Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Complete list of 8,000+ Thatcher statements & texts of many of them

1976 Dec 2 Th
Margaret Thatcher

Speech to Social Services Conference Dinner ("The Healthy Society")

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool
Source: Thatcher Archive: CCOPR 1201/76
Editorial comments: Embargoed until 2030. No speaking text survives in the Thatcher Archive.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 2404
Themes: Economy (general discussions), Primary education, Industry, Taxation, Family, Housing, Local government, Local government finance, Society, Social security & welfare, Voluntary sector & charity

The Healthy Society

You, Mr. Chairman, and the members of your Association, their staffs, both professional and lay, and the voluntary movement, devote most of your waking hours to the service of the community. I hope you will think that the same could be said of Members of Parliament.

Each of us, in our own way, strives to achieve what Benjamin Disraeli called the elevation of the condition of the people.

That phrase from Victorian England—splendid as it is—today sounds a little fusty, even a little patronising.

I would like to offer you a modern equivalent. I want to talk to you tonight about building “the healthy society” .

By “the healthy society” I mean a society in which three complementary ideals are combined.

First, it is a society in which the vast majority of men and women are encouraged, and helped, to accept responsibility for themselves and their families, and to live their lives with the maximum of independence and self-reliance.

Second, it is a society where everyone feels himself a responsible member of the community in which he lives and works; [end p1] where he is inspired to play his part in ensuring the well-being of that community; and, in particular, where he shows a practical concern for those members who—for reasons of age, handicap or other disability—cannot fend for themselves without help.

And, third, the healthy society is one founded on the family. Family life is the bed-rock on which the healthy society must be built.

These three concepts— Personal responsibility family life, and caring about, and caring for other people lie at the heart of the philosophy that I was taught as a child and which has remained with me ever since.

Industry—the basic social service

But before I come to examine them in greater detail, I would like to state one proposition which must underline everything else I say.

We may have the best of intentions towards looking after ourselves and our families.

We may have the best of intentions towards helping those in need.

But good intentions are not enough. They have to be converted into practice, and for that we need financial resources; and people must have jobs if they are to look after their families themselves.

What has gone wrong in recent years is that our society has concentrated too much attention on distributing the wealth we have, and too little on adding to it. [end p2]

And now we are feeling the draught.

People's expectations, and consequently their demands, have been raised far beyond our present means of fulfilling them. Moreover, the appetite of the education service, and of health and welfare, has proved insatiable.

We must be realistic about this. Running away from a problem never helped anyone. We have to increase the wealth available to our society as a whole. And we have to make the best use of all our resources—including that most important resource of all: people.

How do we do it? For some time I have been worried that many of our most able young people from universities and colleges have not wanted to go into industry and commerce. And yet, industry and commerce are the source of the nation's prosperity, its standard of living, and its capacity to help those in need. Social workers in the great university cities have noticed the same tendency and commented upon it to me.

What I want to say to young people is this. Many of you have strong, definite ideals; you want to do something for other people you are not only willing but anxious to carry out your responsibilities. In doing so, it is just as idealistic and constructive to go into industry and commerce as a way of earning your own living and providing something over for others, as it is to work directly in the social services. Indeed without that effort, we couldn't have good social services.

In some ways, therefore, industry and trade are the basic social service because—

i. they provide a large number of jobs, and without jobs there is no way of looking after one's family

ii. through taxation, they provide the resources to educate our young people and care for the weak, the sick and the elderly. [end p3]

That is why a social worker, short of resources and doing a splendid job, once said to me that while it was difficult to persuade young people of the idealism of bringing trade to this country, it was necessary to put the creation of wealth back where is should belong, in the forefront of honourable activities.

There is perhaps one other social service that those who choose industry could perform. They could restore a sense of pride in producing goods of quality, without fault and on time. That would make life better for most of us. And let us never forget that we need people in industry, who are good with people, who are interested in other people. And when you get the relationships between people right, you get the product right and, as a result, we all live a more satisfying life.

This conference comes at a time of acute restraint for the personal social services. Between 1970 and 1975, resources going to the Local Authority Personal Social Services grew by about 70 per cent in real terms. This growth has now come to an abrupt halt for reasons of which we are well aware.

Despite what is written in the DHSS Consultative Document on priorities, you know that severe economies are the order of the day.

Equally, we all know that expectations are not switched off so easily.

Needs do not just disappear when money is short. The hopes of the disabled and the elderly, the prospects offered to the mentally ill and mentally handicapped, these hopes don't evaporate when the cash dries up. [end p4]

The legislation of the last few years: the Children's and Young Persons Act, the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, the Local Authority Social Services Act, and—more recently—the Children's Act—all aroused new demands, and all created new expectations.

And we all know that in today's conditions of financial constrait most of these expectations cannot be met: this year, next year or in some cases, not for several years.

So I return to my main theme: building the healthy society. Many people are beginning to realise that if we are to sustain, let alone extend, the level and standards of care in the community, we must first try to put responsibility back where it belongs; with the family and with the people themselves.

Moreover, if we can succeed in this, we may even end up with something a good deal better than we have today.

It may seem, at first sight, perverse to make this claim when every social services department in the land is having to cut back on cherished projects and even reduce standards of service.

But it would be wrong just to bewail the cut-backs and wait for better times. Let us, instead, use them as the occasion for a re-appraisal, and an opportunity to achieve our objectives in other, and perhaps better, ways.


In her Chairman's opening address to the recent BASW Conference in Nottingham, Kay Richards said:

“The reality of caring can be, should be, and is provided by members of local communities …   . self-help as a principle has always been upheld in social work, education and training. In practice it has not always been so easy to achieve” . [end p5]

I believe she was absolutely right. It is only by striving to make this ideal live that we shall meet the ever-present and ever-growing needs, to which I have referred, and make progress in the next decade.

Success will depend on four things:

— on central Government getting its priorities right and providing the right framework

— on mobilising the voluntary spirit in the community

— on creating more genuine, self-help: community groups

— on the ability and willingness of an increasingly, well trained social work profession to provide the skills and to give the guidance needed at all levels to ensure proper standards

Let me look at these in turn.

The Role of Government

First, the role of Government. I do not believe that Whitehall, or its regional and local off-shoots, is properly attuned to what needs to be done.

To begin with, we must try to bring sense into the several systems of cash support. Social security is now so complex, so riddled with anomalies, and so frequently amended, that, as the Chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission said recently, the system is incomprehensible, even to his own Staff.

We need to ensure proper incomes for those in genuine need—the elderly, the disabled, one-parent families and so on—and we still see Tax Credits as the most hopeful way ahead. It is most regrettable that the first big step along this road, namely Child Benefits, has been delayed. [end p6]

Central and Local Government also have to act in the area of housing policy. I know that far too much of the time of social workers is spent on the growing problem of the homeless.

We shall not solve it until we have found better ways of utilising the existing housing stock. We must try to reverse the decline in private rented accommodation. We must provide more purpose-built accommodation for the elderly and the disabled, and we must generally concentrate far more on the special needs of the disadvantaged.

In general, I am concerned to develop as much local responsibility as possible. I am sure that the pendulum has swung too far towards central government direction and away from local autonomy. The development of effective cash limits—a painful discipline—should have the advantage of giving more discretion to local authorities to choose their own priorities within the total budget.

The Voluntary Sector

So much for the role of Government. Next I turn to my second point, the voluntary sector. I have long been a firm believer in the crucial importance of volunteers in the field of community care, and I am glad to note that this is now becoming a more fashionable view.

But there is a danger that the voluntary services are seen as no more than a ‘cheap alternative’ to the real thing: “pound for pound, they are a better buy” , Mr. Ennals was reported as saying the other day.

But of course it goes much further than that. [end p7]

The personal social services are already heavily dependent on voluntary work. In the healthy society that work must increase and I am particularly encouraged by the growing contribution of older school children and the newly retired.

The proper relationship between statutory and voluntary social work is a partnership in which the success of one is closely bound up with the health of the other.

I would be very unhappy to see any central or local Government agency assuming responsibility for work which is appropriately done voluntarily; but, equally, for voluntary work to flourish it needs the support of well-run, professional statutory services.

Community care, that is, care within the community rather than in enclosed institutions, is a policy which is rightly receiving increased emphasis. The advantages to be gained from looking after the handicapped, the disabled or the elderly in their own homes are humanitarian, social and economic.

The care of the elderly, in particular, is an area in which voluntary work can flourish: through the provision of Meals-on-Wheels, in the running of luncheon clubs and social clubs, and in the many visiting schemes which now exist.

Self-help Bodies

One very important part of the voluntary movement are the self-help bodies.

They are growing in number and are playing an increasingly important role in community care. To me, they are an essential feature of the healthy society.

Some are now national groups—like the Pre-School Playgroup movement.

The rise of that movement will surely be seen as one of the most significant social phenomena of recent years. It is one in which I have taken a close interest since my time at the Department of Education and Science. [end p8]

Parents have recognised the benefits to be gained, and they, and so many others, have given freely of their time and interest.

Some self-help groups are more local, almost “one-off” jobs. Here in the North West, there are all sorts of activities.

I was glad to be able to see the work of one of these, the Southern Neighbourhood Council, when I was in Liverpool earlier this year.

It was wonderful to see the way in which the people in that community were banding together, with modest support from the local Council, to look after those who needed help and to provide facilities for the elderly and the young. They have gained a pride and added stature in doing these things for themselves.

The Profession

However valuable, indeed essential, voluntary work and self-help are, they need the guiding hand of the professional side, supported by the resources of the local authority.

Professionalism demands training and I know the importance which as Directors you attach to this, and to the imperative need to raise the proportion of trained people in Social Work departments.

I hope that even in today's severe financial condition, something will be set aside for this.

Nowhere is this need greater than in caring for children.

The very few cases of tragedy, which understandably hit the headlines, serve to underline the need not only for training but also for experience in the school of life.

It would be impossible to deal with all the areas of welfare work in which professionals and the volunteers combine to give service to the community. [end p9]

But my remark would not be complete without an acknowledgement of the contribution made by the army of foster parents throughout the country, and the close understanding and working relationships between them, their National Association and the Social Services Department.

I said at the beginning of my remarks that I hoped you might feel that Members of Parliament gave most of their time to the service of the community. Indeed much emphasis is given to the welfare side of an MPs life, although that is not our first or even our main job.

But Members of Parliament have experience from their constituency work of the sort of cases and problems which are everyday matters for social service workers. What we have to concern ourselves with more directly, however, are the problems of raising revenue and the allocation of resources among competing demands. Our business is to encourage and enable people to work together for a responsible and caring society.

Time and effort, enthusiasm and experience, given generously in the service of others, are qualities of great richness. In the Social Service departments you as the professional body can lead the way in harnessing these qualities. You must work in areas where only you are qualified to work; but you can direct and encourage the whole army of volunteers who have shown themselves willing and able to serve.

The citizens of the healthy society are people who care for others and look first to themselves to care for themselves. I hope that we can together see that society grow and flourish.