To solve a problem one must first understand it – or at least, if one is attempting to tackle it with others, agree what it is. So with housing, for example, there is a growing consensus that young people can’t afford to buy homes because too few are being built. With social care, there is agreement that there is rising demand for it, that the present arrangements don’t work, and that reform is needed. With student finance, there is no evidence that tuition fees are deterring young people from going to university – including disadvantaged young people – but the system is clearly one of the reasons why some of them don’t vote Conservative. These are different sorts of problems. All of them are difficult to address, as Theresa May has found with social care. But at least it is clear what they are. ConservativeHome will return to each of them next week.
However, the Prime Minister is now in danger of staking her reputation on finding a solution to a phenomenon about which there is no agreement on either its cause or remedy – namely, the disparities in outcomes between different ethnic groups. The quest is inextricably linked to her present predicament.
There is a belief in Downing Street that the new Government must not be “defined by Brexit”. We suspect that to seek to do otherwise is to attempt the impossible, but Number Ten’s wish is understandable. Just as artists want to paint with more than one colour, so Ministers want to govern with more than one policy. And the election result has damaged Theresa May’s brand. Political and administrative need have thus come together, in the minds of her team, and taken them back to her original purpose. When she first stood outside Downing Street as Prime Minister, May complained of “burning injustices”. All of those she named have complex causes. Two of them concerned ethnicity – “if you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white,” she said. “If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.” Hence the commissioning last summer of a government audit to tackle racial disparities in public service outcomes.
Obviously, it is part of the work of social justice to seek more equality of opportunity – although until nurture and nature are evenly distributed, which they never will be, this will always be a work in progress. And sometimes, a report from politicians can point towards incremental solutions to knotty problems. A classic example is the report by the Fair Access to University Group, under the Coalition Government, which produced detailed proposals to widen and broaden entry. The group stressed “the provision of information which allows students to make informed choices before A-level subjects”. In other words, they wanted Government to tackle what George W.Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations”, which in this case results in disadvantaged school pupils not applying.
Sometimes, too, a report can demonstrate why fools, or at least politicians, can rush in where angels fear to tread. Earlier this week, this site cross-posted with Policy Exchange a detailed assessment by David Goodhart and Richard Norrie of the Lammy Review on the treatment of and outcomes for ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system. The cornerstone of their findings is that Lammy assumed “that any departure from proportional minority representation…must be overwhelmingly the result of discrimination by the majority society. But the evidence for this is weak.” They went to say that statistics which he cites actually “demonstrate that some non-white ethnic minority groups are over-represented, and some under-represented, relative to whites throughout the system”. So, to dig into the detail for a counter-intuitive example, “white people have the highest conviction rate for all indictable offences at 82 per cent (compared to 77 per cent for black people and 74 per cent for Asians)”.
Today, Munira Mirza, a former deputy mayor to Boris Johnson, takes the same tack. Writing in the Spectator, she concludes that “the detail of Lammy’s report concedes that there are many reasons outside the criminal justice system for the ethnic disparities it describes. Black children are more likely to grow up in a single-parent family, black and mixed ethnic boys are more likely to be permanently excluded from school, and BAME groups have a much higher incidence of mental illness. All of these are linked to higher rates of offending”. The point about the Lammy Review is that it wasn’t a freelance effort by a single politician. It was commissioned by the Government and published on its official website.
It isn’t hard to see where all this may lead. There is already evidence that Downing Street is beginning to grasp that it may have bitten off more than it can chew. During the summer, it was reported that the publication of the audit has been delayed: there is a sense that Ministers, and the Number Ten machine, have been overwhelmed by the sheer amount of evidence, and conclusions that could be drawn from it, that the very act of commissioning the audit made inevitable. But it is possible that the sense of expectation that has been aroused, plus political and administrative momentum, may propel the Prime Minister into a controversy that she can neither solve nor control. Mirza is tough on Team May, suggesting that “her political advisers fondly imagine the audit will somehow improve the Conservative party’s relationship with BAME communities…a panoply of anti-racism lobby groups is excited at the prospect of a new Macpherson or Scarman moment that will pave the way for fresh laws and more public funding for them”.
It is worth remembering that the audit was commissioned pre-election, when Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill were the Prime Minister’s co-Chiefs of Staff, and before Gavin Barwell and the present team took over. So there can be no doubt that May is seeking to solve problems about which she feels deeply. But that does not make what Mirza wrote untrue.
Barwell has an interest in the politics of ethnicity drawn from his own experience as an MP in the marginal and diverse constituency of Croydon Central. And the political need to get back to the spirit of the Prime Minister’s early days in office, thus helping to revinvent her, is deeply felt among the team who now run Number Ten – Barwell, Damian Green, Gavin Williamson, Robbie Gibb, and others. The danger is that expectations have been roused that will be impossible to fulfill. The Prime Minister could be embarked not on a popular quest across easy terrain – criticised only by reactionaries from whom she wants the Tories to distance themselves – but on an unthought-through venture into a bewildering forest, in which all sense of the wood is lost amidst the statistical trees. As Goodhart and Norrie wrote, “recommendations risk being ineffective, even counterproductive, while the narrative and media coverage of the reports will reinforce the very minority disaffection that they are seeking to allay”.
Lobbies demanding more money, laws and patronage. Jeremy Corbyn on May’s back, seeking to do to her over any proposals what he has sought to do to her over the Grenfell horror. Conservative MPs troubled, as the case made by Goodhart, Norrie and Mirza begins to sink home. And most importantly, policy that set social justice back rather than take it forward. Is this really the relaunch that Number Ten wants?