After more than five years working in government, I have returned to the Centre for Social Justice – the think-tank I co-founded with Iain Duncan Smith and Tim Montgomerie in 2004. In 2006, we were commissioned by David Cameron to undertake his Social Justice Policy Review – and among other things created the Universal Credit that we have been implementing in government at the Department of Work and Pensions to ensure that work always pays.
Having had the privilege of leading a think-tank through the opposition years, having watched it through the years of Coalition Government and now leading it through the first term of a Conservative administration shows just how the work of such a body changes through shifting political seasons.
I have come back to the CSJ for a number of reasons. I actually made my decision to return prior to the General Election in May, but went back into government to ensure that, if £12 billion of savings were to be found from welfare, then it would be found in the most socially just way possible.
During the pre-election days, when just about anything could have happened, every person I met in government had their Plan B for what they would do if we lost the election. Mine was to return to the CSJ. The only problem was that in entertaining this as a possibility, I fell in love with my Plan B – a decision that was reinforced when the Prime Minister rang to ask whether I would go into the House of Lords.
Now that I am back as the CSJ’s Executive Director, there are three key areas that I want to focus on.
The fact that this Government is referred to by critics as being for the few not the many is heart-breaking to me – I joined the Conservative Party when its strapline was “Party for the Vulnerable”. Right across the Party are good-hearted people who get up every morning and are motivated all day to fight for those who are disadvantaged and to improve the life chances of the many, and in particular the poorest.
The fact that this is not penetrating the political discourse is why the first thing I have done is appoint a new Campaigns Director. His job is to take all the research that the CSJ has done on the Five Pathways to Poverty (family breakdown, educational failure, addiction, debt and unemployment), what the Government is now calling its Life Chances Agenda, and drive them as campaigns.
It is critical that Britain finds its voice on the issue of family stability: that we ensure that if your family does not give you a fair start in life, that the education system ensures you fulfil your potential, that each generation understands that drugs destroy human flourishing and that unmanageable debt divides families.
It is also critical that work is seen and known to be the way out of poverty and up the ladder of social mobility. These are the answers to the left-wing approach of just-pay-more-through welfare, and will ensure that society remains joined together and more equal.
The second thing I plan to do at the CSJ is to identify and tackle the Government’s top five intractable social problems. There is a tendency to think that Ministers have an army of creative civil servants standing by to solve these problems. I have met some absolutely outstanding civil servants but, wherever you are, real solutions are difficult to come by and creative, courageous thinking even more so.
Governments need think-tanks like the CSJ and others to play this role, developing solutions and breaking open new ground. We will therefore be focusing on how to increase productivity while keeping employment levels high and those on low wages protected; we will develop a portfolio of proposals for how to halve the disability employment gap and, among other things, will look at how to develop a childcare system that makes sense to parents and incentivises work, while ensuring that the important early years work that genuinely changes the lives of the most disadvantaged flourishes.
Finally and most importantly, the CSJ will be launching a Social Metrics Commission. I will come back to this site to say more in the future, but suffice to say for the moment that if there is one thing that needs to happen to the narrative around social policy, it is an honest dialogue around how poverty and social impact is measured.
We know that the old poverty measures do not work and that under them, the “best way of lifting children out of poverty” is to collapse the economy – hardly an approach that changes the lives of the poorest for the better.
On the other hand, the Treasury could at the moment take billions out of programmes that support the poorest and statistically nobody would be measured as poor – surely that is not workable either.
The CSJ wants to work with all comers on the Left and Right to build measures that will stand the test of the political cycles – that could be accepted by all parties as having the resonance of truth about then and that genuinely deliver life change.
It is for these reasons that I have come back to the CSJ – having fallen in love with my “Plan B” – and why I count it such a privilege to go into the Lords where for the first time in more than five years I can speak on these issues. I am looking forward to this new season enormously.
This article first appeared on the ConservativeHome website