy of the voluntary sector which is vital to finding innovative solutions to our social problems?
I direct these questions to Jack McConnell, Jim Wallace and the rest of Scotland's political establishment.
But I also ask every person living in Easterhouse and in other hard-pressed communities throughout Scotland to think about those questions.
Labour has constantly promised to help the most vulnerable people in Scotland but their self-professed monopoly of compassion is as bankrupt and ineffective as the economic policies that once made Britain the sickest economy in Europe.
All but one of the Executive's social justice targets focus on government-centred action. Families, faith-based groups, community-based charities, professionals and the other good neighbours of Scotland are only useful insofar as they do as they are told by their political masters.
The Executive declares its intention to provide every child with the best start in life "regardless of family background". Of course, we must do everything we can to help all children in Scotland to fulfil their potential. However, it is difficult to envisage the renewal of our poorest communities without a strengthening of the family. Poor families are disproportionately headed by lone parents and poverty in this country above all affects women and children. In our poorest areas, the two parent family has proved particularly fragile. To say this is not to condemn the single parent. We should applaud lone parents who are doing their best to bring up children on their own. I was a lone parent myself for over three years and know something from personal experience of the stresses that brings. What it does mean is that tackling poverty means tackling family breakdown and a successful social justice agenda cannot be neutral on the family.
Labour's approach to the family is short-sighted because it does not strengthen them, but instead through its tax credit policy is drawing many families that are by no means poor into welfare dependency. The new Child Tax Credit goes up the income scale to £58,000 - even more than an MSP earns if such a thing were possible. This is storing up trouble for a time when the economy is on a downturn. It's like building houses with no roofs and hoping that the sun will never stop shining and limits the ability of the state to help those in real need in bad times. A sensible welfare policy will use today's economic prosperity to encourage sustainable families and to build self-supporting communities. Only then will Scotland be prepared for rainy days.
The Scottish Conservatives' approach is radically different.
Government has a vital role in the task of building a more socially just Scotland but it should never be a greedy and politically correct monopolist in that task.
Our long-term stability depends upon good schools, strong families, active citizens and charities, and on public services run by respected professionals.
Scottish Conservatives believe that every person in Scotland should enjoy five key things:
the support of strong families and communities;
a real safety-net for the vulnerable; and
first class public services for all.
In the rest of my remarks I'd like to briefly describe what these five themes involve.
I begin with economy security.
It is now widely accepted that the economic changes made by the last Conservative Government were necessary, but there is still a perception even five years on that we did not manage this transition in a sympathetic manner and for this we continue to pay a political price. An open, competitive economy is essential to creating new jobs and raising living standards for all, which is the only true foundation of economic security. That is why we must fight Labour's over-regulation that is beginning to suffocate the job-creating potential of our economy. However, we have to recognise that necessary aspects of a strong global market economy such as flexible labour markets bring with them elements of insecurity. It is easy to forget through the overuse of jargon such as labour markets, downsizing and human resources that what we are actually talking about are millions of individuals and families and their livelihoods.
That is why Conservatives understand that it is the role of government to smooth these transitions by ensuring a financial safety-net, easing mobility and increasing the security of pensions.
In emphasising policy action for vulnerable people, Conservatives are not abandoning our belief that a low tax, low regulation economy is best for poverty-reduction and material security.
We still understand the importance of economic growth and financial security but we also know that it is not sufficient and it must be pursued within a broader social policy context.
The Scottish Conservatives' second priority is to make our streets safe again.
Crime is one of the greatest insecurities facing all people in Scotland.
But crime is also regressive - disproportionately preying on the poorest members of society.
It's time to reclaim our neighbourhoods from the criminals who destroy communities and imprison fearful people in their homes.
That is why Conservatives stand for neighbourhood policing, giving crime-ridden areas a constant, visible police presence.
It can be done. New York and other cities in the United States have been transformed by neighbourhood policing. We will find ways of applying the best of the American experience to Scotland and we must ensure that the police get better support from the criminal justice system, too.
Oliver Letwin, the Shadow Home Secretary, has described a conveyor belt that carries at-risk children to a life of crime.
Crime is always a choice and Conservatives will always hold criminals responsible for their actions but we must do more to help vulnerable youths escape from that conveyor belt. I have never been one of those people who believed that we should just lock young offenders up and throw away the key, but early intervention is vital and it is simply not happening in many cases at present. Last week, I raised with the First Minister the case of a fifteen year old boy in Edinburgh with 297 offences against his name since January 1999 who had only just been found a place in secure accommodation. Now I do not believe that we should simply give up on this young man - we have to try to put him on the right path for his sake. But it is also necessary to do so for our sake's. If we give up then it will mean his life cycle is one of more crime, more victims and longer and longer terms of imprisonment. However, we have to take young offenders like him off the streets to protect our communities and to have any chance of rehabilitating them. That means more secure accommodation. Social justice can only be built on a foundation of civil justice - of law and order in every community. Without that foundation, millions of pounds will be poured down the drain and the efforts of many are wasted and frustrated.
At the same time we must strive to build the neighbourly society which Oliver has spoken of, characterised by strong relationships within and between communities that bind children to sources of care and discipline. This will reduce the likelihood of them drifting into patterns of anti-social and self-destructive behaviour.
That is why stronger families and a rich network of voluntary and neighbourly activity are central to the Conservative vision of a socially just Scotland - and this is our third theme.
Strong families and communities
It is a simple fact that the state cannot provide people with friendship or a deep sense of belonging.
Throughout life, families are our most important source of love and care.
When adversity strikes we turn to family, friends, church and neighbours. The decay of our family and community structures is one of the reasons why increasingly isolated people struggle to absorb the life shocks of crime, job loss or bereavement. An unexpected life event knocks someone off course and there is not enough support to help that person get back on to their feet and back on course.
That is why Conservatives want to help all families and particularly families with young children.
Bringing up children is a precious responsibility. But it is hard work and it is very hard to do it alone.
In advance of the next Scottish Parliamentary Elections Conservatives will be exploring ways of strengthening Scotland's families.
How can, for example, lone parents live closer to relatives and other sources of support?
Can we strategically shift investment in relationship counselling from periods of crisis - when it's often too late - to the time before difficulties arise?
Can we create stronger and more independent families by giving parents greater choice in such areas as schooling?
I do not want to tell anyone how to live their lives but common sense suggests that we could do more to help parents succeed in their aspirations to stay together or to be better mothers and fathers. Government cannot do this directly but it can do more to support the community mentoring and charitable groups that can.
A real safety-net for the most vulnerable
I have already said that we will guarantee a financial safety-net for vulnerable people and families.
As the economy grows we will find ways of ensuring that poorer children and pensioners are not left far behind.
But a genuinely compassionate society will provide a safety-net of caring people as well as of cash.
A real safety-net is the fourth theme of the Conservative commitment to Scotland's vulnerable.
Only very strong people can overcome adversity alone.
Too many people who get into difficulties in todays Scotland have nowhere to turn for help.
These difficulties may be of the person's own making or they may be a product of misfortune. But whether the difficulty is drug addiction or criminal behaviour or whether it is bereavement or sickness - we need to do more to prevent a life shock from becoming a life crisis.
All over Scotland there are charities and good neighbours who are helping a family deal with a debt problem or who are mentoring an at-risk schoolchild. There are faith-based groups and self-support groups providing friendship to the very elderly or comforting those suffering from terminal illness.
It is often the smaller, locally-rooted groups that are the most innovative and personally compassionate. They are often led by local people who understand local needs. They are values-based. They see people as neighbours rather than as clients. These groups tend to be peopled by men and women who have deep experience of the problems they are tackling.
These networks of good neighbours are not equipped to meet every social challenge but too often they are shut out from current bureaucratic and politically correct funding arrangements.
That must change.
A priority for Scotland's Conservatives will be to channel financial and other resources to the good neighbours of Scotland.
Fighting poverty is a responsibility of government but it cannot succeed without energetic input from local youth clubs, mutual support groups, church drop-in centres, mentoring programmes and thousands of other projects that are the hallmark of a civilised society.
The most that these groups can hope for at the moment are the crumbs from this Executive's table.
Only increasingly professionalised groups with close connections with the Labour establishment succeed in winning significant grants.
These professionalised groups have an important role to play but we must not neglect the innovative, localised and values-based compassion I want to see flourish.
A practical illustration of our 'Compassionate Scotland' agenda will get underway next week when Murdo Fraser MSP meets representatives of Scotland's churches. The Scottish Conservative and Churches' Forum was launched by Iain Duncan Smith and I in February. Its next meeting will help us to understand how we might remove the barriers to compassionate social activity by Christian and other faith-based groups.
In particular, I am asking Murdo and Mary Scanlon to investigate the unfair funding of care homes by Labour councils. Labour councils pay their own homes £83 a week more than those run by voluntary organisations. That is blatantly unfair and appears to have been a contributory factor in a recent Church of Scotland decision to close eight of its homes for the elderly.
A good education and reliable healthcare
Every Scot must be able to rely on the availability and quality of publicly funded healthcare and education. We will defend that principle and we will dedicate all necessary resources to providing healthcare and education that is worthy of the twenty-first century.
That is why the provision of a good education and reliable healthcare is my fifth theme.
Scotland's public services have got worse under Labour.
We are further away from the goal of world class schools and hospitals.
Scottish Conservatives will work much more closely with the public service professionals to eliminate the bureaucracy that constrains and demoralises them. Conservatives will empower the professions - making them properly accountable to the people they serve rather than driven by arbitrary and changing targets set by remote politicians.
We will also take action against the criminal and anti-social behaviour which is undermining our public services and driving many out of these professions. Teachers are leaving the profession because of the difficulties of teaching persistently unruly pupils. Doctors and nurses can often face aggression and violence as they seek to deal with emergency cases on a Saturday night casualty ward.
In next year's Scottish Conservative manifesto we will draw lessons from Scotland's hospice movement and its universally applauded provision of holistic care. It is a perfect example of how an ethos of public service is not just about the public sector - how the voluntary sector can enhance and complement our NHS.
Scottish Conservatives will also develop a wider vision for education.
We will ensure schools educate children to the highest level and equip them with the practical skills that they need for the world of work.
We will promote greater diversity in education. We reject Labour's one-size-fits-all heresy that forces successful schools like St Mary's, Dunblane back into council control.
Schools should prepare children for the whole of life - not just paid work.
Parents see their children being forced to grow up more quickly today but without the information, skills and support necessary to cope with the new choices they face.
We will encourage more parental involvement in education and we will support the reflection of parental and family values in what is taught in our classrooms.
It's time that schoolchildren were told the truth - and nothing but the truth - about the tough choices and challenges they will face in life.
Parents once worried most about whether their son or daughter would get a job after school and many still worry about that. But parents are more anxious today about other dangers facing their children. Parents worry about their children getting damaged by binge-drinking, drug abuse, premature sexual relationships and physical and mental bullying.
It's time that we said you can't play with fire safely. It's time that we did much more to tell our children the truth about the long-term consequences of choices they make in their teenage years. Not by lecturing or otherwise counter-productive approaches but - at the right age - informing them of the reality of alcoholism, drug addiction and sexually-transmitted disease. And also by helping them to develop the general skills, personal confidence and sense of self-esteem that will help them to say reject destructive influences.
In the education debate I want to hear more from civil society groups that help children avoid getting anyway near cycles of self-destructive behaviour and a lot less from groups that concede defeat before the battle against social decline has even begun.
A vision for Scotland
This address has been wide-ranging and I have only been able to briefly describe my five major themes.
In the run-up to the Scottish Parliamentary Elections we will say much more about them.
As we do so the renewed one nation character of Scottish Conservatism will become clear.
We are a one nation party because we believe in the union - in a Scotland that plays the fullest part in British, European and world affairs.
But we are also a one nation party because we believe in opportunity and security for every person living in Scotland today - whether they are in Easterhouse or Newton Mearns, Craigmillar or Barnton, Whitfield or Broughty Ferry, Mastrick or Rubislaw Den.
That ideal will be at the heart of the next Scottish Conservative manifesto.
We are a party that is changing in order to meet Scotland's new needs.
Our ideals are the same but the way in which we can attain those ideals is inevitably evolving.
The other political parties in Scotland - all left-of-centre - have no new ideas in the war against poverty.
With increasing desperation they pull the same tired levers of state intervention then wring their hands at the further deterioration of our social infrastructure.
They set targets and ten year plans that are opaque and for which no one is directly accountable.
They overload teachers, police officers and NHS staff with more and more bureaucracy.
They neglect the importance of Scotland's families and neighbourhood-based charities in their plans.
Labour is fighting twenty-first century forms of poverty with out-of-date approaches.
It's time for new weapons and new strategies in the war on poverty.
Scotland's Conservatives are ready for that battle.