Saturday, 31 January 2009

Cameron Reshuffle

In all the talk of financial meltdown & the need for ‘big-hitters’ on the front bench announced with such fanfare this week, the Conservatives seem to have lost sight of one of the most important analyses of Cameron’s leadership: our broken society. As George Bridges commented in Prepare for a Conservative revolution in Monday’s Telegraph:

“Before the economic crisis struck, the Tories had forensically analysed what Cameron called ‘broken Britain’, shining a light into the Dickensian corners of communities blighted by family breakdown, unemployment, crime, (and) drugs. Radical policies were spelt out to break the dependency culture, allow the private sector to provide public services, and mobilise charities to tackle deep-rooted social problems. the Conservatives need to join up the dots of their policies and spell out clearly what their chant of ‘change, hope and optimism’ means.”

It is a policy area the Conservatives ignore at their peril, permeating so many of the social and economic problems that need to be addressed in order to be able to say ‘yes we can’. It also fundamentally differentiates, and in so doing, clearly responds to Gordon Brown’s accusations of a ‘do-nothing’ opposition, when the ‘done-nothing’ government has - for eleven long years - consistently failed to address the problem.

The real ‘big-hitter’ Mr Cameron should have announced on Monday was Iain Duncan Smith, former party leader and currently performing an extraordinary job as Chairman of the Centre for Social Justice. But I am not talking here of just one man, able as he may be. What is needed is a new joined-up department responsible for social affairs right across government. A department committed to mending our broken society.

At its heart of course is employment. Fundamental not only to earning a living, but essential to people’s sense of worth, structure and purpose. Work enables us to integrate usefully into society, acquire skills and knowledge from society, and do so in a way that fulfils the basic human needs of belonging, companionship and wellbeing.

The Conservatives are already clear that the blight of welfare dependency must be consigned to history. But to do so will involve not only the support of those to be helped, but the construct of a comprehensive and solid network of support and direction covering all facets of family life. Enable families to cope with and over-come dysfunctionality and the delivery of hope - and jobs - will follow.

Network, because an over centralised top-down command structure may be great at delivering just that – structures and processes. We need to mend people. Real people. With all the insecurities and fragile baggage that comes with them. Unless you’re lucky enough to fit the template which remote – and no doubt well meaning - civil servants had in mind when the scheme was devised, the clunking fist of central bureaucracy usually frustrates. Inefficient and uncaring, it delivers too little at too great a cost. Those of us who work in the third sector have long argued for government as an enabler of social policy. Government must provide the essential role in direction, co-ordination and funding. Delivery however, has a human quality. It is usually better provided by those who personally commit their lives - and livelihoods - to the satisfaction of successful outcomes. We can argue about lateral issues – geographical coverage - and the vertical depth of voluntary and private sector provision in these areas. But that’s just a game of numbers. A credible mix of public and private provision will need to be found.

If employment & welfare policies provide the direction of this new department, then housing, social services, community health provision, employment-directed training and social integration provide the building blocks. Without addressing the causes as well as the outcomes of family breakdown – unemployment, criminality, drugs, alcohol abuse - we cannot expect people to respond and commit themselves to a civilised and progressive society. All of these areas should, to some degree, be integrated within a social affairs department if we are to realistically address our broken society.

Social problems are always messy and chaotic. They require multiple layers of supporting institutions. Not least because the causes are so diverse. The debate we need is whether the probation service should be included within this department to better shape the re-integration of those missing males back into family life? Why isn’t CAFCAS - once staffed by fully independent guardians - now providing proper protection for children against increasingly defensive social workers? Where are the local apprenticeships turning NEET’S into tomorrow’s independent tradesmen? How can we expand and widen Sure Start centres into family service hubs? And how can we make social housing provision more flexible, with support for aspiration and financial independence?

If Mr Cameron is serious about change, hope and optimism, the message needs to be heard. The commitment made. We understand the need for experienced, avuncular ‘big hitters’ on the front bench. But mending our broken society is not just about supporting marriage through the tax system or re-iterating the mantra ‘family-centred policies at the heart of government’. It’s about appointing the biggest beast in the field – Iain Duncan Smith – with a real commitment to hard work in tough areas. But without which, a further generation will be lost to the poverty and indignity of our broken society.