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Isherwood: Social justice – dogma or delivery?

Speech to the Welsh Conservative Party policy forum in Llandudno.

"Fellow Conservatives, good afternoon, P'nawn Da. And welcome to the twilight shift of today's conference - which has once again been given to me!

My speech today is entitled 'Social Justice - Dogma or Delivery?' - and I will seek to question both whether Labour's claimed dedication to social justice amounts to warm words or real action, and whether it should be the preserve of the centre left or natural territory for the centre right in politics.

As David Miller, the professor of Political Theory at Oxford argues, '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. The Labour Party has a set of values and a perception of being compassionate that commands more loyalty than its actual performance merits.

The task for the Conservative Party is not merely to demonstrate competence once again on the economy, crime and other traditional areas - the task and the challenge for us is to present a set of values which represent real compassion.

As Ian 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'.

As the Welsh Conservative spokesman for social justice and regeneration, it is my great privilege to monitor and scrutinise the Labour Minister for Social Justice and Regeneration, Edwina Hart, a woman whose consensual public image conceals a table-thumping tyrant in thrall to socialist dogma and her Old Labour Union pay masters.

Edwina's departmental brief covers issues ranging from housing to the fire service, substance misuse to tackling poverty, community regeneration to the voluntary sector, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service to devolved Police matters, and much more. Time today is short and I will therefore concentrate on just a few of these areas.

The Labour Welsh Assembly Government appears to be the only body in Welsh housing that is not describing the current situation as a crisis

They have imposed massive cuts on affordable housing as homelessness, housing waiting lists and house prices have been increasing.

They have cut the Welsh social housing grant programme by 45%, from £174 million in 1996/7 to just £96 million last year.

Even with their planned budget increases over the next three years, the social housing grant will still be less in absolute terms and massively less in real terms than it was when we left office in 1997.

Under Labour, the overall level of funding for social housing in Wales is significantly lower than in Scotland and England.

Under Labour the number of first-time house buyers in Wales has fallen by 50% since 2001.

Under Labour the number of new affordable houses built in Wales fell by over 11,000 to just 3,183 during the first four years of devolution compared to the last 4 years of Conservative Government.

Under Labour just 376 of these affordable houses were completed in North Wales, when housing waiting lists in North Wales now exceed 20,000.

Under Labour the number of low-cost home ownership purchases in Wales has fallen by two-thirds since devolution.

Under Labour, the shortage of affordable rural housing is putting new businesses off from settling and forcing young people to leave as rural depopulation gathers pace in traditional Welsh speaking communities.

Under Labour housing waiting lists across Wales have risen 50% over the last year alone and are projected to exceed a scandalous 100,000 in a total population of less than 3 million.

Under Labour, 8.5% of Welsh housing stock in home ownership is now classified as unfit, impacting on people's health and well-being.

Under Labour the backlog of urgent repair work to Welsh council housing has now passed £3 billion.

Under Labour, the backlog of urgent repair work to Welsh private housing has now exceeded £1 billion.

Under Labour, there are now 98,000 Welsh properties unfit for human habitation, some 72% of which are owner occupied, where 1 in 2 of the poorest households, and 3 in 5 pensioners live in their own homes.

And under Labour, homelessness in Wales has more than doubled.

What this Welsh Assembly Government has failed to appreciate is that housing is one of the key pillars of social justice and that their failure to prioritise this alongside health and education has betrayed a whole generation of Welsh people.

They have failed to take action on the advice and urgings of frontline housing professionals in Wales.

As the Regeneration Institute of Cardiff University states 'housing has a major role to play in community regeneration - where better housing is linked to the revival of local economies, the delivery of improved services and the development of sustainable local communities'.

So what has this Welsh Assembly Government done? It has delivered worse housing for the young, for the old and for those least able to afford the quality housing that they deserve. Further, its failure to link homelessness with the many other social problems facing us today is a betrayal of those they profess to represent.

It remains my strong conviction that housing is the key vehicle for sustainable social justice and regeneration - by which I mean the use of housing generation and regeneration to stimulate local training, skills, employment, economic development, social enterprise, health and strong, safe communities. In other words, putting people first.

However, Labour instead throw expensive mud at the wall, hoping that some of it will stick, while at the same time digging up the wall's foundations.

The unacceptable reality today is that, despite the growth in national wealth, many communities are suffering from poor education, healthcare and policing, and many people from illiteracy, family breakdown, desertion or addiction - the cause and effect of the prevalence of drugs, crime, truancy and vandalism throughout today's society.

We must seek answers based on a mixed economy of strategies rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

It is essential that we break the link between crime and drugs by getting young people off drugs and stopping them turning to crime to finance their habit.

Most addicts develop drug habits early in life. Currently, however, it can be many years before an addict receives treatment, and then only as an order of a court as a result of a serious crime. By then it is often too late.

At the UK General Election this year, Conservatives proposed to massively expand drug treatment programmes, including a 10-fold expansion in the number of residential rehabilitation places and giving all young-users of hard drugs a straight choice between effective treatment or appearing in court.

And we are committed to supporting the social institutions - families, school, voluntary bodies and youth clubs - that can prevent crime and drug dependency before it starts.

Last year I was asked to present a Millennium Award to Jeffrey Webb, a recovered drug addict and reformed criminal, for his Drug Informed Choice Education - or DICE - Programme that uses recovered criminals and recovered drug addicts to educate young people, adults and professionals by saying 'this is what happened to me' and by giving more informed choices about healthier lifestyles.

Speaking to Jeff Webb, another ex-offender and a Liverpool prison officer afterwards, I learned that the DICE programme was born from the Choose Life Project in Liverpool prison, where 80% of the prison population are class A drug users who have funded their drugs habit through crime.

Because of this meeting, I subsequently visited Liverpool Walton prison to watch the 'Choose Life' drug-education play by prisoners about the consequences of substance misuse for themselves, others and the community and about the risks and consequences to their health and well-being - and then met and questioned the Choose Life group members.

I have since established a working relationship with several drug rehabilitation charities in North Wales.

However, the reality in Wales under Labour today is that the North Wales Hafen Wen detoxification unit in Wrexham run by the charity CAIS is having its beds cut.

Rehabilitation schemes for ex-offenders have been denied the support needed to tackle to causes of addiction and drug related crime.

Prisoners at Liverpool Altcourse, the main prison for North Wales, told me during my visit this summer that they could only see a future of drug-related crime after they were released.

And the Labour Welsh Assembly Government recently refused to intervene when the only civilian centre in the UK for unstable ex service men suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, most of whom suffer from associated drug and alcohol problems, was forced to close in North Wales.

At the last General Election, the Conservative Party proposed to abolish CAFCASS. But by then CAFCASS had been devolved to Wales and decisions on its future lay with Edwina Hart and the Welsh Assembly Government.

As Theresa May stated, CAFCASS provides 'an invaluable service to children in need' but "resources that should go to cases of real neglect are squandered by CAFCASS on matters that should not be dealt with by the courts'.

We proposed a legal presumption of co-parenting and a right for both parents to be involved in the upbringing of their child.

A consultation on CAFCASS has been announced in England, but Edwina Hart confirmed to me that no consultation will be undertaken in Wales.

The president of the Family Division has stated that CAFCASS should not become involved unless an issue of child protection has been decided by a judge - thereby removing CAFCASS from the majority of cases and allowing resources to be focused on children in need of protection - but, guess what, this has not been adopted by the Wales and Chester circuit.

The Fire and Rescue Service in Wales has been devolved to the Welsh Assembly Government, but already Edwina Hart's political control is turning them into England's poor relations.

Fire Link, the new national radio system, is being rolled out for the whole of the Fire and Rescue Service so that equipment will be common. However, it is up to Wales whether they choose to join - and, according to the office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 'The longer they leave it before deciding, the less opportunity they will have to contribute or influence the decision. If they are not accredited to our standard there will be poorer provision and much less capability than those in England who are part of Fire control'.

I cannot conclude without reference to the current review of the Home Secretary's proposals for the reorganisation of the police Force in Wales, conducted by the Assembly Social Justice and Regeneration Committee at the Home Secretary's invitation.

Some committee members have stated that they do not consider the consultations undertaken as a meaningless exercise - but I believe it might be more accurate to state the contrary.

From recent statements by both the Home Secretary and Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, it appears that they have already made their mind up that Wales is going to have a single police force.

The committee has taken evidence from a wide range of bodies including Police Authorities, the Police Federation, local government and the four chief constables - and all have criticised the time scale, with the Welsh Local Government Association going as far as to describe this as 'lunatic'.

Rather than a consultation, the Home Secretary appears to have presented our chief constables with an ultimatum, with the most fundamental restructuring of Britain's police to be rushed through in a matter of weeks and with the proposed outcome strangely modelled on the ten Euro - regions of England and Wales!

The bottom line is that the Home Secretary has not done his sums to ensure that this is properly funded and has failed to take account of the huge historical, geographical and transport gaps between north and south Wales which mean that operational integration has never and can never truly exist.

Yes, our police forces can share back office services, but we must recognise the operational reality that policing in North Wales works west-east rather than north-south. Failure to do this threatens not only to damage local policing in our communities, but also the ability of north Wales to tackle terrorism, drug-related and organised crime.

It is interesting to note that only three days ago, the UK Association of Police Authorities called for the consultation process to be extended, to give sufficient time for local communities to engage in the debate about the future of their forces and to allow a full democratic Parliamentary debate.

To summarise, when addressing the question of whether social justice in Wales under a Labour Welsh Assembly Government has been about dogma or delivery, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

The task now falls to the Conservative Party in Wales to set the priorities over the coming years for the delivery of social justice in a Wales that now has lower prosperity and poorer basic skills than any other nation or region in the UK - but to turn our own words into delivery we must achieve a seat in Government, that means success at the 2007 Assembly Elections.

And that means a collective recognition by all our members that politics is about power, power about victory, and victory about discipline, unity, and a common message of competence and compassion.

We must believe in a special obligation to the young and to the old, helping people who are least able to help themselves and giving a youngster in trouble a chance to go straight.

We must reach out to those described by Ann Widdecombe as, 'the forgotten decent', the Conservative-minded people at the bottom of the income scale, who suffer the brunt of public disorder, the effects of bad education and welfare policy, spending their days locked inside their homes, '"their lives ... made a daily hell by drugs, thuggery, intimidation and degradation of the environment'.

Only when Government steps back will people in communities be free to build something better - and that involves fairness to those who provide help, as well as those who need it.

Rather than 'shrinking the welfare state', we should be talking of 'strengthening the welfare society' - and that will require a real bottom-up working partnership between voluntary, public and private sector agencies, more resources channelled through community-based organisations and a real commitment to social justice that embodies values which are both 'good for me and good for my neighbour'."

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