Conservatism and social policy
Mr Anthony Steen, the Conservative member for Liverpool Wavertree, seems on first blush an unlikely social welfare crusader. He is tall and lean and elegant, prefers his tea "Indian, with a pinch of China" and looks like a prosperous young businessman of the newer, smoother sort. Most modern welfare activists (with the exception of Mr Frank Field of the Child Poverty Action Group) seem to equate scruffiness with dedication: Mr Des Wilson before he left Shelter for a different kind of theatre was the type par excellence. But Mr Steen, for all his refusal to compromise his personal style in the interests of fashion is a very important activist indeed. He ran indeed he was the Young Volunteer Force; and he offended many in the welfare field when he went into politics because he stood in the Conservative, rather than in the Labour of Liberal, interest. In the last fortnight he did two things: he addressed the House of Commons for forty-two minutes (according to the Deputy Speaker, Mr George Thomas, who rebuked Mr Steen when he tried to make further intervention in the debate), and he stood for the executive of the Tory backbench Home Affairs Committee, and lost. I have no animus against Mr Joraathan Aitken, who was the victor in this contest, but I intend to devote my space this week to an explanation of why I think it a great pity that Mr Steen was defeated.
The subject of Mr Steen's adjournment debate was the Urban Aid Programme. The general public has, I think, forgotten what that is. "The idea of the programme", as Mr Steen said, "was to give extra help to areas in which existing services were under strain." It is seven years old, was never expensive and was never intended to be expensive. In October 1968 the idea was that £25 million would be made available for the programme over four years. In 1972 a further £40 million was made available for the period 1972-6. But the whole £65 million was not new money. Rather, it was a priority charge on the rate support grant pool: those local authority areas which were most deprived would, if they could prove their deprivation, benefit most from it. It was designed again in Mr Steen's words "to rob the richer local authorites for the benefit of the poorer local authorites."
Now, there was a special reason why the programme came under the Home Office rather than the Department of Health and Social Services. Though nobody wanted to say so at the time the idea was that the funds available should be particularly directed to the relief of strains associated with the immigrant populations; and immigration and race relations are Home Office responsiblities. Its real potential is, of course, much wider. In so far as a clear purpose could be detected behind the muzzy directives that announced the programme it was this: that local voluntary bodies, guided by local authorities and the Home Office, would be encouraged to self-help by the funds available. It has never been very clear which local bodies would get help, for the Home Office, as is the modern practice in secrecy of so many bureaucrats, has always refused to publish the criteria according to which, each year, they make awards under the programme. Further, since all applications for aid had to be channelled through local authorities, and since they, likewise, refused to publish criteria of favour, the distance between application and aid, already great, became a road beset by fog, potholes and obstructions. Over the years a scheme which should have rewarded deprived communties for every effort they made to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps became bogged down in a bureacratic morass. The pity of it all is, not just that another good welfare idea went wrong. The pity of it all is, not just that another good welfare idea went wrong, but that so inexpensive (in modern public expenditure terms) an idea went so wrong.
For some time, however, the great exception to this general experience of failure was Liverpool: what has happened in Liverpool this year is unbelievably scandalous, and it illustrates not just the general problem, but the importance of Mr Steen who, of course, sits for Liverpool seat.
Until recently the Liverpool local authority encouraged as many applications for aid as possible. When all these were in, and when the authority had also decided what it would like to see money spent on, the applying bodies and the authority got together to discuss everything on the table. The large (and often cumbersome, but always democratic) meeting then decided on the list of priorites that was to be forwarded to the Home Office. The authority thus did not impose its own will on voluntary action: rather, by what is in these days a remarkable and encouraging act of abnegation, it sought to involve the whole community in the business of solving its problems. This year, however, the Liverpool local authority knocked the whole business of consulation on its head, threw out the voluntary applications, and forwarded its own schemes to Whitehall, thus destroying years of trust and effort, and defeating the purpose of the Urban Aid
Spectator December 13, 1975 Programme. And guess who runs Liverpool? Why, those arch-proponents of grass roots and pavement politics, the Liberals. It took a Conservative member to bring re, the attention of the House of Commons, an° perhaps even to a wider audience, not only the general desuetude of the Urban Aid Program0le. but the particular scandal of Liverpool. Arl,Cif there is a world of implication in that fact. ul course, as everybody involved involuntary social activity knows, and as those involved iii the younger voluntary bodies in particulr know, the instinct of most local authorites a perfectly understandable and human instinct is to resent and resist the activities of any grd°,.P whose activities might appear to diminish toe power of local government. It is noticeable. however, that Labour local authorities ar, more prone to jealousy ("squires of the area
er as Mr Steen called them) than those of oth parties.
On the other hand, the voluntary servi,c! ethos is, or should be, at the heart of to' Conservative Party. Some attempts were indeed made by the last Conservative government, in pursuance of a 1970 election pledge, t° encourage voluntary service, and to Placeie relations between voluntary welfare bodies 8,11,4 the government on a more rational footing enough was, however done, largely because.° the ingrained resistance of the Civil Service to Lord Jellicoe's attempts to cross departmell, tal boundaries, but the intention was there.. 1; 'should, further, be noted that voluntary soc,leei service everywhere is increasingly strangle and frustrated by excessive legislation.
But the Conservatives make far too little of
this. It used to be said by Richard Crossits° that the voluntary movements were the Party at play, and there was a good deal of trut.s in that. But Conservatives — Sir Keith JoseP11 if a notable exception are remarkably shY °. wearing their social consciences on tire sleeves; and in this they are very Socialists and and Liberals. I remember 1-°...e Harvey of Presbury (then Sir Arthur Ve', Harvey), when he was chairman of the 192`t Committee, being reluctant to lend his suPPrlct to a major Conservative social policy push, 11°, because he was hostile to it, but because b' regarded this as ground already ceded rr)f Labour. Especially when the main emphasis °II Opposition policy is and rightly is °e ending inflation by reducing public expenditu. it is important that the devising and present] of enlightened social policies, even when WY involve expenditure, should not be neglecte.rl'ps Mr Steen is one of the few Conservariv".e with the knowledge, experience and forensie skill to challenge the Government's and t,i/r local authorities' failures in the social area. 1"is Ian Gilmour, the Shadow Home Secret" ,,e another: recently he too began to make an issuut of the neglect of the Urban Aid Programme f3 d he appears to have been somewhat discourage, by the resistance of local authorites to anYthi°07 that smacks of encouraging critical Yolunti3,1‘, groups. Conservative councillors, in partictus s are inclined to treat all new communitygr0ufd as leftist. So, indeed, many of them are; d'i",) often much more leftist than the tloc°120
moribund Labour Party. But that is neither I nor there: all sensible, and certainlY eoe Conservative, social policies should ,, designed to encourage individual and munity self-help, whether one is encouragi; lefties or righties or wet centrists. It is a 81. he pity that Mr Steen cannot say so not only on ttl'he basis of his personal authority, but With of added status of a member of the executive the Home Affairs Committee.