Podium: We are a nation of churches

William Hague

From the Leader of

the Opposition's Wilberforce Lecture to the Conservative Christian Fellowship

TO TALK about society in terms of a relationship between, on the one hand, atomised individuals and, on the other, either a benevolent or an overbearing state, seems to me to caricature reality. The truth is that we are a nation of individuals and families and football supporters and choral societies and pigeon fanciers.

We are also a nation of churches, churches which are themselves influential voluntary organisations and whose lay members are also involved in the work of a myriad other groups. As a Member of Parliament you enjoy the privilege of being able to take an interest in the innumerable different organisations and professions in your patch.

Each one of us belongs to many different communities, some defined by place, others by activity. The number and variety of voluntary organisations is surely one of the most admirable characteristics of British society.

We need to look for ways in which to harness the energy and the spontaneity of voluntary organisations to tackle our country's social problems.

A great deal is already being done, not least by churches and the various charities which they support. In renewing our party's policies, I want to consider how we can build on our experience of paying for public services out of our taxes but having them delivered by voluntary organisations.

My criticism of a document like Faith in the City or of the comments of people like Bishop David Sheppard is that they place too much faith in the effectiveness and the impartiality of state intervention. A government rule book cannot provide the scope for flexibility and innovation which we need. Too often, the rules fail to provide for some particular deserving case. Can we find how to devise ways of helping people who are in need which recognises the differences between individual cases without recreating all the faults of the old Victorian Poor Law?

Let me suggest one example. The plight of children in local authority care and of young people leaving care is a silent scandal. Many bear the scars of traumatic home backgrounds. Society has the responsibility to act as their parents and, while I do not doubt the good intentions of local authority social services departments, we are failing these young people. Young people leaving care are often simply unable to cope with the isolation and practical demands of living on their own.

I want to explore whether we should not be bolder in addressing this social problem. Should we consider transferring from social services departments all, or part, of their responsibility under the Children Act to advise, assist and befriend youngsters leaving care? Might voluntary organisations, perhaps church-led, be among those best equipped to carry out some of these tasks? Could we be more imaginative still and consider giving the voluntary sector a greater role in running this country's childrens homes? Is there a role for the churches here as well?

These subjects are too important to be considered lightly. But I mean this as a positive proposal. If church leaders are serious about showing their commitment to the needy through political action, then perhaps a redefinition of the partnership between the voluntary sector and the state is one of the ways forward.

I want to hear the views of the churches on this. The Conservative Party, including the Conservative Christian Fellowship, will take forward this debate. During 18 years of Conservative government, relations between our party and Britain's churches were at times turbulent. Now, we have the opportunity to engage in a new and creative dialogue about the future of our country.

The Conservative Party is changing in order to regain the trust of the British people, but we shall never change our basic beliefs in freedom, in enterprise, in the family and in strong local institutions. I claim for our party no monopoly of Christian compassion, but I firmly believe that the moral tradition of Wilberforce and Shaftesbury, which runs like a golden thread through the history of the Conservative Party, means that we can take pride in the values and principles for which we stand.

Politicians have to work with the reality of the world as we find it. Our scope for action will always have practical limits; no amount of politics is going to build the Kingdom of God. The Christian Church, both in its faith and its works, has a well of experience and insight from which any sensible politician will wish to draw. I look forward to discussing with Britain's churches, in the months and years ahead, how we can take forward our common goal of securing the peace and prosperity of the British people. I hope we can learn from one another.

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