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Isherwood: Social justice, social action

To the Welsh Conservative Party conference in Llandudno.

"Fellow Conservatives - P'nawn Da, Good Afternoon.

At last November's Conservative Policy Forum in Llandudno, I questioned whether Social Justice should be the preserve of the centre left or natural territory for the Conservative Party.

The idea of Social Justice has been the driving force behind centre-left politics in Western societies for over a century.

However, Social Justice in the 21st Century is not the monopoly of the Labour Party. Labour's reputation for compassion is not justified by its performance.

The task for the Conservative Party is not merely to demonstrate competence once again on the economy, crime and other traditional areas -

Ein tasg a'n her ydy cyflwyno cyfres o werthoedd sydd yn cynrychioli gwir cydymdeimlad

- our task and our challenge is to present a set of values which represent real compassion.

As Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice states, "This will be achieved by a sincere and sustained commitment to authentically Conservative principles which are "Good for me, and Good for my neighbour".

All mainstream political parties want to tackle poverty.

But we have different solutions to the deep-rooted problems of multiple deprivation and the root causes of poverty in Wales and Britain today.

Labour claims that "only the state can guarantee fairness".

Their centralised, top down approach means well but fails badly.

Conservatives understand that social justice will only be delivered by really empowering people to fulfil their potential and to take ownership in their own communities.

Labour sets limits on what the voluntary sector, social enterprises and community groups can do.

Conservatives recognise that it is these social entrepreneurs and poverty fighters who can deliver the solutions to the long-term problems of our most deprived communities.

They combine public sector values with private sector standards. They can succeed where the state has failed.

I refer, for example, to CREST, a wood recycling project in Llandudno Junction which I visited with the Shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Oliver Heald, and Janet Finch-Saunders a month ago. This provides skills and a second chance for ex-offenders and the jobless.

As David Cameron states, we must start trusting people and sharing responsibility - and as Ian Duncan Smith states 'unless Conservatives can show that we will govern for the whole nation, we will neither win nor deserve to'.

The last nine years have taught us that poverty is simply too important an issue to be left to the Labour Party in London or Cardiff.

Even Tony Blair has now admitted that Labour has let down the poorest in Society.

In my role as Welsh Conservative Spokesman for Social Justice and Regeneration, I shadow Welsh Assembly Government Minister Edwina Hart.

Her Ministry includes community regeneration, anti-poverty initiatives, the voluntary sector, Community Safety and Police relations, the Fire and Rescue Service, drug and alcohol abuse - and Housing.

Edwina Hart is all heart in public - but too many organisations have told me of their frustration at her failure to hear or understand in private.

I believe that in her 'heart of hearts' she means well - but with dogma 'at the bottom of her heart' she continues to fail because she fails to listen.

Cardiff University states that good housing ought to be at the heart of community regeneration - and the Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru states that an adequate supply of affordable housing is key to creating sustainable communities.

Despite this, despite rising waiting lists, homelessness and house prices, this Labour Welsh Assembly Government has massively cut funding for social and affordable housing.

Even with planned increases - and older peoples' housing added - the Welsh Social Housing Grant will still be less in 2008 than it was when we left office in 1997.

Without urgent action to tackle the Welsh housing crisis, Labour's multi-million pound investment in community regeneration is like pouring water into a bucket full of holes, rather than going out and buying a new bucket!

The number of households needing accommodation in Wales is forecast to increase by 12% over the next 10 years'.

Under Labour, however, the number of new social housing dwellings built in Wales has been cut by three-quarters.

Under Labour, the number of people in Wales receiving Government help to buy their first house has fallen by two-thirds.

In Wales today, an estimated 225,000 people are living in unfit accommodation.

In Wales today, one in seven Welsh households lives in fuel poverty.

The backlog in urgent housing repairs across Wales now exceeds £4 billion.

One in two of the poorest households live in their own homes, but we now see Welsh Councils' telling them that they will have to wait several years for essential repair grants.

AND we now see Flintshire's Labour Council writing to all its Council Tenants to tell them that their homes will not be repaired unless they are at risk of injury or death.

That is the true obscenity of social injustice under Labour in Wales today. Under Labour, homelessness in Wales has more than doubled.

Shelter Cymru estimate that at least 50,000 people now experience homelessness in Wales each year - adding that 'the latest figures show a continued rise in homelessness in Wales……even more alarming, is the increasing numbers of families with children with no alternatives but to stay in overcrowded bed and breakfast accommodation'.

It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that housing waiting lists across Wales rose by 50% last year alone and are projected to exceed 100,000.

We now see Welsh local authorities reporting housing waiting lists of up to 9 years, which did not exist at the time of devolution.

The bottom line is that every day in Britain, more than one million children wake up in squalid, temporary or crowded accommodation - and that Wales has the worst housing conditions in the UK.

Bad housing is making our children ill, robbing them of a decent education and damaging their future.

To tackle this crisis, we must look beyond the public sector and unlock the potential in both social enterprises - including Housing Associations - and the private sector.

July 20th 1981 was a momentous day - the day, in Liverpool, that Michael Heseltine launched community regeneration as we now it.

As he said, 'what we did has now become the consensus policy - a constructive partnership between the public, voluntary and private sectors'.

The problem is that although Welsh Labour have stolen the rhetoric, they cannot understand the reality of real working partnership.

The Knowsley Village Estate, which was one of the most deprived in the UK at that time, was the first to benefit from the Heseltine initiative.

Knowsley's Scheme Manager is now working with STARS North Wales , a social enterprise based in West Rhyl, to find a way forward here more than two decades later.

Despite winning awards and cutting crime in North Wales' most deprived ward, STARS had been forced to make 21 of its 23 community wardens redundant.

When I met the Knowsley Scheme Manager in Rhyl before Christmas, he told me that their scheme is about building safe, strong communities and about whole community involvement.

He added that their regeneration began in the early 1980s' with housing stock transfer from the Council to a Housing Association - and that this was about giving tenants a voice.

Wales must learn from this. As the Council of Mortgage Lenders states:

'Sadly to date, the politics of the process has got firmly in the way of reality.

The question then is for how much longer do the Council Tenants of Wales get less than they deserve and need?'

But this alone will not be enough. We must also restore social housing grants to levels that would allow more affordable housing.

And, as Business in the Community states:

'There is a need to draw out the linkages between housing and the local economy.

The lack of affordable housing impacts on the ability to sustain existing businesses and to attract new businesses. The shortage of affordable housing is putting new businesses off from settling and young people are leaving to live in larger towns'.

Wales now has lower prosperity than any other UK nation or region.

More business start-ups by people born in Wales are in the rest of the UK than in Wales.

More skilled, graduate-level people are leaving Wales than coming in - and new employment in Wales therefore tends to come from lower skilled jobs.

The gap between rich and poor has widened since 1997.

A third of Welsh children live in homes with less than half the UK average income.

One in five Welsh working-age households now has no-one in employment - and one in six Welsh children are being brought up in households where no-one works.

In fact, if Welsh economic activity was at the UK level, 100,000 more Welsh people would be in jobs.

Even more worryingly, the number of young people not in work, education or training in Wales has risen since devolution.

AND more than a quarter of all children, young people and adults in Wales have basic literacy and numeracy problems. Which then links in with debt poverty.

Citizens Advice Cymru reports that debt enquiries in Wales have increased at a faster rate than elsewhere in Britain.

When it comes to the voluntary sector, The Welsh Assembly Government talks the talk, but it doesn't walk the walk.

The last Labour Council in North Wales threatens a £150,000 annual cut in voluntary sector funding.

As our Care Homes lose nursing care capacity, our Hospices face cut backs because of under-funding by the Welsh Assembly Government.

Women's Aid tell me of their concern that cuts are affecting their ability to take referrals or help women resettle into the community.

Last autumn I fought to keep open the Ty Gwyn Centre for traumatised ex-servicemen.

Located near Llandudno, This was the only civilian Centre in the UK for unstable ex-servicemen suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and associated drug and alcohol problems.

The Welsh Assembly Government would not listen. Ty Gwyn closed and a whole body of men who served their country were betrayed.

The Tyddyn Bach Respite Centre in Penmaenmawr is facing a funding crisis. I am a patron.

As HIV/AIDS spreads, this award winning project is the only HIV/AIDS Respite Centre in England or Wales - but Welsh Assembly Government rules mean that its financial viability is threatened.

Only charities like "Save the Family" in Flintshire are giving families classed as "intentionally homeless" the chance to be reunited and rehabilitated.

I hosted them in the Assembly last year and continue to work with them - but the Minister, Edwina Hart, continues to sideline them.

We must break the link between crime and addiction and expand drug and alcohol treatment and education programmes.

I have worked with several projects involving prisoners and ex-offenders.

Nobody wants their children to find dirty needles in playgrounds or addicts on their streets - and we must therefore tackle the causes as well as the symptoms of the problem.

However, the Hard Labour reality in North Wales today is that detoxification beds are being cut and that effective drug rehabilitation schemes for ex-offenders have been denied the support they need.

Meanwhile, violent crime and anti-social behaviour are wrecking lives and communities.

Overall recorded crime across England and Wales is still up 9% since devolution, but in North Wales it is up 23% and in Dyfed Powys, 32%.

The increase in violent crime ranges from 15% in Gwent to 149% in North Wales.

Conwy Borough Council report that 53% had experienced crime but that only 21% had reported these crimes because of a lack of expected action by the Police.

The truth is we won't deal with crime until we reform the Police.

Police forces must be made more accountable to local communities but the UK Government is steadily extending bureaucracy and taking more and more control of local Policing.

And the trend will be reinforced if the Home Secretary implements his scheme to amalgamate Police Forces into regional units.

This scheme is being driven through too fast, without proper debate or consultation and reckless of the cost.

Speaking in the Assembly last month, I described Home Secretary Charles Clarke's statement that the Welsh Police Forces had only until 24th February to indicate whether they were prepared to sign up to a "voluntary merger" as "arrogant, dictatorial and about as voluntary as birth, death and taxation".

Constable Clarke's proposals are more Keystone than keynote - he should get out of his constabulary tower and back into his police box.

So when it comes to Social Justice, our message to the people of Wales must be:

Peidiwch a gadael i Lafur eich cymryd yn ganiataol byth eto.

Don't let Labour take you for granted any more.

Labour's short-term gimmicks have failed - and crime, vandalism, family breakdown, addiction and poverty of aspiration continue to wreak havoc in communities.

Labour is creating a new class of decommissioned people, and their epitaph may be that 'Labour fought and poverty won'.

Our task is to weave again the bonds of mutual obligation and responsibility that Margaret Thatcher was referring to when she said "there is no such thing as Society".

Rather than "shrinking the welfare state", we should be talking of "strengthening the welfare society".

Rhyddid rhag tlodi, rhag bod yn gaeth i gyffuriau, rhag ofni trosedd - does yr un o'r rhain yn bosibl oni ryddhawn bobl rhag y cylch hwn o anobaith.

Freedom from poverty, from addiction, from the fear of crime - none of these possible unless we free people from the cycle of hopelessness.

It's time to get to work. I will finish with a prophecy.

My wife is a bit of a fortune teller, and she tells me that a few days after the inauguration of the next First Minister, a man will come up to a Security Guard at the Assembly Building and ask to see "First Minister Rhodri Morgan".

The Security Guard will politely answer that Rhodri Morgan is no longer First Minister.

The next day, the same man will approach the same Security Guard and ask to see "First Minister Rhodri Morgan".

The Security Guard will again answer that Rhodri Morgan is no longer First Minister.

The next day the same man will approach the same Security Guard and again ask to see "First Minister Rhodri Morgan".

The Security Guard will reply that he has now been telling the man for three days' that Rhodri Morgan is no longer First Minister.

The man will reply: 'Yes, I know, but I just enjoy hearing you say it!'

Diolch yn Fawr."

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