Alex Burghart is Director of Policy at the Centre for Social Justice.
David Cameron has today achieved a new high. For the first time in his life he is indisputably the greatest living David. The miserable news that David Bowie has passed at the age of 69 leaves a 49-year-old Cameron at the pinnacle of Davidness. This the Prime Minister’s people could not have known when they set they date for today’s speech on social justice. Instead their eyes were levelled at the likelihood that much of the next year may be lost to Europe and that this might be his last chance to talk about such issues. Indeed, you could feel the urgency in the number of announcements – in ordinary times the material might have formed the basis of three or more speeches.
Since standing on the steps of Downing Street in May and reclaiming the One Nation agenda for the Right, Cameron has repeatedly underscored his commitment to social justice in his conference speech in Manchester and his New Year’s message. Today in Islington – not quite in Jeremy Corbyn’s back garden, but as near as makes no difference – in what may turn out to be his most important social policy speech of the whole Parliament, he told us what he has been building up to.
This was classic, pre-coalition, pre-crunch Cameron – the man intent on forging a Conservative party with a social conscience, a leader who won’t allow dogma to get in his way and, crucially, a leader with an understanding that only a social approach to poverty can mend society.
Placing families at the core of his speech, he announced a doubling of investment in relationship support (an extra £35 million) to combat Britain’s dangerously high levels of family breakdown, a rewiring of the Troubled Families programme to focus it on parenting skills for those most in need of them, a new help to save scheme and parenting classes for the many not the few.
For school-age children there was the promise of character-building initiatives, a new approach to work experience, ‘cultural engagement’ for pupils missing out on the arts, a £1 billion investment in National Citizen’s Service to extend it to the majority of pupils, and, perhaps most importantly, a £70 million commitment to mentoring for 25,000 pupils who are falling behind in their GCSE years. (The Centre for Social Justice has long highlighted the potential of organisations like ThinkForward to help disadvantaged young people into employment and training.)
For social housing there was a much-trailed £140 million to regenerate the country’s worst sink estates – an admirable ambition that, if successful, will breathe new life and hope into forgotten communities. For those suffering from poor mental health there was over £1 billion to, amongst other things, offer additional support to women during and after pregnancy, and introduce the first waiting list standards for mental health services to help people with psychosis and eating disorders. Fantastically, there was also the announcement of a new social impact bond to develop residential rehabilitation services to help the many hundreds of thousands who suffer from addiction.
The narrative was faultless – invest in supporting and stabilising families, create opportunities for those who lack them, transform lives and you will set people free to fulfil their potential. For 12 years, the Centre for Social Justice has campaigned long and hard for a policy agenda which sort to repair family breakdown, worklessness, educational failure, addiction and serious personal debt – and it is a joy to hear the Prime Minister’s priorities echo these.
There are, however, some devils in the detail. The rejuvenation of sink estates is long overdue and much needed, but whilst £140 million sounds like a lot of money it means only £1.4 million per estate earmarked for overhaul – this will probably cover the costs of consultation but not of development. In London it’s easy to see how the replacement of large, low-density sites into high-spec, high-density modern living could pay for themselves. It is harder to imagine how the same could be true in Rochdale.
The disproportionate amount of money that the National Citizen’s Service is to receive is also concerning. NCS is an excellent programme and it will be wonderful to see it expand, but the fact that it will receive more new money than addiction, family support, psychiatric services in A&E, natal and ante-natal mental health care, and mentoring combined, suggests that it is punching well above its policy weight. NCS has its role to play in building a better society, but it is questionable whether this universal service is a central part of an ‘all-out assault on poverty’.
There is a chance that this may be the Prime Minister’s last major intervention on social justice. No doubt there will be further speeches, but big projects take big time and this Parliament is already more than ten per cent gone. If the rest of the year is eaten up by Europe, and if the Chancellor’s chilling words on the Chinese economy are a sign of things to come, he may find his attentions are taken elsewhere. Even if it proves to be the case, this wish list is much to be wished for. Today’s announcements are a strong start and set the challenge for this government and future governments to invest still further in these causes. Yet the direction of travel is an excellent one, one that establishes David Cameron as a leader attempting to tackle the causes and not merely the symptoms of poverty.