David Burrowes is a member of Home Affairs Select Committee and of the 1922 Committee Executive. He is MP for Enfield Southgate. He is also the CoChair of the APPG for Complex Needs and Dual Diagnosis.
Last week’s triggering of Article 50 and the next two years of Brexit negotiations will doubtless define the Government. However, the success of the Government’s Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families policy paper could be the other defining issue.
Flick through the Government’s 24 pages of poverty-fighting strategy, and you will get the message that worklessness is bad – very bad. A society that works for everyone is now being envisaged for athose who don’t work at all. The Government is not only for the JAMs (Just About Managing) but now also for the NAAMs (Not At All Managing).
There is no great new vision or resetting of Government in the paper, but a simple (and powerful) restating of the case for ensuring work is the best route out of poverty. The strategy sets out the effects of long-term worklessness far beyond the absence of a weekly pay packet.
There’s very little extra money, even less hyperbole – and a lot of data. This is poverty-fighting, Theresa May-style. No flashy vision for changing the world – but a methodical, evidence-based approach to policy development. Programmes are tested, trialled and then delivered based on what works.
Almost exactly a year ago on this very site, I urged our former Prime Minister to deliver a “long-term social justice plan” – and today I reckon we have finally got one, but must enter a few caveats.
In a package of measures, the Government has committed to re-booting the Troubled Families Programme; extra money for programmes aimed at reducing parental conflict and a big strategic role for Jobcentre Plus. The Government is also promising new measures to help those struggling with addiction and serious personal debt.
All this passes my “Lucy litmus test” for a social justice plan which helps people who suffer from complex needs and multiple disadvantage. (Lucy had contact with the criminal justice system, homelessness and substance misuse, and was trapped in a cycle of social injustice.) I welcome it with open arms, as will around a hundred Parliamentary colleagues, who have joined in with the Compassionate Conservative Caucus which I established with the support of the Centre for Social Justice in order to help MPs and peers champion social justice.
The paper focuses on worklessness as an indicator of wider complex needs which entrench pathways to poverty. The Department for Work and Pensions has demonstrated with robust evidence how their new priorities to tackle multiple disadvantages associated with worklessness can help people like Lucy – or Michaela from Birmingham.
The policy paper tells the story of Michaela, a mother of seven who, following the death of her children’s father, took sick leave and was at risk of eviction due to serious financial problems. Michaela was referred to a multi-agency team, including a DWP Troubled Families Employment Advisor who assisted Michaela’s daughter in finding work by helping her prepare a CV, as well as her son, by helping him secure a fully funded apprenticeship.
At the heart of Improving Lives is the recognition that strengthening families is the key poverty-fighting tool. The aim is to commission services which will improve the quality of parental relationships, whether parents are together or already separated. It is very refreshing to see the role of fathers being taken seriously. The Government is right to ” look at whether more can be done to ensure that services recognise fathers, and help them to play a full and active role in their children’s lives.”
There are, though, a couple of ‘buts’, one of which I warned of in a speech in celebration of marriage – namely, that when the Social Justice paper was published I would search for the M-word, and it is a shame that my enquiry has indeed drawn a blank. I said: “I am unapologetic about celebrating marriage not only because I am in favour of the family formation, but because of the growing evidence that marriage is socially just”.
Improving Lives’ is strong on evidence-based policy and on the importance of parental relationships. I would therefore urge the DWP not to ignore the evidence that unmarried parents are six times more likely to break up before their first child’s fifth birthday, and that children in families that break apart are 2.5 times more likely to be in long-term poverty. Marriage works – and, for this reason, we must do more to support marriage with relationship support and a more targetted transferable tax allowance.
The other ‘but’ is to question whether Jobcentres are the right place for the additional work required to support families, rather than recognise that the time has come for ‘Family Hubs’, which the CSJ and many MPs have been pushing for. Local centres to which families of all different shapes and sizes could go for support is the next big step and the Government should have the confidence to grasp it.
I am pleased that the Government is committed to tackle the impact of drugs and alcohol dependency on addicts and their families. Support for peer mentoring is very welcome, alongside family based interventions. The forthcoming updated Drugs Strategy will need to provide more details about how recovery can be sustained when many specialist rehab services are being cut.
Improving Lives will rise or fall on its delivery, and on what it calls local service transformation “through better joined-up working and use of evidence within government”. Ministers are not using the stick of centralised targets or laws, or the carrot of significant funds but, rather, a new evidence base. What is revolutionary is the Government bringing together for the first time the combined perspectives of education, health, family relationships and work on how multiple disadvantage can interact and impact on families and children from childhood to young dulthood. The big challenge of course is to navigate service transformation at a time of public service and welfare cuts.
The paper may well not get the headlines or attention which Brexit generates, but it will be more meaningful for the lives lost to worklessness, addiction, family breakdown,debt and homelessness. It is a serious attempt to fight poverty with effective local implementation. Not every Government strategy needs a huge fanfare. Much like the people it seeks to support, the strategy just needs to work.