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Tuesday, 14 May, 2002, 09:21 GMT 10:21 UK
'Two brains' Willetts finds his heart
David Willetts meets a homeless man in London's Victoria

David Willetts, shadow secretary of state for work and pensions, spends a night with the homeless on the streets of London.
"It's a load of rubbish. What can he do by coming down here and giving it all this to the media?

"Politicians ain't done nothing for us - so why should this make any difference?"

Hayley, 19, has been homeless for two months, after suffering "domestic violence".

To her amazement, the authorities found her accommodation in a nunnery.


Now we are rediscovering our concern for society

David Willetts
Tory shadow minister
That didn't work out and she now lives with her boyfriend in a cardboard box a few hundred yards from Victoria station.

She wants a hostel place.

What she doesn't want, she says, is a politician coming down from Westminster pretending to care about her plight for the cameras.

Toughest assignment

The sight of a slightly uneasy middle-aged MP being berated by a young homeless person is not a new one.

But what was unusual about the scene played out beneath the damp arches of a shopping centre in Victoria on Monday night was that the MP in question was a Conservative.

David Willetts has already spent a night in a Birmingham council house and spoken at length with a self-help group for alcoholics and drug users, as part of his One Nation Hearing initiative.

But this was his toughest assignment yet - to spend a night on the streets of the capital.

David Willetts at homeless hostel
The Tory spokesman said the night was no publicity stunt
This was clearly the new caring, sharing Conservative Party in action.

The idea was not just to visit the homeless but also to tap into the neglected legions of people "who go to work while most people sleep", as one of Mr Willetts' aides put it.

With half a dozen journalists and a film crew for company, the shadow minister set out on a journey into the unreported underbelly of night time London.

The man dubbed two brains for his legendary analytical skills was setting out to prove he had a heart.

Refugees' night class

The journey began at Hackney Community College.

This showpiece college opened five years ago in one of the poorest and most ethnically diverse areas of the capital.

Part of its aim, as its director battled with a downpour to explain, is to provide a bridge between the East End and the City - both clearly visible from the roof.

Mr Willetts sat in on an English night class with a group of refugees and asylum seekers.


You cannot spend every moment thinking: is there a vote in this?

David Willetts
"In some respects it is quite extraordinary," Richard Payne, head of refugee and migrant advice and a language teacher at the college, said of Mr Willetts' decision to drop in on the class.

Many of the obstacles that blight the daily lives of refugees - and make it difficult for them to complete their studies - were dreamed up by the Tories between 1993 and 1996.

Mr Payne cited the dispersal system - which can see refugees shipped off to another part of the country at a moment's notice - and the now-abandoned voucher system as two of the biggest problems for refugees.

Human face

Nevertheless, as Mr Willetts was at pains to point out, there is little he, as a shadow minister, can do to alter any of this right now.

All he wanted to do was listen to their stories and put a human face to the statistics.

Asking each student in turn where they had come from, he was treated to a whistlestop tour of the world's trouble spots: Angola, Afghanistan, the Congo, Sierra Leone, Iran and Colombia.

Iain Duncan Smith
Iain Duncan Smith wants his party to look more tolerant
They all thought the asylum process took far too long, a point duly noted by Mr Willetts.

"One of the reasons why London is such a great city is its diversity," he explained to the group.

"But we have got to have a set of rules about who is entitled to be here and who is not because there is not room for everyone."

Mr Willetts wanted to know why they had come to Britain and if they would consider "signing something" or swearing an oath to the Queen - "we mustn't forget the Queen".

Asked what problems they had encountered in England, there was a moment of bleak humour when one of the students complained about having to wait hours for hospital treatment.

"That's the same for all of us," Mr Willetts joked.

Filming charge

The homeless of Victoria proved a tougher audience to crack.

The group we met were mostly under 30 and were camped out in cardboard boxes and sleeping bags.

They approached the encounter with a mix of vulnerability and bravado.

In a moment any Tory would have been proud of, one of the young men tried to charge the BBC crew for filming there.

David Willetts at Hackney Community College
Willetts says Tories do understand there is such thing as society
As the television cameras circled, Mr Willetts fired out questions: "How long have you been homeless? Do you have a job?"

One of the men explained why he didn't like living in hostels.

Another told how he had been in and out of prison for five years.

But Mr Willetts seemed genuinely interested in their stories, even though tension was running a little high.

When the party moved on to the Thames Reach Bond Way Rough Sleepers Hostel, in Vauxhall, the mood became less confrontational.

Sitting in the light, modern canteen with a group of older homeless men, Mr Willetts asked time and again "how did you become homeless?"

The men were wary at first but quickly warmed to him, spilling out tales of alcoholism, divorce and depression.

"There are so many different stories of how people ended up on the streets," Mr Willetts told BBC News Online.

"Different reasons such as alcohol or drugs, or divorce."

He insisted the Tories' new-found social conscience is a rediscovery of an earlier Conservative tradition.

"In the 1980s, the Conservatives did focus on the economy. We became the party of the economy.

"Now we are rediscovering our concern for society."

Street camaraderie

Mr Willetts said he had learned there was more to curing the problem of homelessness than dumping someone in a lonely and isolated bedsit, away from their friends.

He learned about the camaraderie of the streets.

"I think anybody who cares about social policy has to keep in touch with the people," he told BBC News Online.

He dismissed suggestions that the evening was just a cynical publicity stunt.

"You cannot spend every moment thinking: is there a vote in this?

"But I think if we have better social policy, we might win people back.

"We understand that there is such a thing as society. People do have social responsibility."

Cynical

BBC News Online took its leave of Mr Willetts in the early hours of Tuesday morning, as he set off for a centre for Afro-Caribbean people with mental problems in Hackney.

He later planned to visit night shift workers at Tesco and go on patrol with police in Tower Hamlets.

It is easy to be cynical about politicians on fact-finding missions.

And - as one homeless man loudly pointed out to Mr Willetts - many of the improved facilities for people on the streets have been provided by the Labour government.

But - not so long ago - most Tories would have written off the schemes Mr Willetts witnessed on Monday night as manifestations of the "loony left".

"The homeless?", Tory minister Sir George Young once said, "Aren't they the people you step over when you are coming out of the opera?"

He may have been joking, but the image of callous uncaring Tories will be a hard one for Mr Willetts and his colleagues to shift.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Sarah Nelson
"The Tories want to show they are more tolerant and understanding of other people's problems"
See also:

28 Feb 02 | England
27 Feb 02 | UK Politics
27 Feb 02 | UK Politics
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