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Wednesday, 27 February, 2002, 19:18 GMT
Tories get 'back in touch' with poor
David Willetts
Mr Willetts will stay in a council house.
The Conservatives are set to try to reclaim their One Nation credentials by putting the revival of civic society at the heart of their social policy.

In a move widely seen as a step away from Thatcherism, shadow work and pensions secretary David Willetts acknowledged on Wednesday that deprived parts of the UK feel forgotten by his party.


Our purpose is not to give a lecture on how people should behave, but instead to listen to the experiences of our poorest fellow-citizens

David Willetts
Shadow work and pensions secretary

Mr Willetts pledged to put the party back in touch with the concerns of Britain's poorest, but insisted that pouring public money into benefits and regeneration schemes for disadvantaged areas was not the answer.

Instead, the renewed Conservative approach to poverty would be to foster the "people-sized" civic institutions - such as faith groups and voluntary organisations that strengthen local communities.

"Hundreds of thousands of people living in hard-pressed communities are not being touched by rising stock markets, government initiatives and technological innovations," Mr Willetts told an audience of Conservative Future members in London.

Neighbourliness

"They need a deeper, more personal care that cannot be provided by the market or the state.

"The way ahead must surely be the revival of those people-sized institutions which stand between the individual and the state.


In the past, we Conservatives got ourselves into a situation where we appeared to deny there was a problem. Well there is a problem

David Willetts
Shadow works and pensions secretary

"We want to see stronger local communities and networks of neighbourliness. That is what society is all about."

Mr Willetts' remarks follow shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin's call for a more "neighbourly" society.

Social obligations

In an apparent rejection of Margaret Thatcher's famous comment that "there is no such thing as society", Mr Willetts insisted that the free market was "rooted in a society", adding: "That brings with it obligations to our fellow citizens."

He stressed: "In the past, we Conservatives got ourselves into a situation where we appeared to deny there was a problem. Well there is a problem.


Those who remember the 18 years where the Tories paid no heed to poverty realise that today's initiative is too little, too late

Steve Webb
Liberal Democrat work spokesman

"There are millions of people in our country who are in need. They are our fellow-citizens. We do have an obligation to our fellow-citizens at times when their incomes are low.

"The old ways of discharging that obligation through the traditional welfare state may have failed, but that does not extinguish the obligation - it adds to it."

The speech was rejected by Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat work spokesman, who said: "Those who remember the 18 years where the Tories paid no heed to poverty realise that today's initiative is too little, too late.

But Martin Barnes, director of the Child Poverty Action Group, gave the remarks a cautious welcome.

"David Willetts has thrown down an historic challenge to the Conservative Party in calling for policies to tackle poverty," he said.

Forgotten Britain

"The words `leopard' and `spots' may come to mind, but if Mr Willetts has the backing of the party leadership this is an important and defining event."

Mr Willetts is set to take part in the first of a series of "One Nation hearings" on Thursday designed to put the Tories back in touch with the concerns of deprived parts of Britain.

During a visit to Birmingham, he will meet homeless people, recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, local youths and will spend a night in a council house.

"Our purpose is not to give a lecture on how people should behave, but instead to listen to the experiences of our poorest fellow-citizens.

"This exercise will get us back in touch with parts of the community which fear that politicians in general and we in the Conservative Party in particular, have forgotten about them."

See also:

08 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Tories signal law and order shift
04 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Letwin falls prey to 'loo trick' thieves
09 Oct 01 | Conservatives
Tories bid for public service credentials
05 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Norman's hopes for Tory change
14 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Eurosceptics prosper under Duncan Smith
02 Aug 00 | UK
Compassion v conservatism
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