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Willetts: Conservatives believe in security for all

Speaking to the Conservative Party Conference this morning, David Willetts MP, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said:

"I know that many people will be thinking above all of our superb armed forces, once more fighting alongside America in defence of freedom. Some might be surprised that, at this time of international crisis, with our brave soldiers in action, we are devoting a morning to our public services - social security and education and health. But it was at the very height of the Second World War that today's welfare state was planned: a National Health Service was proposed by the wartime Coalition; Rab Butler produced his great Education Act of 1944; and even today our social security system bears the imprint of Beveridge's famous Report, published in 1942. The welfare state was forged in the heat of the Second World War.

It is no accident that war has shaped our public services. It is at such times that we are reminded of the ties that bind us together as one nation; of the obligations we have to our fellow citizens. Sometimes it takes a threat from outside to remind us how much we have in common.

The welfare state attempts to convey that sense of national unity. That is the spirit in which it was created after the War. It was an attempt to carry forward the national purpose of wartime into peacetime. But it is all too easy to draw the wrong lessons from the experience of war. The inspiring unity of a nation at war can become bureaucratic uniformity in peace. Instead of diversity and dynamism - the real way forward - we get stifling bureaucracy. That is surely what has gone wrong with our welfare state since the War.

And there is a final ironic twist to this: many of the nations that lost were forced to draw a different lesson from war - that centralised government was a threat and so welfare and other public services should not all be under the control of ministers and bureaucrats. After the War we voted ourselves the most centralised, most nationalised, most state controlled welfare system of any Western country. That is why Iain Duncan Smith is so right to insist that we now have much to learn from countries on the Continent and elsewhere.

As Conservatives we believe in something far richer and more effective than the welfare state. We believe in the welfare society. We believe in a society in which there is a network of voluntary groups and charities, yes and private organisations too, helping people far more sensitively than state bureaucracies ever can. I read one left-winger who said it was a scandal that in a civilised society people were still getting services from volunteers that should be the responsibility of the state. But we Conservatives know how wrong that is. It is the network of volunteers and charities which show what a civilised society we really are. That is why so many people in this hall give time and effort to their local community.

So the first principle which should guide us as we tackle the task of reform is that we want to create a welfare society, rather than a welfare state.

There are three other principles that should guide us as well:

· treat people with dignity;

· strengthen families;

· encourage saving;

More and more people are being trapped on means tests that are intrusive, complicated, and degrading. Soon, more than a third of all British families are going to be on means tests, and that includes almost two thirds of all pensioners. They tell me again and again that this government is stripping them of their dignity.

Single parents are victims too. The government has produced a chart entitled 'Benefits and Tax Credits available for lone parents'. That's their idea of being helpful. But it looks horribly like a spider's web. It is tough enough being a single parent already without being trapped in that as well. That is why we need a simpler system that treats people with dignity.

And if you need any more convincing that the system undermines the dignity of many of our fellow citizens, just ask yourself the following:

· How many pensioners struggling to make ends meet do not claim the Minimum Income Guarantee even though they are entitled to it? Last year, half a million. This year that shocking figure is up to 600,000. That is what happens when benefits keep on getting renamed and relaunched so nobody knows what they are entitled to.

· And a second question. How long did a disabled person tell me it took to fill in her complicated and intrusive benefit form? 'Two days', she said. And there were so many boxes to fill in she needed an extra box as well - a box of tissues because it was so distressing for her .

· And one last question. This one really is tricky. What is the difference between:

Ø the Working Families Tax Credit;

Ø the Childcare Tax Credit;

Ø the Children's Tax Credit; and

Ø the Integrated Child Credit.

There is probably only one person who knows the answer to that one. Gordon Brown. And even he isn't sure. But he expects every family in the country to find their way through the maze of schemes he invents every year. They shouldn't need the skills of an Enigma code breaker to find their way through the tax and benefits system. That is not fair on decent working families. It is not fair on disabled people. And it is not fair on pensioners. The system must be made simpler.

If dignity is one principle, strengthening families is the next. People throughout the world know the value of family, especially my colleague Tim Boswell who has just become a grandfather for the first time. Many governments in Europe have imaginative family-friendly policies, and we should not be afraid of learning lessons from them. In our last manifesto we had some very good policies for helping families: family scholarships, a new family tax allowance, and more support for people caring for a close relative. But we all know from our canvassing that too few families felt we were on their side. And they don't believe we recognise that they come in all shapes and sizes. That is why we must show that we understand and share the realities of being a parent today.

We must be the party of saving too. Ministers regularly tell us how much we have got in our pension schemes. But such boasts are dangerously complacent. The brutal truth is that now Britain is not a nation of savers planning for the future; we are a nation of borrowers who think tomorrow can take care of itself. We are not going forwards, we are going backwards. Families are saving less. The number of pensioners with an income from private pensions is not going up any more: it has started to go down. Company pension schemes are closing their doors to new members. And now we are starting to see the consequences of Labour's shameless tax raid on our pensions. Scheme after scheme is finding it has no longer got the funds to meet its obligations. Too many people are facing an impoverished retirement and, unless we change tack, we are heading for a new era of welfare dependency.

So even today, when physical security is foremost in our minds after the tragedy of New York and Washington, we must not forget the need too for financial security. That is why we Conservatives have always believed in protecting, encouraging and rewarding saving.

Our welfare system is in a mess. Today benefits cost over £100 billion a year - over ten per cent of our national income and almost a third of all Government spending. Since we began this morning, £50 million has been paid out in benefits. The trouble is that social security, like the rest of the welfare state, has lost its way. We need to get it back on track. Labour are failing in their aim of reforming the welfare state, so we must be ready to take up that historic responsibility. We can do so by applying basic Conservative principles: creating a welfare society not a welfare state; treating people with dignity; strengthening families; and encouraging saving.

We will have to use all our ingenuity and energy to get social security back on track. As we start this difficult task, our principles must be those that have seen the country through both good times and bad: security for individuals; security for families; security for pensioners, security for one nation, our nation, the United Kingdom.

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