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ResPublica & the 2017 Election Social Reform

ResPublica & the 2017 Election Social Reform

ResPublica’s Social Reform programme seeks to address the defining political issue of our time: the great divides of wealth and power across the nation. Despite the prominence of Brexit in the public debate at this election, this broader issue will also be an important factor for voters in weighing up which party they believe is best-placed to form the next Government. We here therefore evaluate the parties’ proposals on a range of issues which are of critical importance in achieving this vital goal.

 

Housing

The headline grabber is the new consensus on investment in public housebuilding. This is welcome – although housing was a big issue in 2015, since then housebuilding has continued to fail to address national shortages. The manifestos this time round signpost a post-Thatcherite agreement on the limits of the market and the role that public housebuilding must play if we are to close the housing gap.

The Conservatives want to invest in council and housing association housebuilding, with a promise to sell off the thousands of homes they will build to tenants over time, whilst dropping the party’s 2015 commitment to building discounted homes for first time buyers through the Starter Homes programme. This is small in scale but it strikes the same note as ResPublica’s proposal for a National Housing Fund. Labour’s plans are more ambitious – they want to build 100,000 council homes. Manifestos are necessarily light on policy detail so one thing to look out for will be how this new housebuilding drive is delivered.

There are a couple of gaps. Building social homes will help those on the lowest incomes but for ‘Generation Rent’ – the 49% of families who don’t own – there is still a need for good quality, affordable housing for rent. With that in mind, moves from all parties to commit to strengthening tenant rights and improving stability for those renting are to be welcomed. Second, while Labour want to continue Help to Buy support and the Conservatives will sell the social homes they build to tenants, the only party making an at-scale offer for those 49% to enter ownership is the Liberal Democrats, with their Rent to Own proposal.

See further analysis from here.

Inequality

There are two visions for addressing inequality. Labour’s manifesto is all about raising the tax take from the very wealthiest to fund public services for all. This is a progressive policy based on a big state approach. In contrast, the Conservatives focus is on social mobility – one of their five giant challenges. The Tory vision of a ‘Great Meritocracy’ signals the return of class in Conservative politics and a focus less on general welfare and more on addressing inequality of opportunity and social division. Instead of redistribution, the Tories are aiming to open up more routes into prosperity, hence pledges on retraining, homelessness and technical education.

But neither party is addressing head on the significant wealth inequalities that characterise modern Britain. Asset inequality has doubled since the 1980s, and while five percent of households are worth in excess of £1.2 million each, nine percent have no assets at all. What neither party is offering, and what we at ResPublica have long called for, is a way to grow asset ownership, particularly for the working class.

For more information on our work on inequality, please click here.

Culture

Each of the three main parties acknowledge the importance of the arts, culture and creativity to the social and economic fabric of the UK. ResPublica welcomes this approach, and urges the next government to honour such pledges by renewing Britain’s cultural institutions after several years of damaging cuts.

Both the Conservatives and Labour plan for significant investments in the sector. Labour proposes a £1 billion Cultural Capital Fund that will “transform the country’s cultural landscape” by increasing the viability of museums and galleries and upgrading Britain’s “creative infrastructure” to be ready for the digital age. Similarly, the Conservatives propose a Cultural Development Fund to invest in communities, although they do not provide a figure for this fund.

The Conservatives place a strong emphasis on cultural localism, and use policy language that echoes much of ResPublica’s thinking in this respect. They pledge greater support for the arts in the regions, working “with the nation’s most eminent museums and galleries to ensure their works and expertise are shared across the country”, announcing an “Exhibition of the North” in 2018, and specifically mentioning the importance of Welsh culture, industry and exports.

Both the Conservatives and Labour emphasise the vital role of the Creative Industries in Britain’s new Industrial Strategy. Labour proposes establishing “creative clusters” across the country, based on the same model as enterprise zones, an idea echoed by the Lib Dems in their call for Creative Enterprise Zones. The Tories propose a “Digital Charter” that will build on the Industrial Strategy to provide a model for early stage investment in digital businesses.

ResPublica welcomes these manifestos’ integrated approach to culture, communities and industry. However, more must be said about issues of access, inequality and cultural poverty. There needs to be a clear strategy to ensure that cultural hubs are open to people of all skills and backgrounds, and that they take account of place-based differences. Similarly, we call for a greater emphasis on the relationship between wellbeing, mental health and the cultural environment, highlighted by our recent work on beauty in public policy.

Mental health

Theresa May’s welcome focus on social inclusivity for sufferers of mental illness – described by her as a “burning injustice” – continues in the Conservative manifesto with employment support  and the promise of a new Mental Health Bill. Labour and the Lib Dems go further than the Conservatives in pledging new investment in mental health services however – though questions around how to ensure funding reaches the service frontline must be resolved for this money to achieve its full potential impact.

Worryingly, there is no mention of the vital question of early intervention on children’s mental wellbeing – though a pledge to promise a green paper on young people’s mental health before the end of the year is repeated. This theme is picked up in both the Liberal Democrat and Labour manifestos: the former looks to the respected Australian “headspace” model, while Labour have pledged counselling services in all secondary schools – an approach which has been very effective at reducing onward referral to specialist services in Wales. This theme will also be covered in our work with Barnardo’s referenced above.

Social care

All three parties have pledged new money for the NHS, yet all know this is at risk of being swallowed up by the continuing crisis in social care, as we showed in our 2016 report Care after Cure. The Conservatives’ pledge to raise the asset threshold for state-funded care to £100,000 including housing, but to include domiciliary as well as residential care as part of this, will mean homeowners paying more into the social care system, but also greater pressure on local authorities to fund residential care placements. Further investment will therefore be needed; means-testing the Winter Fuel Allowance as the Conservatives propose can go only so far towards this.

Labour‘s plans for a National Care Service meanwhile propose a range of innovative yet controversial funding options, including a wealth tax and an “employer care contribution”. The Liberal Democrats too have pledged a 1p universal rise in income tax to fund additional social care and health spending. A cross-party consensus has therefore emerged that the public will have to pay more to maintain social care services – the difference is that the Conservative plans fall most heavily on the users of those services whereas Labour and the Lib Dems are drawing from the broader taxpaying base.

See further analysis by Duncan Sim here.

Schools and education

All three parties have made extensive commitments to education, pledging to increase the overall schools budget in real terms over the course of the Parliament, ensuring a fairer pupil funding formula, and retaining the Pupil Premium. Labour will also introduce a new £160 million Arts Pupil Premium.

The Conservatives will scrap universal free school meals for infants and offer a free breakfast to all primary school pupils, while Labour and the Lib Dems plan to introduce free school meals for all children in primary education (paid for in Labour’s case by removing the VAT exemption on private school fees).

The Conservatives have made further commitments to create new free schools and new grammar schools (but see this article for our concerns about how this policy will operate in practice). Both Labour and Lib Dems oppose academic selection. The Conservatives will introduce a specialist maths school in every major city in England. Labour and the Lib Dems have pledged to strengthen the arts in the national curriculum.

The Conservatives have made extensive workforce development commitments – to allow Teaching Assistants to professionalise; to continue to offer bursaries and grant forgiveness to attract graduates into teaching; to attract PHDs and older professionals approaching retirement into the sector. These measures resonate with ResPublica’s recommendations in our Manifesto for the North. The Lib Dems will guarantee that all teachers in state-funded schools will be fully qualified.

Children and families

All parties identify the need for enhanced support and retraining to help more long-term carers (women in particular) of children or other relatives back into work – as has long been argued by our Director Phillip Blond.

Both the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos raise a key issue – the gap between the end of parental paid leave and the start of formal education and childcare entitlements – and propose extending those entitlements and/or paid leave to rectify this. These two parties focus on also raising the quality of early years teaching, yet in the face of nurseries already declining to offer the Government’s existing 30 hours commitment, questions will be raised about the feasibility of diverting sufficient resources into the early years sector.

Only Labour’s manifesto mentions Sure Start children’s centres, which are known to be popular among parents in providing vital early years services. Labour’s promise to reverse the cuts and closures seen in recent years will likely be welcomed by many families but this must not impede consideration of potentially worthwhile adaptations, for example integrating broader support services for families with older children. Look out for our forthcoming report with Barnardo’s which will examine this issue in more detail.

Lifelong learning

All three parties have rightly identified ‘Lifelong Learning’ as a priority in their manifestos. The Lib Dems will develop national centres of excellence in the further education sector and expand higher vocational training. They will also reintroduce individual funding accounts for mature adult and part-time learning and training, similar to the retraining fund we advocated in our Manifesto for the North. The Conservatives will introduce a new right to request leave for training for all employees and a ‘national retraining scheme’.

Labour’s manifesto contains perhaps the most interesting proposals. They would set up a commission on Lifelong Learning tasked with integrating further and higher education and create a unified National Education Service for England to incorporate all forms of education, from early years through to adult education – we welcome this whole-pathway approach, similar to the thinking behind the Government’s Opportunity Areas. They will also introduce free, lifelong education in Further Education colleges, and restore the Education Maintenance Allowance for 16 to 18-year-olds from lower and middle income backgrounds.

Higher Education

Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems will establish a review of higher education funding. The Lib Dems will reinstate maintenance grants for the poorest students but Labour, with what is their most significant policy on higher education, will reintroduce maintenance grants for university students, and abolish university tuition fees.  The Lib Dems propose to establish a new online Family University, while the Conservatives will create prestigious new institutes of technology, another idea featured in ResPublica’s Manifesto for the North.

Brexit, Global Britain and Foreign Policy

Each of the three main parties outline their vision for Brexit: the Conservatives pledge to “deliver” it, Labour to “accept” it, while the Lib Dems propose a second referendum on the terms of negotiation, with the option for Britain to remain part of the EU.

Following Brexit, both the Conservatives and Labour refer to the opportunities of “Global Britain”. For the Conservatives, this requires maintaining relationships with the EU, but also strengthening ties to the Commonwealth and building new economic and security partnerships. The Tories outline three pillars of Global Britain: aid, leadership in international institutions, and a global champion of free trade.

On aid, all three parties pledge to maintain Britain’s 0.7% spending of Gross National Income on international assistance, with Labour emphasising the importance of focusing on the “Global South”. However, the Tories raise the option of redefining how that aid is allocated – an idea that reflects ResPublica’s recent work on ways to make soft power spending and Official Development Assistance “smarter”.

The Conservatives are the only party to use the language of “soft power” in their manifesto. With the Lib Dems, they pledge to support the work of the BBC and the British Council, and to advance the values of freedom and democracy around the world. But they are more explicit than the other parties in their language, stating that “we have the greatest soft power of any nation” and describing Global Britain as a champion of British culture and values.

ResPublica welcomes this renewed focus on soft power and the role of institutions as vehicles of Global Britain abroad. However, we believe that not enough is said in the manifestos about universities in this respect. The Conservatives discuss universities as partners of civil society in communities in the UK, but overlook their potential abroad. More needs to be said about the central role of education and research in promoting Global Britain. Each of the parties acknowledges the importance of international students in the UK, but only Labour point to the importance of outward mobility, pledging to maintain the opportunities for British students in the Erasmus scheme following Brexit. Worryingly, the Conservatives state that international student numbers will remain part of Britain’s immigration figures – a pledge that is not shared by Labour.

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