Iain Duncan Smith is a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, founded the Centre for Social Justice, and is MP for Chingford and Woodford Green.
This week, ConservativeHome will feature articles from the Centre for Social Justice on how we address some of our biggest social issues as we rebuild from the pandemic.
These articles will set out a longer term approach to issues such as worklessness, preventing debt pushing people further into poverty, tackling the rise in domestic abuse, and the role of family in education and tackling our worsening mental health crisis.
Alongside longer-term thinking, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) has put together proposals which could help the Government avoid going into the Christmas holidays with the same fractious debate that it has faced over proposals to extend the provision of Free School Meals during this half term break.
Too often, our discussions about serious social issues become politicised and simplistic. This is a good example of a debate that has become simplistic. The real issue is not should we or should we not, it is how best to deliver the support.
CSJ proposals set out a plan to work with the Department for Work & Pensions, whose existing data can identify families in most need, to provide extended support for the Christmas holiday.
This support should work with civil society and through local authorities with a clear remit to address unmet need. Furthermore – and this is where the simplistic call for Free School Meal vouchers goes wrong – professional nutritional guidance should be given to councils, with a clear obligation to pass on such guidance to parents in need. Councils should then work with local community groups to support families.
No government, Labour or Conservative, has ever proposed extending free school meals outside of term time, and for for good reason. The provision of free school meals during term-term is to cover the costs of the nutritious meals provided by schools.
It works, because we know that children in school will receive a healthy hot meal. The issue is different when the child is not in school, and so we look to families. It is important to find a way of ensuring the same standard is met as if they were in school.
The Government has made more money available than any before in these challenging times. More than £380 million has been provided and spent on food vouchers alongside an uplift in Universal Credit. This is significant support – obscured by a bad tempered debate.
In the longer term, a poverty strategy is needed. It was a mistake by Theresa May’s government to abandon the language of social justice. The Prime Minister should announce that he is pulling together Cabinet colleagues to address poverty with a comprehensive plan.
This starts with forgetting poverty lines. As soon as you focus on a line, wherever it is drawn, the preoccupation of ministers will be on lifting people just above that line – rather than asking what the root causes of that poverty are, and how they might escape poverty for good.
Instead, we need to revisit the framework of measurements we established at the Department for Work and Pensions after the 2010 general election.
These measurements focused government on outcomes, ensuring we looked at the wider reasons why children weren’t properly fed. Such problems as family breakdown and dysfunction, addiction, worklessness, debt and failed education are the root causes of poverty; dealing with these will help children growing up in poor households escape poverty in adulthood.
These outcomes-focused measures were put together to give governments the right targets to tackle poverty. They should be updated and re-instated, as the focus of a long-term Government poverty strategy.
To deliver this plan, the Prime Minster needs to put his authority behind it by re-establishing a Social Justice Cabinet committee. I led such a committee in government, and it gave me permission to focus Cabinet colleagues in every department on moving the metrics set out in our social justice framework. Unusually for a Cabinet Committee, it published periodic reports on the areas of work we covered, and the results.
Now that Universal Credit (UC) is rolled out and working well, despite the enormous increase in demand, it is time to complete the original task that I and David Freud envisaged for it.
So we should now roll out Universal Support alongside UC which, once done, will give government the targeted delivery mechanism with which to intervene in a more compassionate and productive way.
In essence, Universal Support, using the data from UC, puts a key worker at the centre of a series of support mechanisms to provide bespoke help. This is delivered locally working through local authorities partnering with charities to provide this support. It aims to help change lives for the better, allowing them to eventually take control of their lives as far as they are able to.
Levelling up isn’t just about infrastructure projects, from broadband to big cities: it is about people. People trapped in a cycle of despair, far too often determined to rise above their problems but lacking the constructive support to help get themselves out. I believe it is our task to ensure that levelling up leaves no one behind.