Page last updated at 20:50 GMT, Thursday, 26 June 2008 21:50 UK

Cameron's Britain: Social policy

By Mark Easton
Home editor, BBC News

Council estate
The Tories say "broken Britain" can be "breakthrough Britain"

Should David Cameron win the next election, what would it mean for Britain's poorest citizens?

The Conservatives have spent the past couple of years assiduously trying to convince the electorate their reputation as the party of wealth and privilege is unfair and wrong.

Surprisingly perhaps, they have decided to make social policy the centre-piece of their offer to voters - taking the fight to an area Labour sees as home territory.

The strategy is based on a significant piece of work by the Conservatives' Social Justice Policy Group, headed by former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith.

Big ideas

Consultations, public hearings and opinion polls have resulted in a 600-page book called Breakthrough Britain: Ending the costs of social breakdown.

It sets out the big ideas on how a Tory government might attempt to heal what is described as "broken Britain".

The analysis sees family breakdown as a key cause of society's ills.

Mr Cameron recently put it like this: "The number one challenge in this country today is to strengthen our society.

"There is no more important way of doing that than strengthening families."

Marriage levels are at an all-time low, co-habiting at an all-time high.

Support marriage

In Wales and north-east England, most children are now born outside wedlock.

Even if the parents marry, too often the relationships do not last.

For every three weddings, there are almost two divorces. A quarter of all children now live with a single parent - usually the mother.

David Cameron pledges to be more 'family friendly'

The Tories want a return to the nuclear age - mother and father, married with children.

So there would be tax breaks and other help to support marriage. Where families are struggling, there will be an army of professionals on hand with a mission to get in early.

Not everyone will welcome the attention and there will be resentment from those who believe other family structures are equally valid.

But Mr Cameron is unapologetic and his rhetoric is ambitious: "We've got to change the way we work so families get to spend more time together.

"We've got to make sure that each family gets the support it needs when the pressure is greatest.

"We've got to improve childcare so it's there to support the choices parents make."

The Conservatives also plan what they describe as a "revolution in welfare" to deal with the jobless.

If the Tories come to power, the sick and the unemployed will no longer be "entitled" to benefits.

Instead, the welfare state will enter into a "two-way contract" with individuals. If people do not do everything possible to find a job, their money might be stopped.

'Tough stick'

The Conservative work and pensions spokesman, Chris Grayling, tells me he believes that of the five million people who do not work and are claiming benefit of some kind, perhaps three million could be in some form of employment.

In order to prevent the unemployed stagnating on welfare, the Conservatives have also suggested that if a paid job cannot be found, they should be obliged to do some community work as a condition of their benefits.

Mr Grayling puts it this way: "Support to get people back to work. A tough stick for those who won't work."

The idea will have appeal, but previous attempts at this have faltered, not least because of the difficulties of dealing with people on incapacity benefit.

Mental illness, for example, can be periodic in nature. One week someone is fully fit for work, the next they cannot get out of bed.

Job Centre vacancy search computer
The Tories argue that getting people into work requires carrot and stick

Implementation quickly becomes complex. Implementation, as it happens, is the third big idea at work in the Conservatives ideas for healing "broken Britain".

The Tories want to transform the role of the state "from doer to facilitator".

Instead of civil servants sorting out welfare payments and other provision, the Conservatives want the voluntary and business sectors to take over.

Whitehall would oversee the contracts, but the nuts and bolts of social policy would be delivered by charities and private companies.

A lot of services are already provided by commercial companies and voluntary organisations.

In fact, most charitable income these days comes from government. But David Cameron envisages a change in this.

Spending, the Tories insist, will not necessarily shrink. But the size of the state will.

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