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Willetts: Party Conference Speech 2000

Good morning! May I begin by thanking the many people who have contributed to our debate this morning and particularly Robert Halfon and Karen Lumley.

You have already heard this morning from Eric Pickles, described by one sketch-writer as "that splendid sausage roll of a Parliamentarian". And you have heard as well from Jacqui Lait. She is going to tear up those rigid rules on annuities which hit so many people when they retire. Thanks too to our Whip, John Randall.

And in the Lords there are Terence Higgins, Peta Buscombe, and Johnny Astor. They do something we commoners find rather more difficult - they actually defeat the Government. It is thanks to them, for example, that war widows will now be able to keep their service pensions when they re-marry - so even in Opposition we Conservatives are tackling injustice.

We literally cannot afford to go on as we are under this hopeless Government. They promised so much and have delivered so little. They promised bold reforms of the welfare state. But what happens? Whenever the Social Security Secretary takes a proposal to Number 10 he is told "Not now Darling".

Once more it will be left to a Conservative Government to reform social security. That means getting a grip on spending and we have already identified £3 billion of savings. It means getting unemployed people back to work - that is what our Can Work, Must Work Guarantee is all about. And above all it means giving more help to those people who really need it - families, disabled people, pensioners.

Many people this morning have raised pensions - unlike the Government. Every pensioner and millions more besides have been outraged by the measly 75 pence increase on the pension. We Conservatives share that outrage.

I'll give you one simple reason why people have lost confidence in this government. When it came to putting up fuel duty in his Budget, Gordon Brown said the inflation rate was 3.4 per cent. But when it came to the pension the inflation rate had miraculously fallen to only 1.1 per cent.

So it is one figure for the motorist and another figure for the pensioner. But there is one thing they have in common. They have both rumbled this wretched Labour Government.

What a way to treat the generation that fought in the War. But Tony Blair does not value our history. He does not value our traditions. And that is why he does not value our pensioners. He did not even bother to turn up to the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

Now Tony Blair tells us he has got an irreducible core. That is presumably somewhere above his bottom line and below his bleeding heart.

A recent Labour briefing revealed what Labour thinks about pensioners. Peter Mandelson said there was "no mileage" to be had from them. The Chairman of the Labour Party said they were "racist". And then, the final insult, he said they were "predominantly Conservative". Well, at least we are going to prove him right on that.

Labour claim that instead of putting money into the basic state pension they have put more into means-tested benefits. I cannot imagine why they should want to boast that more pensioners will have to wrestle with the complicated 40-page form for their so-called Minimum Income Guarantee. It requires 323 separate items of information, including such gems as, 'Are you or your partner pregnant?'.

It is not even true that they have directed lots of extra money to the poorest pensioners. Five times as much is going into complicated ill-targeted schemes such as winter fuel payments. And last week they compounded the confusion by announcing even more special schemes. But pensioners do not want patronising gimmicks.

What they want is the respect and dignity that comes from the basic contributory pension.

That is why we have pledged that a Conservative Government would put every pound that goes into Gordon's gimmicks into the basic pension instead. But we are not stopping there. We are doing more than that. We are putting in an extra £320 million saved from elsewhere in the social security budget. That means we can promise pensioners that a Conservative uprating in 2001 would range from £5.50 for a single pensioner under 75 to £10 for a married couple over 75.

No ifs, no buts, no special application forms, no loss of means-tested benefits, no extra tax. Even Barbara Castle of all people said our policy was "an absolute vote-winner".

If Gordon Brown uprates the pension by more than inflation - we will accept that and still add our reform package on top. So we can look every pensioner in the eye and say "You will be better off under the Conservatives".

Our proposal guarantees more money to pensioners. But more than that it offers dignity, respect and trust. A pensioner in Suffolk wrote to me and put it like this:

'I wonder how long it will be for them to get it into their thick heads that pensioners do not want crumbs thrown to them from Lord and Lady Bountiful Blair's table …….. We wish to pay our way like everybody else and object strongly when we are made to become forelock-touching, cap-in-hand, second-class citizens.'

We understand that anger. Labour do not.

Let me quote from a newspaper article entitled 'Ministers want trendy name for pensioners'. It states:

'Ministers want to re-brand pensioners with a trendy name that will appeal to younger people. Ministers believe that words like pensions or elderly carry a grey image which deters younger people from thinking ahead.'

There is more:

Some of Whitehall's finest minds are working on the problem, whilst the Government is also seeking outside help to try to come up with a new title'.

Doesn't that say it all? They are thinking of new names while we are coming up with new policies.

But we mustn't just discharge our obligations to today's pensioners. We have also got to plan for tomorrow's pensioners. We want the next generation to have bigger, better, funded pensions. We can only achieve that if we encourage saving now. Labour are presiding over a catastrophic fall in the amount that we as a nation are saving.

Do you know what is the worst single statistic about this Government's economic record? When we left office the average household was saving over £10 for every £100 of income. And do you know what that is now? It is down to £3 for every £100 of household income. That is a direct consequence of hitting pension funds with the worst stealth tax of the lot. Five billion pounds wiped off the pensions of the people of this country.

Let me make one thing absolutely clear about our proposal for future pensioners. The basic pension stays for anyone who wants to stick with it. We are offering younger workers the option of building up a real fund instead of having to depend on the basic state pension. If someone under 30 were allocated £500 a year to put into a fund and it performed as well as the market has done since the War, it would build up to a pension for a single person not of £67 but £130. It is another step towards our great Conservative vision of a property-owning democracy.

We don't just believe in saving because it makes financial sense - though it does. It is also part of our belief in strong families.

It is tough bringing up children nowadays. Families often feel that they are struggling to bring up their children decently in a hostile environment. Our responsibility as politicians is to ease those pressures. That is why William Hague has rightly pledged us to recognise marriage in the tax system once more.

But isn't it a pity that the media only show dysfunctional families in their soap operas.

We've all seen those gritty domestic dramas. Let me just pick some of the characters at random. There's Tony who doesn't get on with his neighbour Gordon. Mo storms out, fed-up with the backbiting. They all hate Peter who is not invited to Gordon's wedding. And as for John, he thinks Tony's a bit stuck up and doesn't get on with his wife! In one script John says to Tony, "It's all right for you, you've got a wife who earns £250,000 a year. I've got a wife who spends £250,000 a year". That's fine as soap opera but we shouldn't let them anywhere near government. Let's keep it in Coronation Street, not Downing Street.

Gordon Brown is trapping families in the most complicated benefit system they have ever faced. There is the working families tax credit. The child care credit. The children`s tax credit. Soon we will have the integrated child credit. And don't forget the employment tax credit.

Gordon Brown should be simplifying the tax and benefit system. Instead he is constructing a passable imitation of Spaghetti Junction on a Bank Holiday! And millions of decent British families are trapped in it. Labour won't tackle it. We will.

And it's not just families that suffer. Gordon Brown wants these credits to be administered by hard-pressed employers. Small businesses are already fed up with being unpaid tax collectors for the Government. But now they are unpaid benefit offices as well. Gordon Brown proudly announced the working families tax credit assisted by, and I quote from the normally sober pages of the Financial Times, 'Dennis the Menace, Postman Pat and a Womble'. The trouble is that he then invited them back to the Treasury to devise the details of the policy.

But don't worry. The Inland Revenue are going to make it as easy as possible for employers to administer the new credits. Just look at what they have come up with. [display chart] And this is the special, simplified version. All you need is a forfeit card and a pair of dice.

That is why we are committed to reforming the working families tax credit and once more paying it as a benefit to the caring parent.

The more complicated Labour make benefits the greater the risk of error and the easier it is to perpetrate fraud. The level of fraud in our social security system is nothing short of a national scandal. Labour claim to be tough on fraud but all they ever do is issue press notices about it. They are not after results. They are after headlines.

We all know Labour's approach:

· more summits than the Himalayas

· more crusades than Richard the Lion Heart

· more Tsars than the Russians

But all the sound and spin and hype signifies nothing, absolutely nothing.

Do you know how many suspected cases there were of fraud in Housing and Council Tax Benefit alone last year? 160,000. And do you know how many successful prosecutions there were? 800. That is one prosecution every 200 cases. It is a national scandal.

I can tell Conference today that we will establish a single National Benefit Fraud Squad. It has already been recommended in an official report, but that's gathering dust in the DSS. A Conservative Government will tackle fraud more vigorously and more effectively than ever before.

We Conservatives want a social security system that doesn't make fools of decent people.

We want a social security system that is part of making a better society.

We want a social security system that respects and values pensioners.

That is why instead of gimmicks we offer security.

Instead of complication we offer simplicity.

Instead of spin we offer substance.

Instead of Tony Blair we offer William Hague.

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