Andy Cook is Chief Executive of the Centre for Social Justice.
It won’t have surprised anyone that the Queen’s Speech was slim pickings for policy enthusiasts. Without a parliamentary majority, and with the small matter of leaving the EU, everyone fully expected the dominance of Brexit, and room for little else. But it is wrong to think that this means a two year hiatus. Theresa May must not see herself as a hamstrung victim of circumstance. She won an election, and must deliver for the electorate.
Governing is about much more than legislating. It is perfectly possible to govern well and enact great change with very little legislation. In fact, it can even be a blessing.
One of the most infamous and weighty pieces of legislative change in recent years was the Health and Social Care Act of 2012. So big the then NHS chief executive described it as “visible from space”. And yet much of it didn’t need legislating, more of it fell by the wayside on implementation, and indeed significant parts are now being reversed by the current NHS chief executive, without fanfare, or indeed legislation.
The point is a simple one. Sometimes huge legislation can be burdensome and have very little impact on outcomes. Other times you can make huge changes without any legislation at all, even to the same things. Governments have power. And it is crucial that Theresa May, and her whole administration, realise this, and use it.
For example, the Conservative manifesto pledged to end rough sleeping and, as a first step towards that, to pilot Housing First projects. This model gives the long-term homeless a home and wrap-around personal support, rather than the conventional model of being “housing ready” before getting a home. Not only is this legislation-free, but it has cross-party support, is cost neutral over the parliament and could change thousands of lives. Ministers should crack on with this immediately.
Similarly, the idea of ‘Breathing Space’ has cross-party support. Ideally, this is a statutory repayment pause for people falling into spirals of personal debt to give them time to get help for underlying issues such as mental health or family instability. This could take legislation to cover all debt but, given many are indebted to government departments, could this not be started by them, without legislation, tomorrow.
But the Prime Minister should think bigger still.
First, all the main party manifestos agreed that technical education needs to play a bigger role in developing a future workforce and giving kids the skills to succeed in life.
The reality is that University Technical Colleges already exist to promote technical education. They are not even nearly perfect, but given that this legislated vehicle is ready to go, with the aim of helping technical education thrive, they can be built on. And by avoiding the constant educational reinventions of previous administrations, the Prime Minister may even find it is considerably in hers and the nation’s interest to do so.
Second and similar is Mental Health. It is hugely welcome that the Government has pledged to review existing mental health provision. But the difficulty with passing new legislation also leaves a window to think innovatively about how we approach mental health. Are there untapped resources in our communities, our schools, our universities, that could make a huge difference without the need for legislation or piling further burden on a stretched health service?
The number of University students has doubled in the last 20 years, and 75 per cent of mental health conditions first emerge before the age of 24. What can be cleverly done in that space, for example?
And, third, there is the germinating industrial strategy. This country has a long-standing productivity problem, which has left low wages stagnant for too long. There’s no silver bullet, but there are a number of different areas that should be addressed around employer engagement, skills and infrastructure to name just a few that would not require legislation.
But the most compelling factor in all this is not making the best of a difficult situation or muddling through the next few years. In reality communities, charities – real people – are making beneficial changes to each other’s lives every day without any legislation. If we look beyond Westminster it’s everywhere. The Centre for Social Justice has an alliance of 350 poverty fighting charities that inform all of our policy work and they do this stuff day in, day out, with no legislation.
This can be a turning point for May’s premiership. Get out on the ground and see how lives are being changed every day. Go and see what is already working and ask how it can be nurtured. Question how the powers of government can be put to dynamic use.
Then do it.