Speeches recovered from the Conservative party‚Äôs online archive More…

Fox: The Broken Society

Speech to the Refuge and the Centre for Social Justice

The Challenge

"A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece for The Observer which talked about the problems of a broken society.

I have always believed that the Conservative Party should never just walk by on the other side, and shrug its shoulders at our nation's social problems. In this speech, I want to expand on that theme. I want to define the problems more closely, and outline some solutions to them.

Our society is not broken to the extent that our economy was broken in 1979. But it is worth comparing the current situation with then. There had been detailed analysis then of the (economic) problems, and the incoming Conservative Party had little difficulty identifying the solutions. Today, there has been comparatively little analysis of our (social) problems; solutions will be correspondingly harder to find. And whereas the impact of change in economic policy is felt quickly, social policy change takes far longer to work its way through.

Broken Society

What exactly do I mean by the term broken society?

The broken society is not just to be found in the inner city estates. It is in the leafy suburbs and the picturesque countryside too. It is not just about urban crack addicts, but about the break-up of middle class families, the decline of village life and the increase in rural suicides.

When she was asked what was the most important disease in the world, Mother Teresa said 'loneliness'.

We have heard a great deal from the churches in recent weeks about making poverty history, and there is no criticism of them for focusing on aid to Africa, but there is also poverty at home which they need to focus on. In too many parts of our society there is a poverty of ambition, and for too many people there is a debilitating spiritual poverty.

From my time as a GP, I remember one patient telling me "I own a hundred pair of shoes, but I'm not a happy woman". It is easy to misinterpret the significance of this remark. It may sound flippant or comical to some. But it actually amounted to the realisation that you can be affluent, have a mass of material possessions, but still be desperately lonely.

Domestic Violence

The signs of a broken society are all around us.

Marital break up. Youngsters with no role model. More teenage pregnancies. Rising violent crime. Increasing suicides.

If this list does not create a portrait of a dysfunctional society, then I don't know what does. To it needs to be added our failure to deal with mental illness, an issue on which I intend to say much more in the coming weeks.

Today, however, I want to focus on domestic violence.

It's an issue of which I have some experience, having seen at first hand the consequences. Let me tell you, domestic violence isn't always physical. I have seen and treated patients, of both sexes, who have been terrorised by their partners and who exist in a living hell.

Until only recently, domestic violence was widely perceived as uncommon or even somehow acceptable. A national survey showed 1 in 5 boys, and a stunning 1 in 9 girls, thought that physical violence was normal in a relationship. Now, the scale of the problem is much more widely recognised. Sadly, we know that domestic violence is both common and unacceptable. We know that it accounts for almost a quarter of all violent crime. Every week, two women and two children lie in a morgue somewhere because of domestic violence.

Indeed it accounts for 40 per cent of all murders in the UK. 25 per cent of all murders in London are by men who murder their partner. These statistics are truly staggering. But how many people are aware of them?

Domestic violence is a major cause of foetal death, and a third of the time it begins or increases during pregnancy. Yet in all my training as a doctor, I never knew that. Even when I practised obstetrics, it was never something I would think to ask about or be sensitive to.

This is the anatomy of one of society's taboo subjects. We need to tackle such issues by replacing ignorance with knowledge.

When considering domestic violence, it's essential to recognise that it is not just wives and girlfriends who suffer, but their children too. They nearly always witness the emotional and physical violence which takes place in their own home. They can even be in the line of fire themselves.

Arguably the worst consequence of this is the sense of responsibility which those children bear. They feel, irrationally we know, that they are somehow to blame for what happens in their home. Children, like their parents, need the time and opportunity to reflect on and understand their experiences, so that they can enter adult life without feeling haunted or traumatised. That is why it is all the more shocking to know that London has more places of refuge for pets than for women. We do too little as a society to break the cycle of violence passing from one generation to the next.

Indeed, we do too little to rid Britain of the scourge of domestic violence. It's true that we're beginning to make progress, but it is still much too common. I know, for instance, that domestic violence exists. I have seen it in my surgery, both as a doctor and as a politician. I understand that for many women to come to ask for help is difficult. Often they will have been exposed to violence for a long period of time. They feel trapped in a world of fear and desperation.

However, it is simply not enough to know that domestic violence exists, to acknowledge it as a problem and to legislate against it. As a society, we must understand why it exists and know where it exists, so that we can eradicate it. It is not just a problem of the poor, of council estates or of the uneducated. It is also a problem of the rich, of the upwardly mobile and of the apparently perfect family.

Britain needs to embark on a process of re-education like that which tackled drink driving in the 1980s.

Refuge's role is essential. Indeed, without Refuge, awareness of the problem would be far less than it now is. Refuge has the sensitivity and specialist knowledge to support women and children experiencing domestic violence.

Here at Refuge, I have seen at first hand that the three main messages are provision, prevention and protection. This three-pronged attack enables women who seek help to find a place of safety where they can get counselling and support so that they can regain control of their lives.

For these, and so many other reasons I have seen today, I would like to pay personal tribute to the work that Refuge does on a daily basis. Every day, Refuge affords hundreds of women protection. Every day, Refuge reaches out to hundreds more from all cultures and backgrounds to re-assure them that they are not alone. Every day, Refuge strives to make the world a safer place. It is right that, as individuals and as a society, we acknowledge their work. But that is not enough. We must also support and promote that work.

A Renaissance Of Citizenship

Domestic violence is a very explicit symptom of this 'broken society'. But the problems are often less tangible.

More widely, it is the feeling - to most of us barely perceptible - that something important is lacking in our lives.

We spend more time than we used to either working or within the four walls of our homes, and so have less time for extended families and friends, and less time still for the wider community activities we once undertook.

There are too many people who go home, close the door, switch the TV on and expect someone else to provide them with what they call 'society'.

For example, it's no coincidence that if you go out and visit the Scouts, cancer support shops, the village local history group or the local WRVS - or a host of local charities, it seems to be the same people who are carrying the burden of volunteering.

The unavoidable reality is that the voluntary impulse is slowly diminishing. GirlGuiding UK has 50,000 girls on its waiting lists to join Guides and Brownies because of a shortage of volunteers. Parents now put their daughters' names down for a Brownie group at birth, as if it were a school. GirlGuiding estimates it needs another 8,000 volunteers just to meet current demand.

The demand for 'community' is certainly out there. But the willingness to supply it is lacking. It must be brought back. We need to encourage nothing less than a renaissance of citizenship. We need to find ways to encourage people to want to play their part in their wider community.

What Brought Us To This Point?

I believe that three factors have been at work in eroding the forces which traditionally held our society together. There has been unavoidable demographic change in the post-war period. In addition, there has been widespread social change since the 1960s, and greater economic and social mobility as a result of necessary economic change.

The process of social change continues. Divorce is increasingly common. The suicide rate amongst young men has risen by more than half in 25 years. The number of abortions increased last year by another 3%, to 181,000.

Perhaps most significantly, the generation which used to have to worry about its children now has to worry about its children and its parents. This will be the situation for some considerable time to come.

"The Lost Boys"

Speaking of today's children one group which, as I said in my Observer piece, we simply cannot ignore is the frequently overlooked plight of young men.

We should worry that boys seem increasingly to be falling behind girls in school. Today, in too many places, we see a generation of young men with very few male role models either at home or elsewhere in their lives. Their idols are often sportsmen, rich beyond imagining, whose conduct often makes them unsuitable as role models. Very often, the only males such youngsters spend time with are their own peer group, thereby reinforcing the social temptations which take them down the wrong path. If young men do not understand what they are supposed to be in society, if they are not taught how to aspire, how can we expect them to play their appropriate role in society?

We cannot afford another generation of "the lost boys". I have already suggested making single-sex schooling an option in those cities where it is no longer available. We must find other ways of transforming the situation. We need to look at mentoring schemes and rewards for community involvement such as those which have been shown to be successful in the USA, and think about how best to adapt them to our way of life.

Tory Conundrum

When considering societal breakdown, we are confronted with what I call the 'Tory conundrum'.

If the extended family is less effective, and as a result there is decline in social cohesion, how do we repair the damage without increasing the role and scope of the state? For example, the proposed new after-school Kelly Hours are symptomatic of the declining role of the extended family, a situation which has created 'latch-key kids'. Do we really think it is good and healthy for children to spend up to 75% of their waking hours at school?

We Conservatives must offer more than tinkering with state-owned provision, more than a small improvement in administrative efficiency, more than statism with a Conservative face.

Our current government has tried to take over the voluntary sector by stealth. This is effectively the nationalisation of compassion. But the state cannot provide compassion. Increasingly, big government and state spending are seen by many people as the perfect excuse to escape discharging their responsibility to others. Why should I help out, they ask, when Labour has created so many of its tools of social engineering to do that job?

We have to reconsider the balance between the role of the individual and the role of the state. This is not some artificial, stultifying debate, far-removed from the needs of real people. It is a debate with very real ramifications.

At one end of the spectrum is the current Government, which believes that the answer to everything is for the state to do it. As a consequence, innovative and effective voluntary provision is often marginalised - it doesn't fit the 'mould'.

At the other end of the spectrum are the ultra-libertarians, who argue that there should not be any role for the state at all. In a speech I gave to Politeia in May, I spoke of the need for a 'supportive society'. Unfettered choice is fine if you are the educated middle-classes. But to make choice meaningful for everyone, you have to provide a supportive system to help people understand the options.

Government doesn't need to have a role in the provision of services. But it does need to ensure that provision is there and, if necessary, help people navigate their way to the right choice.

One way government can help is to revise the laws on the taxation of charitable donations. The US has a much greater tradition of public philanthropy than we do. This is partly because of their different tax structure, which rewards the selfless use of such funds. We must look closely at what lessons we can draw on for our own country. This is a project which I want the Conservative Party to embrace with relish.

Valuing The Voluntary Sector

As we consider how best to nurture the voluntary sector, we must always keep in mind the need to avoid falling in to a particular trap.

Strengthening voluntary groups must not be about forcing them to adapt their provision to fit a tight funding straightjacket of the Government's design. It must not be about amending objectives in order to qualify for funding. Government needs a light touch in this regard. For example, it should always consider whether the voluntary sector is providing a good service before seeking to put in place mechanisms of its own.

I want to see the empowerment and the enhancement of the voluntary sector in this country in the widest possible sense. There are many talents which can be unleashed for the public good, if only we could remove the dead hand of government - local or national.

Let me give you a practical example. In my own area of North Somerset, we have seen what can be achieved by the voluntary sector in the form of an excellent drug response team co-ordinated by our local Methodist church in Nailsea. Sadly, when the

local authority decided to step in, the service went backwards. This story is one which has been repeated in many different forms up and down the country.

The best way to provide appropriately for an individual's needs is to find the response which is the most specific and sensitive to those needs. Often this is done by small, frequently local, organisations. Such organisations may be charities, local voluntary groups, or faith-based groups. It does not matter what the origin of the group is. Nor does it matter how they tackle the problems. What matters is whether or not they provide the right outcome for the individual in question.

There will be those who will inevitably claim that this is an attempt to provide 'public services on the cheap' and that it will mean a reduction in the 'quality' of what is offered. But it is not the well-being of the provider that matters. The overriding interest is that of the people who use the services. Far too much time and money has been spent maintaining bureaucratic structures which have failed to deliver any discernible benefits.

A Sense Of National Unity

Any analysis of how to rebuild British society at the start of the 21st century will be flawed unless it takes proper account of what happened in this city a fortnight ago today. We need to create a sense of unity within our diverse society. Creating such a sense of national unity with multinational societies is a task faced by many countries.

Just this week, I met Australian Prime Minister John Howard in Washington. I have long admired John Howard's ability to create national unity and a sense of quiet pride and sunny optimism out of the incredibly diverse nation that is Australia. It is a nation with a strongly developed sense of nationhood.

Last year, John Howard's Government introduced a policy of requiring every school to fly the Australian flag from a flagpole. In an accompanying press release, the Minister said this:

"Our flag reflects who we are, where we have come from and the historical circumstances and values of those who have passed on an economic and social legacy to our generation. By taking pride in the flag and its presentation, schools can help support parents' expectations that our schools will foster values such as tolerance, trustworthiness, mutual respect, courage, compassion, courtesy and doing one's best. Education is as much about building character as it is transferring skills, knowledge and the thirst for learning".

I could not agree more. By requiring all British schools to do the same, we can remind everyone, what ever their background, of the values they share. I believe it to be vital to ensure future generations do not feel alienated from the country which nurtured them.

Conclusion

Finally, each of us will need to ask ourselves "How can we best help heal our broken society?"

Let me quote the words of Dr Robert Lefever of the Promis Recovery Centre in Dover.

"Not all helping is harmful. In the right place and at the right time, helping is a gift. Helping becomes harmful when it steps over the dividing line between caring (which is healthy and respectful) and care-taking (which is unhealthy and patronising and which does too much for other people, often diminishing their capacity to take responsible action)."

Iain Duncan Smith has argued that we need policies which are seen to be not only 'good for me' but also 'good for my neighbour'. People are now sufficiently aware of the consequences of the broken society that they look to politicians to address those concerns. Politicians who fail do so at their peril. But we should always keep one thought in mind. We should address people's concerns because it is right to do so, not because doing so will win votes.

At the end of his pamphlet on the subject, Iain writes "Our policies and politics must be measured against how they help those communities. Because it is from the people living in those neighbourhoods that we will understand why it was that we first came into politics and gain the respect, not just of those we are with, but those who will publicly value the level of our commitment".

I couldn't agree more."

Keyboard shortcuts

j previous speech k next speech