Mark Isherwood: Delivering social justice in Wales

Speech by Shadow Social Justice Minister Mark Isherwood AM to the Welsh Conservative Party conference 2010

“We have had to suffer weeks of smear and misrepresentation by an unprincipled Labour Party and its fellow travellers in Plaid Cymru.

So let me say that I wouldn’t be a member of our Party if I didn’t believe that it was committed to fairness and Social Justice.

Gadewch I fi ddweud – Faswn I ddim yn aelod o’m mhlaid - taswn I ddim yn credu - fy mod wedi ymrwymo’n llwyr - I  degwch a chyfiawnder cymdeithasol.

We believe in personal responsibility - but we also have a responsibility to those around us - bringing hope to the our communities, challenging perceptions, changing lives.

Da  ni’n credu mewn cyfrifoldeb personol  ond mae gennym gyfrifoldeb hefyd/ I’r rhai sydd o’n cwmpas dod a gobaith i’n cymunedau, herio canfyddiadau, newid bywydau.

As the philosophical founder of modern Conservatism, the great Edmund Burke, said “nobody made a greater mistake than him who did nothing because he could only do a little”.

As the Welsh Conservative Vice President for Searchlight Cymru, fighting racism and fascism, I am also proud to quote Edmund Burke when he said “all that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing”.

Gordon Brown said we were the best-placed country to deal with the global downturn, but the UK was the last major economy out of recession –with public sector job cuts and a second round of unemployment to come. 

A teacher asked pupils whether they were Gordon Brown fans.

Not really knowing what a Gordon Brown fan is, but wanting to be liked by the teacher, all the pupils raised their hands except for Little Johnny.

The teacher asked Little Johnny why he had decided to be different?

Little Johnny said, 'Because I'm not a Gordon Brown fan.'

The teacher asked, 'Why aren't you a Gordon Brown fan?'

Johnny said, 'Because I'm a Conservative.'

The teacher asked him why he was a Conservative.

Little Johnny answered, 'Well, my Mum's a Conservative and my Dad's a Conservative, so I'm a Conservative.'

Annoyed by this answer, the teacher asked, 'If your Mum was a moron and your Dad was an idiot, what would that make you?' 

Little Johnny replied, 'A Gordon Brown fan.'

In an unsustainable economy, Gordon Brown drove debt driven growth as the only way to maintain the mirage of an end to boom and bust - and to defer the inevitable day of reckoning which is now hitting the people of Wales so hard.

An Ernst & Young study recently concluded that the UK economy faces a decade of "painful readjustment" as it refocuses from debt-led consumer spending to increased exports.

And the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, renewed his warning to the UK government that it must cut the public debt.

Let nobody be mistaken that the real Gordon Brown  caused this mess.

So is our society broken?

Wales has the lowest prosperity amongst the 12 UK nations or regions.

Working age unemployment and inactivity in Wales has risen again, to a combined 558,000, one in three - a truly shocking figure.

Year on year employment is down 31,000, Unemployment up 21,000 and inactivity up 10,000.

The hard truth is that the combination of 13 years of Labour Government in London and 11 years of Labour-led Government in Cardiff has left us with record levels of economic inactivity - and youth unemployment at the highest levels since records began.

A Prince’s Trust Report last month warned that a “LOST generation” of unemployed young people in Wales faces decades of poor health and stunted life chances.

Communities First is the Welsh Government's flagship programme to improve the living conditions and prospects for people in the most disadvantaged communities across Wales.

However, the Wales Audit Office Review of Communities First stated that the “programme has emerged from chaos, it was not planned, there was an absence of basic financial and human resource planning before the programme was launched and bids were therefore not assessed properly”.

Over £200 million later we should therefore not be surprised by current allegations of waste and worse.  

Wales suffers the highest rate of children living in severe poverty in the UK, 96,000 exist without the basic necessities in life.

An extra 260,000 children in the UK were pushed into severe poverty during four years of economic boom even before the recession hit in 2008, taking the UK total to 1.7m.

And this has occurred against a backdrop of rising levels of overall child poverty –  affecting 192,000 children in Wales.

As we move from a decade of missed opportunity to a decade of austerity, we need action to tackle the underlying causes of child poverty - because Labour's pledge to halve child poverty in Wales by 2010 is now in tatters.

320,000 households in Wales – nearly a quarter – experience fuel poverty.

Often resulting in a choice between heating and eating properly.

Last winter, excess winter deaths in Wales rose by 74%, to 2,500.

The recent blueprint for action from Homes for Cymru, a coalition of 16 key organisations, stated “we have a crisis in Wales …. this is not a new crisis, although the economic crisis is making it worse.  

The current housing system has been failing for a long time … the consequence for the health and wellbeing of people and the stability of communities in Wales is dire – we cannot continue to tinker with a failed housing system.

We need to work towards new ways of providing, managing, and looking after homes in Wales.  

However, Housing faces a funding black hole, with capital spending cut by 25 per cent.

Last year was the sixtieth anniversary of Bevan’s Housing Act.

This triggered the biggest social housing building programme in UK and Welsh history, a programme continued under Conservative Government.

However, since devolution the Welsh Government has cut the  number of new affordable homes by two thirds.

Wales needs a National Housing Recovery Plan - but instead this Labour/Plaid Cymru Welsh Government attacks the most successful low cost homeownership scheme ever, Council House Right to Buy.

Right to Buy gave the opportunity for thousands to get onto the housing ladder and for the creation of mixed communities.

And leading Housing expert, Professor Steve Wilcox, has concluded that suspending the right to buy would not contribute to improving the availability of affordable housing in Wales.

The Welsh Conservative Motion calling on the UK Labour Government to stop its Post Office Closure programme in Wales was defeated by Plaid Cymru and Labour Assembly Members.

Darren Millar and I therefore visited Essex to see what is being done on the ground there to rescue community post offices closed.

We  were told that serving a population of 1.4 million, the Conservative County Council have committed  to spend up to £1.5 million over three years to support a viable post office network and to reopen post offices closed by Labour’s closure programme where there is community support, community need and suitable premises.

Post office closures impacted hardest on older people, the poorest and the most vulnerable.

More preventative work saves money – and safeguarding and reopening post offices will save the council money on services to older people, disabled people and young families.

If Essex can do it with half the population of Wales, why can’t Wales?

We must embrace real strategic partnership between the public and independent sectors, liberating the true potential of charities and social enterprises in tackling the deep rooted causes of the problems in our society today, be they family breakdown, addiction, anti social behaviour, abuse or long term worklessness.

Behind the rhetoric, however, this Welsh Government keeps them in chains.

Take, for instance, Barnardo’s  Flintshire ‘Families Matter’ service, supporting children and young people affected by their parents drug or alcohol abuse.

Despite being identified by the Welsh Government as the most effective of five pilot schemes, they had to ask for my help once again in seeking  funding for the next financial year as staff faced redundancies.

A report last week from ‘Action for Children’ states that “Cycles of deprivation and neglect that trap many vulnerable families for generations can be broken if families, and particularly children, are supported early enough by the right services”.

The report makes a compelling case for early intervention services which have a proven track record in turning lives around.

However, when I visited the secure Children’s Home in Neath, I was shocked to learn that the majority of young offenders were on medication when they arrived.

There had been a failure to intervene earlier in order to address underlying issues of trauma and psychosis.

Local Education Authorities in Wales are spending millions on pupil referral units – and the figure is rising.

Following a recent visit to the Alternative Curriculum Education Centre at Ysgol Emrys ap Iwan in Abergele, introduced after an adverse Estyn report in 2007,  I appealed to the Welsh Government to look at this  as a model that could be used in other areas to save money in the education system by reducing exclusion and referrals outside schools.

It has had a huge and significant impact on reducing the numbers of young people offending in the school and getting into problems - turning lives around and helping young people who would otherwise drop out of the system.   

However, despite the centre's success it is located in a pre-fabricated building which is falling apart. 

We should be supporting early intervention schemes that work. 

I cannot talk about Social Injustice without referring to the Welsh Health Minister, Edwina Hart - Hattie Jacques with a dogma implant, the love child of Joseph Stalin and Imelda Marcos.

After this Minister announced that she would look actively at sending North Wales adult Neurosurgery patients to Cardiff and Swansea, I exposed this, I fought this and I challenged her on this every week in the Assembly Chamber until she U -turned.

During the last Assembly I set up a campaigning group in a bid to fight the closure of community hospitals which, resulted in a moratorium on hospital closures.

However, Edwina Hart secretly tore up the promise given after the last assembly elections and wrote to NHS bosses informing them of a change in policy.

This Minister is restructuring the ‘patients voice’, our Community Health Councils – and her dismissal of concerns raised by Community Health Councils left them, in their words, feeling “frustrated, disappointed and downright angry”.

As Conwy said, this will seriously inhibit the day to day workings of a proactive Community Health Council.

When Edwina Hart was Social Justice Minister in the last Assembly, I exposed leaked reports on substance misuse which she had commissioned and then buried when they didn’t say what she wanted.

But, guess what, new First Minister, Carwyn Jones, has just given responsibility for the substance misuse agenda back to her!

Welsh Conservatives recognise that we must fill the huge gaps in provision for tackling substance misuse in Wales - raising the beam to the highest possible level and  keeping it there.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a natural emotional reaction to a deeply shocking and disturbing experience.

Amongst combat veterans there is a common pattern of attempted symptom suppression by alcohol and/or drug abuse, with a downward spiral of employment difficulties, relationship problems, confrontation with the law, and suicide.

Approximately 10% of the prison population are ex-service personnel. 2,000 are estimated to have PTSD. 12% of the homeless population are veterans.

When I asked the Health Minister to “intervene to safeguard the unique and vital service for our PTSD wounded veterans at Pathways in Bangor,” she replied that:  “that the project was not eligible for grant aid, because the services that the project provides can be provided by the NHS”.   

But as Dr. Steven Hughes, Regimental Medical Officer 2 PARA, Battles of Goose Green and Wireless Ridge, Falkland Islands, 1982, Director front-line resuscitation Bluff Cove Disaster, responded: “if conventional Mental Health Services were so comprehensive there would not be such a high veteran rate of suicide, high prison population, and large number of veterans sleeping rough”.

This Minister should be ashamed of herself.

I asked you whether our society is broken?

I’ve now given you the answer - and the mending cannot start until Labour in London and Cardiff are removed from Power.

Real change is required - we have changed our Party and progressive Conservatism can now change Wales in Britain.

But I cannot finish without also mentioning Plaid Cymru, who said they wouldn’t prop up a failing Labour Government and then did just that.

They are less a Political Party than a marriage of convenience - an Unholy Alliance between confused Marxists and small ‘c’ conservatives, united only in their quest to destroy Britain and betray the inheritance of centuries.

Our generation was handed the United Kingdom in trust and our duty is to safeguard its sovereignty and integrity for future generations –

Making devolution work for Wales in the UK. Four nations under one crown.”