BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 23.06.02

Film: DAVID GROSSMAN reports from Easterhouse in Glasgow on the problems the Conservatives must confront if they are to champion the vulnerable.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: The Conservatives say they are worried about the vulnerable people in our society. Funny word that.... "vulnerable". Who exactly does it include? The poorest... the oldest... the weakest, yes...? All of them? Others? And what are they going to do to help them? Do they KNOW? Or might this whole thing be an attempt to change the Tory image ... to stop being seen as the "nasty party" so that the middle classes can once again vote for them without any twinge of conscience? I'll be talking to the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, David Willetts after this report from David Grossman. DAVID GROSSMAN: I visited Easterhouse in Glasgow. One of the poorest public housing estates in Europe. Iain Duncan Smith negotiating the soaking litter strewn pavements of Easterhouse was not looking for voters. There aren't too many Tories to be found behind the doors in these streets. Instead he was looking to reposition his party as the champion of the vulnerable. IAIN DUNCAN SMITH: The nation that leaves its vulnerable behind, diminishes its own future. GROSSMAN: So, who are the vulnerable that the Conservatives say they want to help? It seems the party's definition ranges far wider than just including the residents of deprived areas like this one in Glasgow. On The Record's been trawling though recent Conservative press releases, speeches and newspaper articles and we've found that vulnerable can almost include anyone you want it to. There's vulnerable car drivers with too much congestion. There's users of public transport vulnerable to poor service. There's people vulnerable to having asylum seekers moved into their area. There's even businesses vulnerable to too much taxation. So does the commitment to help the vulnerable actually mean anything or is it simply so much empty political rhetoric?. PROFESSOR BOB HOLMAN: If the Conservatives want credibility, vulnerable must mean vulnerable to poverty, to debt, to their children not having adequate nutrition. Only then will they be taken seriously in places like this. GROSSMAN: Deciding on a precise definition of who the vulnerable are is only the beginning of the Conservatives' task. Many say that at present the party only really sees areas like this as being a backdrop for their latest photo opportunity and it won't really be believed that they want to help, until they start explaining exactly how they're going to do it. PROFESSOR HOLMAN: This constituency is the sixth most deprived in Britain. GROSSMAN: Bob Holman is a community worker and academic who lives in Easterhouse. With large number of unemployed, pensioners and single parent families he says, the Conservatives need to back up their caring words with promises of increased benefits and pensions. PROFESSOR HOLMAN: From the Conservative leaders that I've spoken to I think they are sincere, they have got a concern for vulnerable people, but so far they haven't put it into any policy practice. And their statements are very vague, and in a place like Easterhouse where 83 per cent of people receive housing benefit, the big test for them is will they get more money in their pockets? Will Income Support rates go up so that they can have a decent lifestyle. It's going to be tested by money. GROSSMAN: As well as increasing benefits the Tories also need to help the working poor if they're really serious about no longer being seen as the party that drives past places like Easterhouse, with windows rolled up and nothing to say. And helping the low paid it's argued, means not only reaffirming the party's support for the minimum wage - so far only grudgingly accepted - but also actively pressing for an increase in it. PROFESSOR HOLMAN: There are more jobs in Easterhouse, but they're what people call "grotty jobs" that is they're temporary, they're meaningless and they're on the minimum wage. The minimum wage is �4.10 an hour and that's far too low for a decent lifestyle. Now the real test for the Tories is this - if they want to help vulnerable people they've got to raise the minimum wage quite substantially. GROSSMAN: Iain Duncan Smith undoubtedly earned some respect in Easterhouse for coming at all and speaking to a public meeting in a local church. But the message on the vulnerable needs pinning down and fleshing out if the commitment is to be believed and the Tory leader's prayer is to be answered.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.