The concept of social justice has long been owned by those on the Left of British politics. For decades, in part through ideological resistance and in part through laziness, many Conservatives surrendered this political territory to Labour and Liberal politicians.
The Left, especially the Labour party, claimed a monopoly on the issue and won the right to define the terms of the debate. Whenever people on the Right did engage with the challenges of poverty, disadvantage and inequality, too often they did so with judgement not grace, with condemnation not compassion.
As we enter the fourth year under this government it is right to make assessment of progress in how the Conservatives have come in redressing this deficiency.
Writing for the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) in 2010, Iain Duncan Smith identified five things which had to change in the way politicians set about helping people with multiple needs. They were: a programme of prevention; a joined-up approach in Whitehall and at local level; the utilisation of the key worker model; an effort to reduce worklessness and commissioning for outcomes, not only to ensure better value for taxpayers but to invest in life-change rather than process.
The work of prevention, by its very nature, is difficult to measure and can take years to bear fruit. It also offers little help to those already in the depths of difficulty. But it is crucial and we should encourage all politicians to lay stronger foundations for the future, even if the credit falls to their successors years later.
With this in mind, the Coalition should be commended for its introduction of the Early Intervention Foundation, breaking new ground in the funding of relationship support, the Troubled Families programme and some important education reforms, including a new commitment to provide financial literacy lessons for young people.
More disappointingly though, we have seen much less progress in terms of drug and alcohol education, and radical action to stabilise family life has fallen victim to Conservative/Lib Dem compromises.
Efforts have also been made to bring more co-ordination across Whitehall on social justice issues. The establishment of the Social Justice Cabinet Committee provides a useful forum for ministers to agree policy, work through disagreements and try to avoid ‘silo strategies’. This committee should be retained by whoever enters office in 2015.
The task for the next phase of joined-up government, however, has to be improving the use and sharing of data, as well as more effective local and national budget sharing agreements which target specific areas of geographical need.
The Troubled Families model is perhaps the most high-profile of the initiatives built on the key worker principle. Not only is the programme designed to provide help for families with numerous needs, it pioneers a new approach which aims to avoid the duplication, waste and inconsistent intervention which has characterised the experience many such families have known. It could certainly be improved and the language used to ‘sell’ it has been disappointing at times but as a model it holds great potential for the future of public service delivery and multiple disadvantage.
Very welcome progress has also been made in relation to reducing worklessness. Under the previous government the number of households where no member has ever worked almost doubled from 136,000 to 269,000 between 1997 and 2010. Looking ahead, reform along the lines of the Australian approach is required to maximise the efficacy of Job Centre Plus, and the Work Programme model could be reviewed to consider how smaller charities might be engaged to move those furthest from the workforce back into its view.
The fifth and final of the themes identified by Iain Duncan Smith, commissioning for outcomes, has become a major focus for ministers. Across the public policy community there is agreement that payment-by-results is right in principle, and probably irreversible, though concerns remain about implementation and its ability to positively impact on those with the most complex needs.
The shift to commissioning for outcomes, and the idea that through social investment other funders can hold the risk, is beginning to transform the way public services are designed. A positive start has been made, namely through the introduction of 13 Social Impact Bonds, the establishment of Big Society Capital, the Innovation Fund and the way in which Britain’s leadership on social investment was recognised by the G8 last year. But this must mark only the beginning. The social investment market remains small and poorly understood. Moving it from pilot to general practice will be the real test for a new government.
The economic backdrop has made life tougher for those on the margins of our society. But it is not possible to spend your way out of multiple disadvantage – the last government proved that. There will never be a welfare cheque big enough to lift all people out of poverty and to deal with the root causes of deprivation. Instead, we need a reliable safety net and we need to change the way services are delivered. That is what really changes lives, in good times and bad.