The first year of leadership for the self-proclaimed “next Prime
Minister” has been marked by a strong emphasis on social policy,
with frequent emphasis on creating an inclusive party and policies
that reach out to the vulnerable.
The Conservative’s first social policy paper since the general
election was about the 33,000 children who leave school without
qualifications; the second about the crisis in residential care for
older people; and then came the defiantly entitled There is Such a
Thing as Society, a collection of essays putting the case for
compassionate Conservatism.1 All of which seemingly rebuts the
party’s Thatcherite past.
But the means by which Iain Duncan Smith’s policies are to be
achieved also mark him out from his predecessors. Margaret Thatcher
and John Major had a deep distrust of local authorities. The Duncan
Smith way, by contrast, is about making local authorities
accountable to local people, setting them and the NHS free from the
“centralised welfare state” and Whitehall. Like William Hague, he
has also emphasised faith communities, voluntary agencies and local
organisations as deliverers of social care.
Duncan Smith says that, while he has never held office and came
into the House of Commons in 1992, “no politician is completely
unencumbered by his past”. He even makes a reference to past
He has come from the party’s right to promote policies usually
associated with its left. But what he shares with the past three
Conservative leaders, and others from the left of the party such as
Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke, is a belief that government
doesn’t know best. The Labour Party, according to Duncan Smith,
believes that the solution to problems is more government and, when
those solutions fail, yet more government to remedy the
Duncan Smith describes the family as “the basic building block of
society”. “People look after older people in the biggest welfare
state in the world [which is the family] and without that no state
could function because no state could do all of that,” he says.
“The state adds to that and fills in the gaps.”
An analysis of Duncan Smith’s speeches suggests he is strong on
attacking the government and generalised rhetoric but weak on
detail. So what does this mean in practice?
The Conservative leader describes his February visit to
Easterhouse, the deprived Glasgow housing estate, as a conversion
experience. “I’m wary about politicians talking about conversion
experiences,” he says, “but I can tell you that I came away from
there a changed man”.
He talks about looking under a stairwell. At one end was a burned
pillow and a teddy bear, at the other broken syringes – what he
calls an actual and symbolic example of the loss of innocence and
failed socialist policies.
But what impressed him most about Easterhouse, he says, is that
people were finding their own solutions. They distrusted social
workers and officialdom. They knew each other, they knew who should
be where and when. They looked after the children of drug addicted
parents and, through them, were able to work with the parents.
Local people told him that what they didn’t like about the local
authority was that when they sought funding for their work it came
with strings attached – targets were set and, when they were met,
there were more targets and soon the people were becoming no more
than the agents of local authorities. “What we have to ask,” Duncan
Smith says, “is how we can support that kind of work without
Apart from his firm avowal of his Tory principles, much of what
Duncan Smith says is tentative. He stresses that his Tory Party is
listening and learning, whether it is talking with the poor of
Easterhouse or the health planners of Stockholm.
On bed-blocking he is yet to discuss a solution because Liam Fox,
the shadow health spokesperson, is still looking at the figures.
But what he does know is that no one else is looking at figures and
services in the round – what it costs to keep an old person in
hospital and the knock-on effect of that for other patients and
staff costs against the costs of a residential place.
“Care for the elderly has to be a much more balanced ticket,” he
says, adding that no one is talking about domiciliary care despite
the fact “its collapse has been dramatic”.
According to Duncan Smith, Whitehall, the Scottish Executive and
the Welsh Assembly weigh down on professionals, seeking
accountability to the centre and stifling their initiative by
overloading them with form-filling.
But it seems curious to talk about a supposed state monopoly of
care when the Tories’ own NHS and Community Care Act 1990 opened
not just residential and domiciliary care for older people to a
multiplicity of providers but led to many local councils hiving off
Duncan Smith says that it was right to see private home providers
offering a better standard of care than council ones, insisting
that all analyses proved the fact. But so often now, he claims,
Department of Health funding is spent by Labour councils’ on their
own homes rather than on raising standards “across the board”. He
argues that councils should raise standards, not offer this kind of
He says the new Care Standards Act 2000 is based on “a centralised
doctrine” that all homes must attain the same standards and offer
the same provision, when in reality standards need to take account
of individuals and circumstances, according to the age and physical
condition of residents.
As for primary care trusts, Duncan Smith believes that rather than
offering a radical solution to bed-blocking and health and social
care liaison, it is simply another reorganisation (something of
which he is generally wary) and “another layer of bureaucracy” that
may make no difference on the ground where the work is actually
On the question of children and the proposals for a single child
protection agency or the children’s trusts outlined in the spending
review – all before Lord Laming even reports on the case of
Victoria Climbi’ – Duncan Smith believes different circumstances in
different places may require different solutions, particularly
between inner cities, rural areas, and suburbs.
“We are looking at that at the moment,” says Duncan Smith, warning
that hard cases make bad law.
“When looking at the Climbi’ case, we need to ask to what extent we
are dealing with first generation immigrants and practices regarded
as normal in their culture; or problems of language.
“We need to see what comes out of the inquiry before we ride
roughshod over local solutions.
“What we want to do is to make councils responsible. One of the
problems seems to be that no one took responsibility. Unless
someone is willing to do that it doesn’t matter much how many
reorganisations you have – there will always be a crisis.”
The Tory leader goes on to question whether social workers’ time is
well used. “I hear about them always being on courses,” he says.
“Many people criticise them for being over-professionalised whereas
much of what they do is common sense.
“In the old days, when people themselves looked after one another,
they used to get the early signals that something might be wrong.
Part of the problem, then, could be
With comments like these, perhaps, the forward-looking Duncan Smith
can’t resist borrowing from the past.
1 Gary Streeter et al, There is Such a
Thing as Society, Politico’s Publishing, 2002