It’s all JAMs today and not JAMs tomorrow under Theresa May, at least if what we read about the Autumn Statement is true. Number 10 is apparently on Number 11′s back over the Just-About Managings - the “ordinary, working people” lauded by Theresa May during her leadership campaign, who duly metamorphosed into “ordinary, working class people” in her Party Conference speech this year. These are people living in households with incomes of between £16,000 and £20,000. They are those who are too well-off to get much out of the social security system, but not well-off enough to live without worrying how to pay the bills. This is the Erdington Man that Nick Timothy, May’s Chief of Staff, wrote about on this site when one of our columnists.
These are also the people that the Prime Minister’s social reform programme will largely be aimed at. ConservativeHome described early how her Government will concentrate its energies not so much on social justice or even social mobility as social reform. This means crafting policy less for the poorest than for those JAMs: May’s Erdington Man is displacing Iain Duncan Smith’s Easterhouse conservatism as a focus of attention. So don’t be surprised next week if the Chancellor announces, say, cuts in fuel duty, more support for childcare, measures to help saving, or a rise in the personal allowance. James Frayne’s column for this site is concerned with exactly this kind of voter, and Number Ten will be able to find “five financial policies would secure particular support” from him here.
But this change of gear raises some serious questions. One of May’s most frequent riffs is the following passage: “if you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the Criminal Justice System than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home”. It’s a statement of the obvious to say that not all these disadvantaged black people, white working class boys, women and people with mental health problems are JAMs.
Indeed, very many of them will be among the poorest people in Britain. David Cameron, with his One Nation sensibility, shared Duncan Smith’s commitment to help improve their life chances. In his biggest speech on the subject, he set out a three part plan for progress, based on families and early years, better education, more opportunities, and improved treatment and support. Under May, this programme looked likely to wither on the vine. But ConservativeHome gathers that another One Nation politician is to tend the branches. Damian Green is to take work on life chances into the Work and Pensions department. This is where it best belongs. Michael Gove spent a lot of time ensuring that the Education department focused its energies on improving schools. The best place for social policy is the department that used to be called the department for social security.
None the less, Green will have his work cut out, perhaps sometimes literally. Take Cameron’s ideas for improved treatment and support for people with mental health problems. Nine recent health secretaries have banded together this morning to hold the Government to account for its promises: “despite the warm words, one year on we see the same enduring injustice, the massive economic cost and the distress suffered by countless families across the country,” they write. The signatories include Andrew Lansley, Stephen Dorrell and Ken Clarke. The Department of Health is in the lead here, rather than Work and Pensions. Or consider the former Prime Minister’s ideas for expanding opportunities by introducing children to the arts early, and improving the design of housing estates. It is the Culture Department and CLG that are responsible in turn for each.
Green may have the most chance to make an impact in devising policy on early years. Even so, not all the elements that make it up will be under his control. Childcare is not. Nor, even, are all benefits: that’s why George Osborne was able to cut child benefit for better-off people. Nor, notoriously, are tax credits. None the less, Green will have charge of Universal Credit system, which will largely replace them. It would be logical for the Work and Pensions Secretary to work to get more of the policy instruments that can help poorer people into his department. He will also want to improve prospects for early years, and could do worse than knock on the doors of the Centre for Social Justice, for which his predecessor and Graham Allen, the Labour MP, produced a report urging intervention “as early as possible in a child’s life to break the circle of disadvantage and underachievement”.
No tour of social policy would be complete with the M-word – marriage. A key policy instrument is at once pertinent to Green’s main programme and outside his control. When Osborne’s plan to reduce the tax credits bill failed, he pushed the savings forward in time – and on to Universal Credit. Duncan Smith, now our columnist, has written on this site that the planned reductions in its work allowances should be shelved and rises in the personal allowance should be delayed. He is right to argue that these increases help the poorer earners less than richer people. And a Conservative Government worth the name should seek a limit, in any event, to the number of people taken out of tax altogether. It is better to tax a lot of people a little than a few people a lot. It is doing the opposite that has led to a rise of over a million and a half people paying income tax at the upper band.
However, a personal allowance rise was pledged in the Conservative Manifesto. And while there has been a change of Prime Minister, that manifesto remains in place. Hammond is unlikely to want to renege on the promise, and Number Ten apparently wants it honoured in any event. However, both he and Green should have a look at CARE’s proposals to increase the value of transferable allowances. Cameron got them into the tax system. But George Osborne never cared for them – which is why only ten per cent of their value can be transferred from the non-working to the working spouse. By increasing the value of the allowance, as Nola Leach of CARE has written on this site, the Chancellor could at once both offset the effects of the Universal Credit reductions and support marriage in the tax system. This would do more for it than any amount of moralising.