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Willetts: Our commitment to the people

Two weeks ago, I spent the night on the streets of London listening to people who have slipped through the social safety net or who are being failed by public services. I heard at first hand the problems faced by the homeless from a group of people sleeping rough outside Westminster Cathedral.

Engaging people, listening to their problems and learning how we might help them in the future lies at the heart of the Conservative Party's One Nation Hearings. My Shadow Cabinet colleagues and I are visiting places and meeting people that politicians have too often forgotten about.

Sometimes we have to overcome cynicism from the people we meet. They start by thinking we are just there for a good photo-opportunity. We can prove them wrong as we develop policies that tackle Britain's social problems.

But I also encounter cynicism from another quarter, from some Conservatives themselves.

Some think the One Nation Hearings and helping the vulnerable are just a phase we have to go through until we can get back to issues such as the Euro and taxation.

Others believe our emphasis on improving public services and reconnecting with people is some how selling out on everything we stood for in the 1980s.

Well I don't see it at that way. Helping the vulnerable is not a re-launch of the Party, nor is it a repudiation of our beliefs, it is a rediscovery of a Conservative tradition dating back some 200 years.

It was Edmund Burke who first talked about having 'a disposition to preserve and an ability to improve'. Helping people and making lives better has always been as important to Conservatives as defending traditions and institutions. One of the reasons why we won those heroic landslide victories throughout the 1980s was that people could see that above all we were going to make Britain a better place by transforming its economic performance. And one of the reasons why we lost so badly in 1997 and again in 2001 was that we failed to convey a compelling sense that we were going to tackle the new problems facing contemporary Britain.

We left our country in 1997 in far better shape than we found it in 1979. We had to turn round one of Europe's sickest economies and make it one of Europe's most dynamic and successful ones. We achieved that, and we can feel proud of that achievement.

But we have paid a price for that very success. It has left many reasonable, normal, middle-of-the-road, apolitical British men and women with a quite dreadful sense of what Conservatives are like. They think we are obsessed with economics. They think we are like Oscar Wilde's cynic who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. There is and always has been more to Conservatism than economics. That means above all showing we understand that there is such a thing as society.

One way of tackling that perception of what Conservatives are like is to argue that it was unfair all along and does not do justice to our record in government. Labour would love us to adopt that approach. There is nothing they would like more than for us to be endlessly re-fighting the 1997 General Election. Because we did, after all lose it by a landslide.

Nor will it do just to show that the Labour Government is turning out to be as bad as many people thought we were by the end. This is a Government that is mediocre in most things apart from winning elections. But just trying to show how bad it is won't do on its own. Our central task is to show that we will make a better government than Labour when the next election comes in 2005 or 2006. And that means showing that we as a Party want to tackle the concerns that are at the top of the electorate's agenda. This means talking and behaving in a way that makes sense to Britain in 2002. That is why helping the vulnerable is so important.

Over the past few weeks, I have seen three different snapshots of Britain at three One Nation Hearings. One of the most striking things I saw was the extent to which helping vulnerable people must not be a passive, one-way, exercise. It has to be about helping people to achieve greater control over their own lives, as much as providing them with money and services.

In Birmingham, for example, I saw the success of projects that help drug abusers to combat their addiction and to gain gradual control back over their own lives. Many charities are much more effective that the public sector in this area because they treat people as individuals. We need to learn from the strengths of such initiatives and make it possible for them to do more.

In Kent, I saw how the local council is working hard to help the most vulnerable people escape from dependency on welfare. Through an innovative agreement with the Treasury, some of the savings can be passed back and the result could be improved local services. The result is less reliance on welfare, more independence for vulnerable people and better local services.

In London, I learnt more about the causes of homelessness. One of the people that I met had been given a one-bedroom flat, but he had returned to the streets because he felt less isolated there. It is no good offering people one-bedroom flats if they have such a strong identity as a group that this does not help them escape homelessness.

We've called these our One Nation Hearings because they rest on the Conservative belief that we have obligations to our fellow citizens in all corners of our country.

Helping the vulnerable isn't just a campaign, it's what elected Conservatives do day in and day out. A fact acknowledged even by this Government which is about to give two London Tory Councils the only perfect scores in the country for the way the are dealing with social services.

Our approach to helping people is a serious commitment. It has to be reflected in the way we Conservatives conduct our politics.

We must talk to the electorate in a way that does not reinforce their worst fears about what Conservatives are like. When we were in government we did many things which were right but unpopular. It was easy to draw the extremely dangerous - and fallacious - conclusion that unless something was unpopular it couldn't possibly be right. There is no special virtue in a modern democracy in being disliked. It is not a badge of honour somehow confirming that what you are saying must be true if uncomfortable.

We need to talk more about ends and less about means. We all became policy wonks, lovingly analysing the details of our policies but failing to communicate what they were for. We would endlessly debate the internal market in the NHS for example, whilst failing to communicate that we did actually want patients to have better health care and that was the point of the whole exercise. That's why we don't need to rush into a host of detailed policies. No matter how good a policy we came up with it would be pointless unless first of all people had registered that the purpose of the whole exercise was to make their lives better. If they don't think that, then, no matter how good the policy it won't get a fair hearing.

We are also recognising that economic change means social change as well. You can't have one without the other. A dynamic, enterprising and mobile economy is incompatible with a society stuck in aspic. Our economic changes unleashed a whole set of social changes too. Some of them were good and some of them weren't. Let me give you some examples.

If there is one single group that benefited more from the transformation of Britain after 1979 it was women aged 20-40. Their opportunities in life have been transformed as education and employment opportunities were opened up to them on a far greater scale than ever before. That would not have happened in an old-style corporatist Britain dominated by heavy industry and even heavier unions. We should have been proud of that but for some reason the message never got through.

Let me given you a second example - London. London has been transformed in the last 15 years. It is quite simply, once more, one of the world's great cities. It is dynamic, enterprising and cosmopolitan and diverse. Without the Big Bang in the City or the transformation of docklands or even the cut in the top rate of income tax London would not have been such a magnet for people from around the world. But the Conservative Party fell to being the third Party in London because Londoners did not associate us with this at all and one of the most encouraging features of the local elections last month was that at last we saw the beginnings of a Conservative recovery in London.

But just as our economic changes brought these social benefits they also had their downside. There were people left behind by the modern mobile economy. That's why instead of trying to pretend there isn't any poverty we are investigating more thoroughly than for many years how best we can help the poorest members of our society.

There are also people who found the sheer creative destruction of the marketplace all too threatening and wanted order, community and security. At the heart of the Conservative tradition is a recognition that we need both the economic dynamism of the marketplace and also wider values that give life roots and shape and meaning. I am proud to be a Conservative because over the past two centuries Conservatives have more successfully reconciled these two principles than any other western political party.

Our commitment to helping the vulnerable is a renewal of Conservatism, offering a vision of a stronger and better society. But the old caricatures live on in people's minds and that's why they will always be on the look-out for recidivism. It would be so convenient for the critics if they could claim that we were just the same old Tories. That's why Iain Duncan Smith has been right to emphasise that the help the vulnerable campaign is central to the direction in which he wants to take the Party.

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