The biggest challenge facing most European governments is how to put their countries' finances back on an even keel. In Britain, so much of our government budget goes on welfare that clawing the country out of debt will inevitably involve cutting back more of the welfare state while continuing to protect those most in need. Francois Hollande's Socialists are facing up to this reality in France, just as the Coalition government has in the UK.
The British welfare state of today is a far cry from what its inventor envisaged: a system which would support people in need at times when they most needed it and help return them to self sufficiency. The Beveridge Report that laid the foundations of the welfare state identified "Five Giant Evils" in society - squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. On the first and the latter, there is political consensus, but prescriptions radically differ as to how best to tackle ignorance, want and idleness.
The welfare state bequeathed by thirteen years of Labour Government had become the master rather than the servant of the poor. Iain Duncan Smith set up the Centre for Social Justice to examine how the poverty traps in the existing welfare system skewed incentives, and to look for new ways of relieving poverty. In Government, he is now seeking to overhaul the benefit system, but even this alone will not solve all the problems that Labour's misconceived welfare policy has laid.
It will take many years to piece back together Britain's "broken society". There are estimated to be about a million adults who simply do not know the meaning of work. We still have hundreds of thousands of people trapped on welfare dependency, some looking for a job but others comfortable and unambitious on their benefits plus sixteen hours a week of part time earnings. Up and down the country, there remain gangs of youths hanging around on the streets with nothing to do, many from broken families whose parents never gave the time nor energy to disciplining their children.
The blunt tool of hand outs from the state has failed to tackle idleness. New thinking is needed that goes beyond reforming the state benefits system. It is worth looking to what existed before the welfare state to see what has been tried in the past, and with what degree of success.
For the most part, before the welfare state, there was no greater abundance of ignorance, want and idleness than today. There was in fact a rich tradition of helping both those in and out of work to help themselves. There was welfare without the state. When the state first intervened in education in 1870, the majority of the nation's children were literate, educated at church schools, charity schools, ragged schools and Sunday schools. When National Insurance was introduced in 1911, more than three quarters of those covered were already being provided with health care and other benefits, including in some cases unemployment benefits, by friendly societies. Before local authorities provided social housing, there were already thousands of housing societies providing decent and affordable accommodation for tens of thousands of low-income families. Long before the state accepted overall responsibility for the welfare of the nation's children, there were charities running children's homes. The problem was that this charity did not cover all those who needed help. Roll back the state and these kinds of organisations will return.
The challenge we face is how to reach a better balance between state and voluntary provision. I believe we can maintain the safety net of the welfare state while being far more imaginative about encouraging other organisations to inspire people to lift themselves out of poverty. As a member of the Centre for Social Justice's advisory board, I have seen how local voluntary community organisations can run some extremely successful projects that tackle social problems, and also how the state can crowd out the efforts of volunteers and community organisers.
In my constituency of London, I work alongside Conservative colleagues who are proving that voluntary action can be much more effective than state-directed solutions. Take Simon Marcus, the Conservative candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, who founded The Boxing Academy. The Academy combines education and mentoring with the discipline and culture of boxing to re-engage the most difficult-to-reach young people who are in danger of educational exclusion. Or consider Nick de Bois, Conservative MP for Enfield North, who organised a jobs fair to help combat unemployment within his constituency. Conservatives in Streatham are working to set up a local community "Bank of Streatham" modelled on the "Bank of Dave" made famous by the Channel Four TV programme.
This is not a "right wing" welfare agenda: the trade unions remain to this day pioneers of many welfare services for their members. They used to run night schools; cooperative societies were formed and mutuals covered all kinds of risks. When my father was a bus driver and trade union member, he was able to use the Transport and General Workers Union's own Manor House hospital instead of the NHS. There are those on the left who wish to rediscover this rich history.
It is possible for a Government to be compassionate while acknowledging that the state is not always the answer to every problem. Voters understand this, and I believe they will reward the party with the most sincere plan to protect the vulnerable while simultaneously rebalancing the books. Members of political parties can play their part in that by, as Ghandi put it, attempting to "be the change," rather than simply talking the talk. Voluntary action to help people in need can have a galvanising effect on grassroots support, as religious and political movements in Latin America and the Middle East have shown over many years.
As this party conference season progresses, I hope that members of all political parties in Britain will consider how their participation in supporting people less able to help themselves might re-engage communities in democratic politics. Diminishing the number of state-sponsored welfare initiatives led from the centre might just help repair the country's finances too.