The Centre for Social Justice, the thinktank set up by Iain Duncan Smith, published a poll yesterday to flag up a new project which could underpin future Conservative social policy. The headlines from yesterdays press release point to possible areas of policy focus, for example:
Family breakdown and the decline in the importance of marriage are cited by the public as key causes of the serious social problems facing Britain, according to a new opinion poll.
The survey found that 55 per cent of people – the equivalent of 25 million people across the land – say at least one of their local communities is plagued by broken families, crime and poor schools.
Some 60 per cent say that over the last few decades, marriage has become less important to society and that is having a damaging effect on the country.
And with 89 per cent agreement, the public identifies better parenting and stronger families as the key to mending the broken society.
We haven't seen that phrase 'broken society' for a while, I'm glad it still has some currency because it's still true, perhaps even more so in some places since the Coalition came to power. I also wonder why the CSJ needs to report again on families and parenting when it's already done so in a fairly meaty way, and only seen a few of its recommendations taken up.
Christian Guy, (his name, and who knows, perhaps a personal description too?) the head of CSJ, also flags up poverty as a key focus: we have brought together a genuine team of experts with frontline poverty-fighting experience to help us draw up a new social policy blueprint to tackle the challenges of the 21st century."
A longstanding CSJ theme has been, in line with Conservative (and Libdem) policy, that local/voluntary/community solutions are better than those delivered by the state. The government is starting to promote and support 'community franchise' approaches in key areas of social policy. Remember David Camerons 200,000 'problem families'? The money for that is going to local councils, who have to identify local providers who can deliver results. The local contract in South Somerset has gone to a church-based initiative, who are now fielding requests for information from other parts of the UK. Chris Graylings' ideas for mentoring recently released prisoners are based on the same model, and Sure Start is about to head the same way. At the same time organisations like the Cinnamon Network are promoting 'franchise' models of community engagement for churches - projects set up in 1 place, but which can be replicated in many settings without reinventing the wheel.
Update: this is all the more significant as a report today shows that one of these projects, using charities and businesses to get the long term unemployed back into work, has failed quite badly.
This is a bit of a brave new world - it's been a long time since we looked elsewhere than the state to 'sort things out'. It's an interesting model - comparisons to the US and Victorians are wide of the mark, provided the state remains in place as a guarantor of quality and resources, even if delivery is left up to the voluntary or private sector. Labour co-opted many charities as arms of the state, throwing funding around with gay abandon, thus making many voluntary groups just as state-dependent as the people they were trying to help. Ironically, the Conservatives are actually taking this further. I hope this is as far as they go: devolving funding and activity may work better, but lets hope this isn't a step towards the state withdrawing completely, leaving the voluntary sector with all the caseload and none of the funding or policy leadership.
I hope the CSJ are going to be truly radical, and challenge everything which brings poverty and family breakdown. 24 hour opening, deregulation of Sunday trading, increasing shift work and unsociable hours all limit the time which parents and families can spend together. Extending parental leave at the beginning of life is good, but that's then rather undermined if, once little Johnny/Joanna is 1, the parents never see each other, or their child, because they're both working daft hours and the kid is in childcare from 7.30am to 7pm every day (the opening hours of our local nursery). When asked to draw a picture of the most significant person in their life, how many 3 year olds will draw their childminder or key worker?
And why are the parents both out to work? Because the average house costs 9x the average wage, compared to the 3x it did back in 1990. Everyone who got in on the property bubble? We did that. Yes, the state could have held things back, built more houses, told the banks to be more responsible about mortgages. But there's no way out of this without substantial pain, and at the moment new buyers are getting most of it. If the CSJ can find a solution for this (and make sure that all new homes have space for a family to eat together round a table, rather than the TV) then they'll have done something really radical. If we're serious about family breakdown, then the economic and 'free market' factors have to be brought to heel: not everything that business wants is good for families. There is no such thing as a free market, someone always has to pay. Part of the governments job (and ours too) is to identify the vulnerable parties in that equation, and protect them.