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Will Britain’s PM reform the welfare state?

David Cameron wants to revitalise families, schools and a sense of personal responsibility. Is he impossibly ambitious?
David Cameron | 17 August 2011

Prime Minister David Cameron has delivered a speech in Oxfordshire on the fightback following the riots and looting last week. It’s a remarkable repudiation of a generation of political correctness. If only a part of it is accomplished, it will be an historic moment in dismantling the welfare state and restoring responsibility and pride to families and individuals.

It is time for our country to take stock.  Last week we saw some of the most sickening acts on our streets. I’ll never forget talking to Maurice Reeves, whose family had run the Reeves furniture store in Croydon for generations. This was an 80-year-old man who had seen the business he had loved, that his family had built up for generations, simply destroyed. A hundred years of hard work, burned to the ground in a few hours.

But last week we didn’t just see the worst of the British people; we saw the best of them too. The ones who called themselves riot wombles and headed down to the hardware stores to pick up brooms and start the clean-up. The people who linked arms together to stand and defend their homes, their businesses. The policemen and women and fire officers who worked long, hard shifts, sleeping in corridors then going out again to put their life on the line.

Everywhere I’ve been this past week, in Salford, Manchester, Birmingham, Croydon, people of every background, colour and religion have shared the same moral outrage and hurt for our country. Because this is Britain. This is a great country of good people. Those thugs we saw last week do not represent us, nor do they represent our young people – and they will not drag us down.

Why this happened

But now that the fires have been put out and the smoke has cleared, the question hangs in the air: ‘Why? How could this happen on our streets and in our country?’

Of course, we mustn’t oversimplify. There were different things going on in different parts of the country. In Tottenham some of the anger was directed at the police. In Salford there was some organised crime, a calculated attack on the forces of order. But what we know for sure is that in large parts of the country this was just pure criminality.

So as we begin the necessary processes of inquiry, investigation, listening and learning: let’s be clear. These riots were not about race: the perpetrators and the victims were white, black and Asian. These riots were not about government cuts: they were directed at high street stores, not Parliament. And these riots were not about poverty: that insults the millions of people who, whatever the hardship, would never dream of making others suffer like this.

No, this was about behaviour: people showing indifference to right and wrong; people with a twisted moral code; people with a complete absence of self-restraint.

Politicians and behaviour

Now I know as soon as I use words like “behaviour” and “moral” people will say – what gives politicians the right to lecture us?

Of course we’re not perfect. But politicians shying away from speaking the truth about behaviour, about morality -- this has actually helped to cause the social problems we see around us. We have been too unwilling for too long to talk about what is right and what is wrong. We have too often avoided saying what needs to be said – about everything from  marriage to welfare to common courtesy.

Sometimes the reasons for that are noble: we don’t want to insult or hurt people.

Sometimes they’re ideological: we don’t feel it’s the job of the state to try and pass judgement on people’s behaviour or engineer personal morality.

And sometimes they’re just human: we’re not perfect beings ourselves and we don’t want to look like hypocrites.

So you can’t say that marriage and commitment are good things: for fear of alienating single mothers. You don’t deal properly with children who repeatedly fail in school because you’re worried about being accused of stigmatising them. You’re wary of talking about those who have never worked and never want to work in case you’re charged with not getting it, being middle class and out of touch.

In this risk-free ground of moral neutrality there are no bad choices, just different lifestyles. People aren’t the architects of their own problems, they are victims of circumstance. “Live and let live” becomes “do what you please”.

Well actually, what last week has shown is that this moral neutrality, this relativism – it’s not going to cut it any more. One of the biggest lessons of these riots is that we’ve got to talk honestly about behaviour and then act – because bad behaviour has literally arrived on people’s doorsteps. And we can’t shy away from the truth anymore.

Broken society agenda

So this must be a wake-up call for our country. Social problems that have been festering for decades have exploded in our face. Now, just as people last week wanted criminals robustly confronted on our street, so they want to see these social problems taken on and defeated.

Our security fightback must be matched by a social fightback. We must fight back against the attitudes and assumptions that have brought parts of our society to this shocking state. We know what’s gone wrong: the question is, do we have the determination to put it right?

Do we have the determination to confront the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations? Irresponsibility.  Selfishness. Behaving as if your choices have no consequences. Children without fathers.  Schools without discipline.  Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control.

Some of the worst aspects of human nature tolerated, indulged – sometimes even incentivised – by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally de-moralised.

So do we have the determination to confront all this and turn it around? I have the very strong sense that the responsible majority of people in this country not only have that determination; they are crying out for their government to act upon it. And I can assure you, I will not be found wanting. In my very first act as leader of this party I signalled my personal priority: to mend our broken society. That passion is stronger today than ever.

Yes, we have had an economic crisis to deal with, clearing up the terrible mess we inherited, and we are not out of those woods yet – not by a long way. But I repeat today, as I have on many occasions these last few years, that the reason I am in politics is to build a bigger, stronger society. Stronger families.  Stronger communities.  A stronger society.

This is what I came into politics to do – and the shocking events of last week have renewed in me that drive. So I can announce today that over the next few weeks, I and ministers from across the coalition government will review every aspect of our work to mend our broken society: on schools, welfare, families, parenting, addiction, communities; on the cultural, legal, bureaucratic problems in our society too -- from the twisting and misrepresenting of human rights that has undermined personal responsibility to the obsession with health and safety that has eroded people’s willingness to act according to common sense.

We will review our work and consider whether our plans and programmes are big enough and bold enough to deliver the change that I feel this country now wants to see.

Government cannot legislate to change behaviour, but it is wrong to think the State is a bystander. Because people’s behaviour does not happen in a vacuum: it is affected by the rules government sets and how they are enforced; by the services government provides and how they are delivered; and perhaps above all by the signals government sends about the kinds of behaviour that are encouraged and rewarded.

So yes, the broken society is back at the top of my agenda. And as we review our policies in the weeks ahead, today I want to set out the priority areas I will be looking at, and give you a sense of where I think we need to raise our ambitions…

But we need much more than that. We need a social fight-back too, with big changes right through our society.

Families and parenting

Let me start with families. The question people asked over and over again last week was “where are the parents? Why aren’t they keeping the rioting kids indoors?” Tragically that’s been followed in some cases by judges rightly lamenting: “why don’t the parents even turn up when their children are in court?”

Well, join the dots and you have a clear idea about why some of these young people were behaving so terribly. Either there was no one at home, they didn’t much care or they’d lost control.

Families matter.

I don’t doubt that many of the rioters out last week have no father at home. Perhaps they come from one of the neighbourhoods where it’s standard for children to have a mum and not a dad… …where it’s normal for young men to grow up without a male role model, looking to the streets for their father figures, filled up with rage and anger.

So if we want to have any hope of mending our broken society, family and parenting is where we’ve got to start. I’ve been saying this for years, since before I was Prime Minister, since before I was leader of the Conservative Party.

So: from here on I want a family test applied to all domestic policy. If it hurts families, if it undermines commitment, if it tramples over the values that keeps people together, or stops families from being together, then we shouldn’t do it. More than that, we’ve got to get out there and make a positive difference to the way families work, the way people bring up their children and we’ve got to be less sensitive to the charge that this is about interfering or nannying.

We are working on ways to help improve parenting – well now I want that work accelerated, expanded and implemented as quickly as possible. This has got to be right at the top of our priority list. And we need more urgent action, too, on the families that some people call ‘problem’, others call ‘troubled’. The ones that everyone in their neighbourhood knows and often avoids.

Last December I asked Emma Harrison to develop a plan to help get these families on track. It became clear to me earlier this year that – as can so often happen – those plans were being held back by bureaucracy. So even before the riots happened, I asked for an explanation.

Now that the riots have happened I will make sure that we clear away the red tape and the bureaucratic wrangling, and put rocket boosters under this programme with a clear ambition that within the lifetime of this Parliament we will turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families in the country.

Schools

The next part of the social fight-back is what happens in schools. We need an education system which reinforces the message that if you do the wrong thing you’ll be disciplined -- but if you work hard and play by the rules you will succeed.

This isn’t a distant dream. It’s already happening in schools like Woodside High in Tottenham and Mossbourne in Hackney. They expect high standards from every child and make no excuses for failure to work hard. They foster pride through strict uniform and behaviour policies. And they provide an alternative to street culture by showing how anyone can get up and get on if they apply themselves. Kids from Hammersmith and Hackney are now going to top universities thanks to these schools.

We need many more like them which is why we are creating more academies; why the people behind these success stories are now opening free schools; and why we have pledged to turn round the 200 weakest secondaries and the 200 weakest primaries in the next year.

But with the failures in our education system so deep, we can’t just say “these are our plans and we believe in them, let’s sit back while they take effect”. I now want us to push further, faster.

Are we really doing enough to ensure that great new schools are set up in the poorest areas, to help the children who need them most? And why are we putting up with the complete scandal of schools being allowed to fail, year after year? If young people have left school without being able to read or write, why shouldn’t that school be held more directly accountable? Yes, these questions are already being asked across government but what happened last week gives them a new urgency – and we need to act on it…

Responsibility and welfare

But one of the biggest parts of this social fight-back is fixing the welfare system. For years we’ve had a system that encourages the worst in people – that incites laziness, that excuses bad behaviour, that erodes self-discipline, that discourages hard work… …above all that drains responsibility away from people.

We talk about moral hazard in our financial system – where banks think they can act recklessly because the state will always bail them out… …well this is moral hazard in our welfare system – people thinking they can be as irresponsible as they like because the state will always bail them out.

We’re already addressing this through the Welfare Reform Bill going through parliament. But I’m not satisfied that we’re doing all we can. I want us to look at toughening up the conditions for those who are out of work and receiving benefits and speeding up our efforts to get all those who can work back to work

Work is at the heart of a responsible society. So getting more of our young people into jobs, or up and running in their own businesses is a critical part of how we strengthen responsibility in our society. Our Work Programme is the first step, with local authorities, charities, social enterprises and businesses all working together to provide the best possible help to get a job.

It leaves no one behind – including those who have been on welfare for years. But there is more we need to do, to boost self-employment and enterprise because it’s only by getting our young people into work that we can build an ownership society in which everyone feels they have a stake.

Human rights and health and safety

As we consider these questions of attitude and behaviour, the signals that government sends, and the incentives it creates, we inevitably come to the question of the Human Rights Act and the culture associated with it.

Let me be clear: in this country we are proud to stand up for human rights, at home and abroad.  It is part of the British tradition. But what is alien to our tradition – and now exerting such a corrosive influence on behaviour and morality is the twisting and misrepresenting of human rights in a way that has undermined personal responsibility.

We are attacking this problem from both sides. We’re working to develop a way through the morass by looking at creating our own British Bill of Rights. And we will be using our current chairmanship of the Council of Europe to seek agreement to important operational changes to the European Convention on Human Rights.

But this is all frustratingly slow.

The truth is, the interpretation of human rights legislation has exerted a chilling effect on public sector organisations, leading them to act in ways that fly in the face of common sense, offend our sense of right and wrong, and undermine responsibility. It is exactly the same with health and safety – where regulations have often been twisted out of all recognition into a culture where the words “health and safety” are lazily trotted out to justify all sorts of actions and regulations that damage our social fabric.

So I want to make something very clear: I get it.  This stuff matters.

And as we urgently review the work we’re doing on the broken society, judging whether it’s ambitious enough – I want to make it clear that there will be no holds barred and that most definitely includes the human rights and health and safety culture…

Conclusion

Today I’ve talked a lot about what the government is going to do. But let me be clear: This social fight-back is not a job for government on its own. Government doesn’t run the businesses that create jobs and turn lives around. Government doesn’t make the video games or print the magazines or produce the music that tells young people what’s important in life. Government can’t be on every street and in every estate, instilling the values that matter.

This is a problem that has deep roots in our society, and it’s a job for all of our society to help fix it. In the highest offices, the plushest boardrooms, the most influential jobs, we need to think about the example we are setting. Moral decline and bad behaviour is not limited to a few of the poorest parts of our society. In the banking crisis, with MPs’ expenses, in the phone hacking scandal, we have seen some of the worst cases of greed, irresponsibility and entitlement.

The restoration of responsibility has to cut right across our society. Because whatever the arguments, we all belong to the same society, and we all have a stake in making it better. There is no “them” and “us” – there is us. We are all in this together, and we will mend our broken society – together.

For the complete text of the speech, visit the British Prime Minister’s website.

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | families, London riots, UK, welfare state
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