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Syed Kamall MEP: How we Conservatives can roll up our sleeves to help get people off welfare and improve their lives

Syed Kamall is a Conservative MEP for London. Follow Syed on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-09-15 at 19.25.00Despite the best efforts of the Coalition, Britain is still a “broken society”. We have a hard core of about a million adults who simply do not know the meaning of work. We still have hundreds of thousands of people trapped on welfare dependency, some looking for a job but others comfortable and unambitious on their benefits, plus sixteen hours a week of part time earnings. Up and down the country, we still have gangs of youths hanging around on the streets with nothing to do, many from broken families whose parents were too preoccupied with their own survival to be in a position to spend energy on disciplining their children.

The welfare state of today is a far cry from what its inventor Beveridge envisaged: a system which would support people in need at times when they most needed it and help return them to self sufficiency. Today, the welfare state has become the master rather than the servant of the poor. Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms, which are the first serious attempt to get rid of poverty traps, cannot come soon enough. But the overhaul of the benefit system will not be a panacea.

The Left has believed for a hundred years that the only solution to helping the poor is via the state. In the 2010 election, Labour canvassers were telling people in social housing they would lose their homes and people employed by the state they would lose their jobs if the Conservatives won. Gordon Brown’s method of keeping Labour in power was to create a client state – and he nearly succeeded.

Those of us on the centre-right feel just as passionately about eradicating poverty, but prefer more practical solutions than the blunt tool of intervention through state benefits. We need to remind ourselves that, before the welfare state, there was a rich tradition of helping both those in and out of work to help themselves. There was welfare without the state. Trade unions used to run night schools, cooperative societies were formed and mutuals covered all kinds of risks. Roll back the state, and these kinds of organisations are likely to return. But not in all cases, so the state has to have a role as a provider of last resort.  The principle should be that state involvement in welfare is rolled back to the point where it only helps those who cannot help themselves or those who cannot gain assistance by voluntary provision. In my experience as a member of the Centre for Social Justice’s advisory board, I have seen how local voluntary community organisations can run some extremely successful projects that tackle social problems, and also how the state can crowd out the efforts of volunteers and community organisers.

Many Conservative Party members are involved in local community organisations or Conservative social action projects. Some excellent welfare schemes can be found in the initiatives being undertaken at grassroots level. Many of our members bring to this charitable work the skills that they have developed in their careers, for example as current or retired teachers, bankers, accountants, youth workers etc.  Some Conservative Associations open their buildings to local voluntary organisations, or host their own events for local communities.

In my constituency of London, I am fortunate to work alongside colleagues who are proving that voluntary action can be much more effective than state-directed solutions. Take Simon Marcus, the Conservative candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, who founded the Boxing Academy.  The Academy combines education and mentoring with the discipline and culture of boxing to re-engage the most difficult-to-reach young people who are in danger of educational exclusion.  Or consider Nick de Bois, Conservative MP for Enfield North, who organised a jobs fair to help combat unemployment within his constituency.  Conservatives in Streatham are working to set up a local community "Bank of Streatham", a challenger bank inspired by the "Bank of Dave" made famous by the Channel Four TV programme.

By becoming part of the fabric of local communities, we are able to show that Conservatives are compassionate too; it is just that we don’t believe the state is always the answer to every problem.   Rather than simply talking about change or hoping that others will fill the gap where the state has been rolled back, we can, as Gandhi once said "be the change."  There is nothing new in this. Religious and political movements in Latin America and the Middle East have enjoyed incredible grassroots support due to years of offering welfare where the state has failed.

There are lots of ways in which neighbours, friends, charities and community organisations can help people who, sometimes through no fault of their own, find themselves falling off the edge of society and need to be helped back. Conservative Associations must first and foremost concentrate on winning elections.  But alongside that mission, Conservative Party members and local associations can get involved to give direct help those in need.

I would like to hear from party members of other examples of Conservatives getting involved in local community projects.  The more we share our experiences and ideas, the more we will inspire each other to make a difference.


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