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Willetts: We can make the 21st century a Conservative century

Speech to Conservative Party Spring Conference 2004

Today you have been hearing from a great team. They have been setting out Conservative ideas for making Britain a better place in which to live.

Millions of our fellow citizens are trying to live a decent life in an environment that's hostile.

· They are worried about the quality of their children's education.

· They are shocked by the state of our health service.

· They know from their daily journey to work that we have got the worst transport system in Europe.

· They are worried about the security of their pension.

· And they don't feel safe because of the ever-present threat of crime.

What all this adds up to is a feeling of insecurity that is pervasive, inescapable and relentless.

Yes, we have paid the taxes. Nobody can say that the Government has been starved of money. But there hasn't been any reform. That's why things just aren't getting better.

Labour thinks it is all about plans and initiatives and targets imposed from above. But that is not the Conservative way. Our way is to look at the world through the eyes of the people we wish to serve, as they go through their lives. That is what we are doing today.

Let us start with the problem any parent faces nowadays - childcare. The trouble is, you can't find any childcare in your area. In fact, there are fewer childminders now than in 1997. And no wonder, when you see the forms and the bureaucracy if you want to register as a childminder. It has got to be simpler.

If you can find any childcare, it's just about the most expensive in Europe. Yes, there is government support. But it comes in no less than 45 different funding streams. So it's difficult and expensive to get at. Again, we can and we will make it simpler.

And then, of course, Gordon Brown does nothing to help parents if they want to care for their children themselves. We will offer them justice too.

Then your child goes off to school. You're told the only school your child can go to is the local comprehensive. But you're worried because its results aren't good. You would prefer a school with higher standards even though it's a bit further away. You ask for your child to go there. But your application is turned down. Do you know how many parents in inner city areas appeal against such a decision? And only one in five of those appeals succeed. I think it's heroic that those parents keep on trying. That tells us just how much demand there is from parents for a better education for their child. But their wishes are ignored. The system doesn't respond. Our pupil's passport will change all that. It will put the money to pay for their children's education directly in the hands of the parent.

Then your children leave school - but many parents nowadays keep on supporting them. And their own parents are getting older and need support as well. So they find they are bearing the burden of caring for two generations.

It's not because you are selfish that you want to take home more pay. You are probably so busy you wouldn't have time to spend it anyway. But you are hit by a triple whammy. You are supporting your children through university and beyond. You might well be helping your elderly parents with their nursing home fees. And then Gordon Brown taxes you as if you are just spending all your money on yourself. That is why there is nothing wrong or ignoble in wanting people to pay less tax.

Then you get older yourself. You've got a problem with your hip. You're told you need an operation. But there's an eight-month wait. You could get the operation at the independent hospital down the road. But that is way beyond your budget. Our patient's passport will change all that. It will be possible for you to get that operation faster using some of the money it would have cost the NHS. And we have heard today from Tim Yeo how we can extend our patient's passport even further to the chronic conditions which dog people's lives.

You see, what we are doing today is following through the life of a typical British family. Every step of the way. We're on their side.

There is something else about the family. Someone described the role of a parent like this. First you want to give your children roots. Then you want to give them wings. And I think that is exactly what Conservatism is about too. First, we need to belong, and then we need to be free.

Tony Blair wanted to dominate British politics by making the Labour Party the Party of the future. That is why we had cool Britannia, modernisation, New Labour. Do you remember all that? It seems like a bygone age.

Now we have seen the reality of Labour. All that red tape. All those instructions. All those targets. That is not the way the world is going. That is not the future. In the world of the personal computer Blair is still trying to run the country from a mainframe in Whitehall. He could have been the first Prime Minister of the 21st century. But now we can see he is the last Prime Minister of the 20th century.

We can make the 21st century a Conservative century.

Here at Harrogate we are shaping a Conservative future.

A future where people can get the childcare they want for their children.

A future where you aren't forced to send your child to a school you know isn't good enough.

A future where patients - not bureaucrats - shape the healthcare they receive.

We have seen the future.

A future that works.

A Conservative future."

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