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David Cameron: The Big Society

There are many things to admire about Hugo Young and his writing. The elegance of his prose. The doggedness of his curiosity. The strength of his integrity. 

Above all, you had to read him - he mattered. He understood that the size and role of the state was a key issue in politics and returned to it often - and that is my subject today.

I want to extend and deepen the argument I made in my party conference speech this year, that the size, scope and role of government in Britain has reached a point where it is now inhibiting, not advancing the progressive aims of reducing poverty, fighting inequality, and increasing general well-being. Indeed there is a worrying paradox that because of its effect on personal and social responsibility, the recent growth of the state has promoted not social solidarity, but selfishness and individualism.

But I also want to argue that just because big government has helped atomise our society, it doesn't follow that smaller government would automatically bring us together again.

Yes, there are specific instances where the very act of rolling back the state will serve to roll forward society, for example when organisations that have been dependent on the state are asked to go outside government for funding, and thereby improve their record of engaging with the public and society. But I believe that in general, a simplistic retrenchment of the state which assumes that better alternatives to state action will just spring to life unbidden is wrong. Instead we need a thoughtful re-imagination of the role, as well as the size, of the state.

The first step must be a new focus on empowering and enabling individuals, families and communities to take control of their lives so we create the avenues through which responsibility and opportunity can develop. This is especially vital in what is today the front line of the fight against poverty and inequality: education. 

But I also want to argue that the re-imagined state should not stop at creating opportunities for people to take control of their lives. It must actively help people take advantage of this new freedom. This means a new role for the state: actively helping to create the big society; directly agitating for, catalysing and galvanising social renewal.

So yes, in the fight against poverty, inequality, social breakdown and injustice I do want to move from state action to social action. But I see a powerful role for government in helping to engineer that shift. Let me put it more plainly: we must use the state to remake society. 


The size, scope and role of the state is of course the scene of a vigorous political debate. But I believe it is pointless to draw dividing lines where none exist - so I want to start my contribution with where we all agree. Ask anyone of any political colour the kind of country they want to see and they'll say a Britain that is richer, that is safer, that is greener but perhaps most important to us all, a country that is fairer and where opportunity is more equal.

Not far from here the incredible wealth of the City exists side-by-side with some of the poorest neighbourhoods in our country. For every tube station along the Jubilee Line, from Westminster to the East End, Londoners living in those areas lose almost an entire year of expected life. Bringing these two worlds closer is a multi-faceted endeavour: moral, social, and of course economic.

Research by Richard Wilkson and Katie Pickett has shown that among the richest countries, it's the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator. In "The Spirit Level", they show that per capita GDP is much less significant for a country's life expectancy, crime levels, literacy and health than the size of the gap between the richest and poorest in the population. So the best indicator of a country's rank on these measures of general well-being is not the difference in wealth between them, but the difference in wealth within them.

Of course in a free society, some people will be richer than others.  Of course if we make opportunity more equal, some will do better than others.  But there's a massive difference between a system that allows fair reward for talent, effort and enterprise and a system that keeps millions of people at the bottom locked out of the success enjoyed by the mainstream. 

We all know, in our hearts, that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side by side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it. That doesn't mean we should be fixated only on a mechanistic objective like reducing the Gini co-efficient, the traditional financial measure of inequality or on closing the gap between the top and the bottom. 

Instead, we should focus on the causes of poverty as well as the symptoms because that is the best way to reduce it in the long term. And we should focus on closing the gap between the bottom and the middle, not because that is the easy thing to do, but because focusing on those who do not have the chance of a good life is the most important thing to do.


For centuries, the state expanded in order to help achieve a fairer society. This expansion took many forms. There was the passing of legislation - like the Poor Laws and Factory Acts. There was the introduction of financial help - like sickness benefits. There was the empowerment of institutions - such as local authorities being charged with clearing sums. And in one particularly progressive moment, there was the marshalling of the whole power of the state to abolish slavery. All this meant that by the eve of World War Two, central authorities were involved in setting minimum wages as well as controlling rents and helped provide unemployment insurance, pensions, and public housing.

And in the immediate post-war period we saw the creation of the welfare state.  Both main political parties backed a comprehensive system of social security that included universal healthcare and education, and unemployment and pensions benefits.

What was the effect of this state expansion?  It is difficult to be completely certain because for much of the twentieth century, research on poverty levels used inconsistent measures. But from the evidence we have, we can say with some confidence that that up until the 1930s poverty fell compared to the years before.

Understandably, in the immediate aftermath of the Great Depression, poverty did begin to rise. But during the 1940s there was a fall in poverty of between ten and twenty percent compared to the 1930s. By the 1960s we are on firmer ground, as consistent statistics on household income began to be produced for the first time. And this data shows that between 1961 and 1968, the number of people living in severe poverty fell by 900,000 and the gap between the richest and poorest fell. 

So the evidence suggests that up until the late 1960s, the expansion of the state to advance social justice was not only well-intentioned and compassionate, but generally successful. However, even in this period, it's important to look at the complete picture. Some state extensions helped tackle poverty, others were less effective. Some did so while encouraging responsibility and local pride at the same time others undermined these virtues. 

<h2>SINCE 1997</h2>

But since the immediate post-war period, the most significant extension of the state has taken place under the current Labour government. In 1997, government spending as a proportion of GDP was 38.2 percent. Next year, it is forecast to rise above fifty percent.

Margaret Thatcher's government introduced an average of 1,724 new laws every year. In 2007, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown passed a record-breaking 3,071 new laws. More than one in every three jobs created since Labour came to power have been in the public sector.  Funding for the official list of quangos has grown by nearly 90 per cent. And the state and its agencies now collect and store huge amounts of information about British citizens in various databases.

This trend of continuous central state expansion was not politically inevitable. Just as there is a strong liberal, civic tradition within Conservative thinking, stretching back from Edmund Burke through to Michael Oakeshott, that celebrates the small and local over the big and central, the same is true for Labour.

In Hobson and Hobhouse, Labour have a rich intellectual tradition of radical liberalism, a strand of thinking that believes that the state's role is simply to provide the conditions for people to live the good life as they see fit. 

But this tradition lost out to another intellectual tradition, Fabianism, which was seen to best meet the perceived needs of the age. This held a more mechanistic view of the state - that it could and should command and control.

And with the pressures of what Tony Blair described as a "24 hours a day, 7 days a week" news schedule, insisting that every day be fought like a general election, Fabianism offered a compelling narrative, one in which every issue demanded government intervention and every problem could be solved by a state solution.

Gordon Brown's Budgets when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer - top-down, fiddling, micro-managing - were the quintessence of this approach.


So did it work? Did the rapid expansion of the state since 1997 succeed in tackling poverty?  Did it reduce inequality? Well, it would be churlish to deny that some progress has been made. 

Indeed it would be rather amazing if there had been no progress. In the past decade, public spending has doubled. Health spending has almost trebled. 

Since 1997 the Government has spent £473 billion on welfare payments alone - that's as big as our whole economy in 1988. Much of this has been channelled through tax credits and income transfers and as a result, there has been a measure of success in lifting those just below the poverty line to just above it.

But, quite apart from the fact that it turns out much of this has been paid for on account, creating debts that will have to be paid back by future generations; a more complete assessment of the evidence shows something different - that as the state continued to expand under Labour, our society became more, not less unfair.

In the past decade, the gap between the richest and the poorest got wider. Indeed, inequality is now at a record high. The very poorest in our society got poorer - and there are more of them.  The incomes of the bottom ten percent actually fell by £6 per week between 2002 and 2008 before housing costs, and £9 per week after housing costs.  The number of people living in severe poverty has actually risen - not fallen, risen - by 900,000 in the past ten years.

Youth unemployment has also increased - with nearly one million 16-24 year olds now out of work. 

And studies by the Sutton Trust indicate that social mobility has effectively stalled - people are no more likely to escape the circumstances of their birth than they were thirty years ago. If you think about it, these are astonishing facts. 

How is it possible for the state to spend so much money, to devote so much energy, to fighting poverty - only for poverty and inequality to win the fight? 

Within that broad question, however, lies a more nuanced and perhaps more interesting one. 
Not so much: 'why has the state failed to tackle poverty?' but: 'why has the state more recently failed to tackle poverty?' 

We know that for a long period of time, up until the late 1960s, the state was broadly effective at tackling poverty and reducing inequality. So why did the state start becoming broadly ineffective?

A big part of the reason, in economic terms at least, lies in the global trend of rising returns to education because of new technologies and globalisation. So while people with good skills are able to benefit and indeed those who can best capture the opportunities of globalisation see rewards that are off the scale, those without are increasingly shut out of the global economy.

A key part of Labour's response to this trend has been more and more redistribution, means-tested benefits and tax credits. They have been trying to swim against the tide. But as we have seen, that approach is reaching the limits of its effectiveness - to put it mildly.

We have surely learnt that it is not enough merely to keep funding more and more generous tax credits.  Indeed, the harm that means-tested benefits do to work incentives is beginning to undo the good they do in raising people's incomes.

As the Institute for Fiscal Studies observed of the Government's approach:
"Its current strategy of increasing ... [means-tested] child tax credit is effective at reducing poverty directly, but its indirect effect might be to increase poverty through weakening incentives for parents to work."

This is a vital point.  We cannot separate the economic from the social, as the big government approach mechanistically tends to do. The social consequences of economic reforms do matter.  It is because they include undermining personal and social responsibility that the big government approach ends up perpetuating poverty instead of solving it.

So what's the alternative? 
Our answer is two-fold: first, making opportunity more equal - in which education plays the key role and second, actively helping to create a stronger, more responsible society.


To begin with, we must make opportunity more equal - throughout a person's lifecycle.

That means better early years provision for the poorest families.
It means better education so if families fail, children have a second chance.
And it means better adult education so people without skills can lift themselves up later in life.

This is why, consistently over the last few years, we have elevated three sets of reforms as being of pre-eminent importance in our programme: families, schools, welfare. Focus on these, and you have some prospect of standing up to those powerful global forces that lie behind rising inequality.

But of course it is not simply a question of prioritisation.  It is all about the approach you take.
In each of these areas we plan a clean break with the current big government approach.

For families, Sure Start should stay, but it must better involve voluntary bodies and charities and increase its focus on the poorest.

In education, the model of state-run schools, accountable to ministers and education bureaucrats will be replaced by self-governing state schools accountable to parents, with a new pupil premium creating an incentive for the best schools to attract children from the poorest families.

And in welfare, the model of payment by right will be replaced by payment by results, for both welfare recipients and welfare to work providers; and we will extend help to the long-term unemployed left on the scrapheap by Labour.

And we also have significant ambitions for changing the benefit system.

We have set out plans to end the couple penalty in the tax credits system by increasing working tax credits for couples who stay together.  As we end the couple penalty, there will be an immediate benefit - the poorest couples with children will gain, on average, £1500 a year, lifting up to 300,000 children out of poverty.

But there are longer-term benefits too.
By incentivising responsible behaviour, the state sends an important signal about families staying together so more children have a better start in life. It is a clear example of our aggressively pro-family, pro-commitment, pro-responsibility approach.


This emphasis on responsibility is absolutely vital.

When the welfare state was created, there was an ethos, a culture to our country - of self-improvement, of mutuality, of responsibility.

You could see it in the collective culture of respect for work, parenting and aspiration.
You could see it in the vibrant panoply of civic organisations that meant communities looked out for one another; the co-operatives, the friendly societies, the building societies, the guilds. 

But as the state continued to expand, it took away from people more and more things that they should and could be doing for themselves, their families and their neighbours. Human kindness, generosity and imagination are steadily being squeezed out by the work of the state. The result is that today, the character of our society - and indeed the character of some people themselves, as actors in society, is changing. 

There is less expectation to take responsibility, to work, to stand by the mother of your child, to achieve, to engage with your local community, to keep your neighbourhood clean, to respect other people and their property, to use your own discretion and judgement. 

Why? Because today the state is ever-present: either doing it for you, or telling you how to do it, or making sure you're doing it their way. 

We can see it most starkly when it comes to children. Through a range of measures aimed at protecting children, the state is actually making them more vulnerable.

The Independent Safeguarding Authority was established to stop children coming into contact with dangerous adults, but by forcing responsible adults to go through the rigmarole of a vetting procedure it will actually reduce the amount of care and love in children's lives as adults will give up volunteering to help children.

The benefit system was weighted to help single parents the most, but by encouraging parents to live apart it denies children a stable family home.

The tick box inspection regime was designed to improve the quality of social work, but by stopping trained professionals from using their discretion and judgement it has harmed children instead of helping them.

The big government approach has spawned multiple perverse incentives that either discourage responsibility or actively encourage irresponsibility. Far too many of the people I see in my constituency surgery are, thanks to the state, financially better off if they do the wrong thing than if they do the right thing. 

A couple with no children where the head of the family works sixteen hours a week at minimum wage would be better off if they both just claimed benefits.

Parents with a disabled child could have more money if they put that child into residential care than if they looked after them at home.

The pensioner who has saved their whole life gets little or no pension credit, but the person who hasn't saved gets their income topped up.

And the elderly person who has saved, bought a house and has assets of more than £23,000 has to pay for residential care, sometimes by selling their home, whereas someone who didn't save gets it for free.

This is where the moral failure of the big government approach is most evident. 
We hear the Prime Minister talking about his moral compass. 

But when you are paid more not to work than to work, when you are better off leaving your children than nurturing them, when our welfare system tells young girls that having children before finding the security of work and a loving relationship means a home and cash now, whereas doing the opposite means a long wait for a home and less cash later; when social care penalises those who have worked hard and saved hard by forcing them to sell their home, rather than rewarding them by giving them some dignity in old age; when your attempts at playing a role in society are met with inspection, investigation, and interrogation, is it any wonder our society is broken?

In this world where state control is a substitute for moral choice and personal responsibility, obligation and duty are in danger of becoming dead concepts instead of living value systems.  What has come to matter most is not our place in wider society, but our own personal journey and our right to pursue our own happiness regardless of others around us.

In the words of Phillip Blond, director of ResPublica:
"the state ... has dispossessed the people and amassed all power to itself ... This centralisation of power has made people passive when they should be active and cynical when they should be idealistic. This attitude only makes things worse - the more people think they can't make a difference, the more they opt out from society."

And here lies the rub.
The paradox at the heart of big government is that by taking power and responsibility away from the individual, it has only served to individuate them.  What is seen in principle as an act of social solidarity, has in practice led to the greatest atomisation of our society.  The once natural bonds that existed between people - of duty and responsibility - have been replaced with the synthetic bonds of the state - regulation and bureaucracy.


So how do we turn things around? 

Some on the centre-right have argued that the answer to the failures of big government is a simple retrenchment of the state.  That government should step back and give space for an organic and unprompted flourishing of personal responsibility and civic renewal.

But I'm not sure that is right. Just because big government has undermined our society, it does not follow that retrenchment of the state will automatically trigger its revival.

As Francis Fukuyama has said:
"There is a certain assumption that civil society, once having been damaged by the excessive ambition of government, will simply spring back to life like brine shrimp that have been freeze-dried, and now you add water to them and they become shrimp again. It is not something that you can take for granted."


Another alternative has come from the centre-left - what Peter Mandelson described in this lecture last year as a "smart, strategic state".

He said it should be one that uses "existing resources better, connecting up different parts of the government charged with this work and asking what we can do more".  He made the case for government to "steer and shape the networks and institutions of a globalised economy and society" so it could better "manage the system so as to minimise and deal with the shocks". And he argued for active policy to ensure "markets function effectively".  

Well I think we can all agree with that. 
Of course the state should be smart.  Of course it should be strategic.  But isn't this the very least we should expect from government?  I think we should expect an awful lot more.


Our alternative to big government is not no government - some reheated version of ideological laissez-faire.  Nor is it just smarter government.
Because we believe that a strong society will solve our problems more effectively than big government has or ever will, we want the state to act as an instrument for helping to create a strong society.

Our alternative to big government is the big society.
But we understand that the big society is not just going to spring to life on its own: we need strong and concerted government action to make it happen.

We need to use the state to remake society.


The first step is to redistribute power and control from the central state and its agencies to individuals and local communities.

That way, we can create the opportunity for people to take responsibility. This is absolutely in line with the spirit of the age - the post-bureaucratic age.

In commerce, the Professor of Technological Innovation at MIT, Eric von Hippel, has shown how individuals and small companies, flexible and able to take advantage of technologies and information once only available to major multinational corporations, are responding with the innovations that best suit the needs of consumers.

This year's Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Elinor Ostrom, has shown through her life's work how non- state collective action is more effective than centralised state solutions in solving community problems.

So I am confident that a major redistribution of power can really help us tackle our stubborn social problems and our three key approaches will be decentralisation, transparency and accountability. Our plans for decentralisation are based on a simple human insight: if you give people more responsibility, they behave more responsibly.

So we will take power from the central state and give it to individuals where possible - as with our school reforms that will put power directly in the hands of parents.

Where it doesn't make sense to give power directly to individuals, for example where there is a function that is collective in nature, then we will transfer power to neighbourhoods.

So our new Local Housing Trusts will enable communities to come together, agree on the number and type of homes they want, and provide themselves with permission to expand and lead that development. 

Where neighbourhood empowerment is not practical we will redistribute power to the lowest possible tier of government, and the removal of bureaucratic controls on councils will enable them to offer local people whatever services they want, in whatever way they want, with new mayors in our big cities acting as a focus for civic pride and responsibility.

This decentralisation of power from the central to the local will not just increase responsibility, it will lead to innovation, as people have the freedom to try new approaches to solving social problems, and the freedom to copy what works elsewhere.

A necessary counterpart to decentralisation is greater transparency. 

That's because information is power, so by giving people more information we give them more power. This is true internationally, where our plans for aid transparency will allow poor people in developing countries to see whether what has been promised is being delivered. And it's true back home, where our plans to publish details of all central and local government spending will not only provide a powerful check on waste, they will help open up the provision of state services to small businesses, social enterprises or charities as they see what is being done by the state and how they could do better.

The third element of the power shift we want to see is accountability.

Today, the relationship between the state and the people it is trying to help, especially the poorest, is top-down, adult-to-child, unaccountable. Here is what we will do for you, take what you're given and be grateful for it.

No. This must change.

We will require the people and organisations acting for the state to be directly accountable to the people they are supposed to serve. They will have to stop treating them like children and start treating them like adults. A good example is our plan to require the police to hold local beat meetings so people can challenge the police, face to face, about their crime-fighting performance, or lack of it.

Through decentralisation, transparency and accountability we can give people power over the services they use, over the way their tax money is spent, over how their local area is run.

But the state must go further than enabling these opportunities. It must actively help people take advantage of them. Our enabling reforms depend for their success on a social response: and that is not something we can leave to chance.

How do we get parents to come forward and demand new schools in their area?
How do we make sure people actually go to beat meetings and use them to put pressure on the police?
How do we find successful social programmes and make sure they're introduced everywhere there is a need? 

In other words, how do we guarantee that the big society advances as big government retreats?

<orma> </orma> <h2>HELPING CREATE THE BIG SOCIETY</h2>

This, then, is our new role for the state.

Galvanising, catalysing, prompting, encouraging and agitating for community engagement and social renewal. It must help families, individuals, charities and communities come together to solve problems.

We must use the state to remake society. 

We must use the state to help stimulate social action.


Social action is already a core part of modern Conservatism.  When I was elected leader of the Conservative Party, I asked our Parliamentary Candidates to undertake social action projects in their constituencies.

Today, there are now around 150 of these projects up and down the country. But if we win the election, the role of social action will be transformed.  It will become a core part of our policy agenda, because unless we stimulate social action, we will not create the responsible society that is vital for the success of our policies.

Our efforts will focus on three groups.

<h2> <orma> </orma>SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURS</h2>

First, we will identify and work directly with the social entrepreneurs who have the capacity to run successful social programmes in communities with the greatest needs.

Social entrepreneurs like Debbie Scott, whose fantastic organisation Tomorrow's People is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary today and who I am delighted to say we are nominating to join the Conservative team in the House of Lords.

At the moment, the work of social entrepreneurs is disparate.For over a decade, those working in the field have complained about the challenge of growing and replicating successful social programmes.

For example, the Lighthouse Group has a proven track record in getting young people who have gone off the rails and been excluded from school back on track with mentoring and education.

But at the moment, the amazing work of this group is confined to just four cities.

This is the precisely the sort of thing we need to spread across the country.
So we will identify proven social programmes, franchise them to social entrepreneurs with a track record of success and fund them directly from existing state budgets to deliver public services - the same kind of approach we are applying in school reform.

If we find the right people, a relatively small number can make a huge difference.
In America, two thirds of all new job growth is created by less than one percent of the population, the fast growth economic entrepreneurs. It can be the same with social enterprise and social wealth here.


The second group of people we need to engage in our social action strategy are those I would describe as community activists.

Unlike social entrepreneurs, they do not play a formal role in their communities, they don't have the time or inclination to run a social programme with all the responsibility that involves, but they do want to help.Running parents groups, organising beat meetings with the police, getting people together in a front room to discuss ways to improve the neighbourhood.

All this goes on today, but not enough. We need more community activism, and more community activists. But again, it would be naïve to think this will happen quickly enough on its own. The state has an important role to play.

As Archon Fung, Professor of Democracy and Citizenship at Harvard University, has said:
 "centralised support" has a vital role in "providing training and other supports... often necessary for local actors to exploit" new opportunities.

Our experience of social action in opposition has shown us the importance of this.  People need help to start up even the smallest projects, get the information they need, understand the dynamics of social activism.

This is already happening elsewhere.
Chicago's Alternative Policing Strategy has engaged some of the city's most deprived neighbourhoods in local policing strategies, leading to a significant reduction in crime.

And the Harlem Children's Zone in New York has created block captains who have not just made that area safer and a better place to live but also helped set up new schools.
This is exactly the kind of social action we will stimulate here.


But the third piece of the jigsaw is much harder.

Social entrepreneurs and community activists already exist, they want to do more, and we will help them do it. But the big society also needs the engagement of that significant percentage of the population who have no record of getting involved - or a desire to do so. 

The big society demands mass engagement: a broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation. 

But how do we bring this about?
Of course there are no easy answers, short cuts, or simplistic levers we can pull. But there are lessons we can learn from the latest academic research which shows how government, by going with the grain of human nature, can better influence behaviour.

The behavioural psychologist Robert Cialdini argues that one of the most important influences on how we behave are 'social norms' - that is, how other people behave.

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler have argued that with the right prompting, or 'nudge', government can effect a whole culture change.

It needn't even involve government doing anything.

For example, if Facebook simply added a social action line to their standard profile, this would do more to create a new social norm around volunteering or charitable giving than any number of government campaigns.

We can also learn from evidence that physical connection is paramount in building trust and strong communities. In a big state bureaucracy, where everything is distant and removed, it is hard for trust to grow.  That's why we want to build up strong local institutions which are tangible and where people - literally - come together to meet and mingle.

So we will strengthen civic institutions that already exist - like local shops, the post office and the town hall.

But we can also create new ones. Our plan for National Citizens' Service will bring together sixteen year olds from across the country in a three-week programme where they can learn what it means to be socially responsible, to serve their community, and to get on and get along with people from different backgrounds.

I hope it will help inspire social action and co-operation amongst a new generation of teenagers.


This new role for government means a new role for Whitehall too - and new skills for civil servants. 
They need to become civic servants. 

We need people capable of engaging with social entrepreneurs and civic institutions who can agitate and encourage social action, and help people to build the type of sustainable organisations we need.  

And if we are to break the culture of charities and social bodies being dependent on the state for hand-outs we need to look at how government can use loans alongside grants to help make them more sustainable and effective, an approach already being used by funders like Acumen Capital in the States and the Young Foundation here in Britain. 


What I have spoken about today combines optimism about the potential for social renewal with realism about the role of the state in fighting poverty and inequality.

If we stick the course and change this country then we will have a national life expanded with meaning and mutual responsibility.

We will feel it in the strength of our relationships - the civility and courtesy we show to each other.

Just as we have felt this coarsen in the past decade, so I believe we will feel it change for the better in the years ahead.

And we will feel it in our culture - a new can-do and should-do attitude where Britons once again feel in control of their lives.

This is not the work of one parliamentary term, or even two. Culture change is much harder than state control. It will take more than a generation. But it is because I believe the appetite for change is there that I know that change will come.

The era of big government has run its course.

Poverty and inequality have got worse, despite Labour's massive expansion of the state. We need new answers now, and they will only come from a bigger society, not bigger government.

That's why it's now clear to me that the Conservatives, not Labour, are best placed to fight poverty in our country.

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