David Burrowes is MP for Enfield Southgate, and convenes the Compassionate Conservatives Caucus.
As Conservatives move on from celebrations in Scotland or commiserations in London, we need to keep banging on about social justice. Over 150 MPs have joined the Compassionate Conservatives Caucus which I helped to establish in February. Last month’s disability cuts and the fallout from Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation have sparked further interest in social justice. And the emerging consensus is that social justice needs to be the Party’s uniting mission after the EU Referendum.
The Prime Minister has set out the mission in his excellent “all out assault on poverty” Party Conference speech last October, which he followed up in his January speech this year on life chances. However, despite our record in tackling social injustice, good speeches will not bridge our credibility gap. We need to walk alongside, understand and respond to the complex challenges of poverty. We can draw upon the expertise of the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) Alliance in providing a voice and making a difference for those who have experienced disadvantage first-hand.
The Life Chances Strategy and measures to implement will need to be embedded across Government, and will need to track all the common and often connected pathways of poverty – family breakdown, educational failure, worklessness, addiction and serious personal debt. Adopting that old Heineken advert, it needs to reach parts of government and society that other strategies cannot reach.
At least we do not have to start this social justice mission now, in David Cameron’s second term as Prime Minister. For example, the Troubled Families Programme, which is being extended to 900,000 families, has joined-up poverty-fighting services at a local level. It has encouraged more children back to school and adults back to work, and helped to reduce youth crime and anti-social behaviour.
Conservatives tackle social justice and the causes of social justice because, unlike Labour, we recognise that families are. in the words of the Prime Minister, “the best anti-poverty measure ever invented”. Improving the life chances of children will improve the life chances of the next generation of adults. A continued and enhanced commitment to relationship and parenting support from the time of pregnancy through the early years, as set out in the 1001 Critical Days Report, is foundational and crucial to our social justice mission. My family policy shopping list set out on this site earlier in the year still has much to put into the Life Chances Strategy trolley.
I am a strong advocate of a family test which has yet to be fully used across government and routinely published alongside policies and legislation. However, I don’t want the social justice focus to be a bureaucratic test but a human one – call it the Lucy Test.
Lucy was sexually abused as a child and placed in local authority care. Such trauma led to depression and educational failure. Lucy then shoplifted to pay for her growing drug habit. A short spell in prison followed and she lost touch with her grandmother – her remaining relative. Lucy was found by the Lankelly Chase Foundation to be one of 58,000 people each year who have contact with homelessness and substance misuse and criminal justice systems. That’s 58,000 people with multiple and complex needs trapped in a cycle of social injustice. They are the hardest to reach: socially excluded and already estranged from family and other social networks. The Life Chances Strategy must shine a light into the deep often hidden recesses of poverty. It will be worth it, and not just for the value of transforming lives. It will reduce the current estimated £2 billion per year bill of social failure for adults like Lucy with complex needs.
Lucy also offers a way forward, because her life story did not end in the cycle of entrenched poverty. She was referred to a scheme jointly commissioned by the local council, probation service and the NHS, and benefited from a named worker, Jane, who acted as an advocate and mentor. Lucy is now back in contact with her grandmother, out of touch with the police and on the road to recovery. These vulnerable and costly individuals have been put in the ‘too difficult’ pile by successive governments for too long. Now is the time to put that right.
In 2016, how long shall we tolerate the social justice scandal that rough sleepers will only reach the age of 47? This is an average figure – some will not be so fortunate, and will die even earlier. It is often because of drugs and alcohol abuse. For too long, the state has consigned drug and alcohol addicts to a life which is ‘chronic and relapsing’ without the hope of real recovery. The state has been satisfied with individuals completing treatment, but not being abstinent from drugs and alcohol.
The great thing about having social justice as our defining mission is that it is not only right but it is popular as well. It is not a coincidence that Ruth Davidson is leading our political recovery in Scotland. Ruth helped to launch the Compassionate Conservatives Caucus in February, and shows how we can reach the electorate’s head and heart as a One-Nation’Party again in Scotland and even in London. It would be great to campaign in the 2020 General Election on the back of a mantra which is not just a long term economic plan but a long term social justice plan.