Stephen Crabb

Below is the text of the speech made by Stephen Crabb at the Welsh Conservative Party Conference held in Llandudno on 4 March 2006.

One year ago this conference met at the Millennium Stadium – Wales was running away with one of the most stylish rugby Grand Slams of recent times.

And Michael Howard was knocking us all into shape to fight an election campaign which brought our Party its first increase in Westminster representation in 22 years and our first seats here in Wales since 1992.

Now, whatever problems our national rugby squad may currently be having in terms of leadership and on-field performance, and we hope they are a temporary blip.

Under David Cameron, our Conservative Team is building strongly on Michael Howard’s success and taking us closer to Government than we have been for a very long time.

They liked the policies, but not the party. We have made considerable progress in the last twelve months. But let’s not pretend that winning the next election will be easy. There is still a lot of ground to make up.

One of my most frustrating experiences during the general election campaign was to regularly come across voters who would tell me, passionately, that they could not wait to see the back of Tony Blair, and that they supported our policies for more police or our policies for to help pensioners, or our stance on immigration…

… then only to be told by these very same people that they still would not be voting Conservative on May 5th.

And a lot of my colleagues in Parliament encountered exactly the same thing: many people just could not bring themselves to vote Conservative despite the huge and manifest failures of the Labour Government.

There is no question that our campaign themes were high on the public’s agenda; and no question that they liked what we were offering.

So why couldn’t they vote for us?

Let me suggest one reason: In the society we live today, there are many voters who just cannot and will not lend their support to a party which they feel does not embody their own fundamental values and aspirations.

No matter that we had some strong headline policies which they liked a lot. They want to support a party that is on their side.

And currently, there is a perception – a misperception – that the Conservative Party is not.

Too many people feel – wrongly – that the Conservative Party just does not exist for them;

Three months ago David Cameron was elected Leader of this great, historic Party with a mandate to ‘Change to Win’.

A mandate to go out there and demonstrate to the British public that our Party is able to renew itself; is able to adapt to the changing world; and understands just what needs to be done to improve life in early 21st century Britain.

And at the heart of that mission to reconnect with a wider audience in the country is a mission to tackle poverty and social injustice.

As the Leader himself said ‘I want the next Conservative Government to care about every Briton’s quality of life… Patriotism is about the crown, the flag and our nation’s institutions but it is also about believing in justice for everyone… People are crying out for a change, for fairness and opportunity’.

And this part of the Conservative package cannot be a bolt-on extra.

This mission – to address the most difficult social questions of our time – has to be at the centre of everything we say, and everything we stand for, in the months and years ahead.

Because, without it, I am afraid too many people will still think we are on someone else’s side.

We need to ‘Change to Win’.

But let’s not think the social justice message is just part of some clever plan to get us the keys of Downing Street.

It’s at the heart of the new agenda for our Party precisely because we are living in such a damaged, broken society where too many people are denied the opportunity to achieve their full potential.

And, here in Wales, we don’t have to look very far to see just how enormous is the task we face.

If the Welsh Conservative Party is looking for a mission for the coming Assembly elections – then this is it – to re-focus public services in Wales in accordance with a radical, social justice imperative because Wales desperately needs new thinking and new action.

Take homelessness.

National Assembly figures show that the number of people recorded as homeless is continuing to rise.

The number of homeless households in Wales doubled between 2000 and 2004. And Shelter Cymru estimates that at least 50,000 people experience homelessness in Wales every year.

Since Labour came into power in 1997 the use of temporary accommodation has trebled.

And if these figures aren’t bad enough, just remember that Wales also has the worst housing conditions in the UK, with an estimated 225,000 people living in unfit accommodation.

Take dentistry.

Wales is only just waking up to the social justice implications of the collapse in NHS provision in many parts of Wales.

As increasing numbers of adults – and children – now find themselves without access to any dentist, what will be the consequences for oral health among the poorest and most vulnerable in society?

Ladies and gentlemen, if you had told the people of Pembrokeshire back in 1997 that, within 8 years, they would see the near-wholesale disappearance of NHS dentistry in their County under a Labour government they would not have believed you.

Yet, this is exactly what has happened; and is happening in many other parts of the country. And I predict Labour will reap a whirlwind because of it.

Or we can look at low pay.

Low pay, especially among women, is an increasingly significant cause of poverty in Wales.

One in four women in full-time jobs and 60 per cent of those in part-time jobs are paid less than £6.50 and hour.

Rural communities like Pembrokeshire, Gwynedd and Powys are among the worst affected, where too many women – especially single mums – cannot afford to go out to work because of childcare, travel and other costs.

This is just one of the reasons why 27 per cent of children in Wales are living in poverty, a figure higher than the British average.

We also need to examine closely the link between disability and poverty.

Why is it that the proportion of disabled adults living in poverty is double that of people who do not have disabilities?

Why are three quarters of all those receiving the main out-of-work benefits for two years or more disabled?

Why is it that a disabled person with a degree is more likely to looking for work than a non-disabled person with no qualifications?

And why is it that a disabled person is paid, on average, 10% less than a non-disabled person for doing exactly the same job?

Never again must we go into an election with the majority of disabled people thinking that the Conservative Party does not stand for them.

We could look at so many other areas and see the negative social impacts created by Labour’s failure in Wales:

Farming – where thousands of farmers earn a wage that would be illegal in any other industry – being brought to its knees by a Government that has ignored every opportunity it has had to get a fairer deal for Welsh farming families.

Or Education – where the number of children achieving GCSE grades is lower in Wales than in the rest of the United Kingdom, and truancy rates are unacceptably high.

Or Household Debt – where too many Welsh families face crippling levels of debt. A quarter of all households in Wales now have consumer credit commitments amounting to more than 10% of their annual income.

All these must be key battlegrounds for us at the next election.

Building social justice starts with an agenda to restore competitiveness to the UK economy and to capture more of the fruits of the enormous increase in global trade.

It requires policies that encourage stable families and gives relationships – especially where children are involved – every chance of success.

And, yes, it requires action to remove the disincentives created by the tax and benefit system that serve to undermine marriage in our society.

It will also mean unleashing the dynamism and creativity of the voluntary sector in a way we have not seen for many years.

So many of the really effective projects I see providing solutions to social problems are not linked to the state at all, but are organised by motivated and focussed voluntary groups which have a deep understanding of the communities in which the are working.

And building social justice will require radical reform of our public services.

Gordon Brown has tried the old fashioned model of just pouring huge sums of money into services with the result that public sector employment has increased massively at the expense of commerce and productivity has declined.

Too few benefits are being seen at the sharp-end by the people whose lives depend on high quality public services.

This has to change.

Conference, I believe that the Conservative mission for this country is to ensure there is a safe floor beneath which no man or woman can fall, but also no ceiling above which no man or woman can rise.

Today in Wales, far too many people are finding that the floor is not at all secure and that there is a very low ceiling indeed, trapping them in their circumstances.

Even one of Labour’s very own think tanks now admits that inequality is increasing under this Government.

We must make this our agenda.

We have always been the Party of opportunity

We must show now that we are also the Party of social justice.

That we stand for everyone in society, especially those on the margins.

That we want to make sure that everyone can fulfil their own unique potential;

And that no-one gets left behind.