Social Reform priorities for the new Government

Social Reform priorities for the new Government

If the past 12 months have shown us anything, it is that we can no longer go on as we have before. The country is divided, and on many complex levels: Brexiteers are pitted against Remainers, job security against zero contract hours, communities against immigrants, the young against the old.

At the heart of these divisions are the failings of the Parliament of Austerity. There is widespread anger, a sense for many that the vulnerable have been abandoned, localities fragmented and public services hollowed out. There is disbelief that the 2020 target to reduce the national deficit – the very justification for austerity – has been pushed back indefinitely. And there is a sense of unfairness that large corporates have avoided tax and are seemingly favoured by politicians, while ordinary people continue to struggle.

These problems have been building up. There is a feeling among many of our communities that they have been cut off from both the hopes for their livelihoods and the prosperity of their country. Inequalities of health, ownership and education define the daily lives of many British people, while prospects for social mobility vary depending on postcodes and the gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen.

The economic rationale for austerity has not only been shown to be flawed, but has also been shown to have acted as a causal factor in many of our country’s social divisions. It is an absurdity to talk of reducing national debt while personal debt skyrockets. It is damaging to talk of financial constraint while productivity and investment suffers in a climate of uncertainty.

Something must be done. At the beginning of 2017, the Prime Minister set out a vision of a “shared society”, founded on “the bonds of family, community, citizenship and strong institutions”. We shared this ambition for a civic-driven and inclusive politics. But we also believe that these words need to be backed up with actions. More must be done to narrow the gaps between the haves and have-nots – and not just in terms of individuals, but also between different parts of the UK. There needs to be a relentless focus on the social divides affecting our country.

We believe that public policy must be directed towards creating a strong, vibrant civil society that ensures no community feels left behind. We must move beyond the narrative that reduces people and their communities to mere units of the economy. There must be a better sense of the things that bring us together, the structures that support us, the resources that we have at our disposal and the powers that we have to use them.

In other words, there is a need to define the role of the state. The state has a purpose – but the nature of its role, in what shape and at what level, is something that all political parties must now get to grips with if they are to overcome the social divisions of our country. This will require a renewed sense of welfare, asset ownership and legitimacy. It will require both politicians and the people to come together.

The following outlines a list of social reform priorities for the new government. In it, we look at many of the challenges facing our country, we assess the legacy of austerity, and we ask what kind of institutions we need to overcome the things that divide us. At the heart of these policy priorities is a message of deepened devolution – a belief that the best architects of political life are citizens themselves, and that the state is at its best when it is an expression of us all.

1.      Putting social reform at the heart of the next parliament

This is a time of great political uncertainty, and the country needs stability. It is essential that Government continues its vision of social reform into the next parliament, particularly in respect to home ownership, education and mental health.

For too long, intervention in these areas has been piecemeal and subject to party politics. This has been damaging. Social reform needs to be seen beyond the fortunes of elections, and Government should commit to a long-term agenda if our country is to tackle the systemic and generational divides in our society.

We believe that social reform should be forged around the three key elements of localism: home, community and culture. Meaningful social reform can only succeed if it is achieved through a place-based politics that promotes widened  asset ownership, civic identity and local diversity. Crucially, Government must support this with a greater drive towards devolution, in all parts of the country, enabling local communities to take charge of the powers and resources they need to transform their lives.

2.      End the blight of inequality

One of the defining issues of Britain today is inequality – the great divide of wealth and power in our communities.

Too often, policies aimed at overcoming this divide have got the problem of inequality the wrong way round. Little has been done to offer solutions to its non-financial and future drivers. As income redistribution has been pursued, the widening asset gap between the haves and have-nots has doubled.

We argue that a deeper understanding of the problem is lacking, and must be developed if an equal society is to be realised in the long-term. Government must be relentless in its pursuit of an inequality strategy, basing it around a vision of both place and possession, and looking at a global picture of communities “left behind” as well as individuals “just about managing”.

This strategy will depend on two things. First, there needs to be a greater sense of political consensus in tackling the problem. Second, there is a need for greater access to and knowledge of place-based inequality data. Compared to other countries, Britain lacks this kind of information. Without it, the global picture cannot be properly understood. For this reason, we believe that Government needs to expand present efforts towards an “Inequality Audit” – an audit that essentially deals with questions of ethnicity – into a large-scale programme, breaking down the silos of race, religion, gender, class and income, and systematically mapping the divides of wealth and power across the whole country.

3.      Build public services from the bottom up

A successful social reform strategy will need to address the multiple challenges which our public services face. This will require an approach that can simultaneously tackle the systemic problems of complex dependency, get upstream of problems to intervene at an earlier stage and prevent further demand down the line, and integrate services at an appropriate scale to meet the many different and bespoke needs of individuals and communities.

We believe that the solution is a devolution of public services to localities. To date the emphasis has been on the productive capacity of metro-cities. We believe that it is necessary to go further, to align growth and public service reform, because social inequalities are both a consequence of and a barrier to economic growth. We maintain that a stalled devolution process must be revived and extended to all cities, towns and counties that can demonstrate the commitment to working collaboratively with partners across agreed boundaries and geographies.

A place-based system of public service delivery requires localities to consent to new forms of governance and accountability. To this end, we propose that a single strategic authority should be established in localities, such as two-tier counties, or under-bounded cities, where the option of a combined authority and elected mayors have proven too difficult to agree. This should form the basis for a new devolved model – one that can help shape public services from the “bottom up”, and harness local communities to deliver the best outcomes to people and their places.

4.      Reaffirm our civic identity

The debate over Brexit has damaged the cohesion of British society. Ugly divisions between “leavers” and “remainers” have emerged; mutual suspicion has grown; frustration has boiled over into populism. This has been compounded by further divisions over Scottish independence and the Union. At the heart of both these debates are questions over British identity: of our sovereignty, our laws, our values and our culture – and how we can now come together and express ourselves as a nation.

As the new Government negotiates the triggering of Article 50 and a changing relationship between Britain, Europe and the world, it is essential that the question of cohesion and identity is at the forefront of public policy. The country needs to be brought together and to feel part of its own political destiny. We believe that there is a need for a constitutional reform that renews an idea of British values for the 21st century.

The proposed British Bill of Rights could and should have served this function. By postponing this Bill until after Brexit, there is a concern that Government will not fully integrate the civic into its legal negotiations with the EU. Furthermore, there remains a need to reform elements of our electoral process at home – a process from which many people feel alienated. We have long argued for a more associative and participatory model of democracy, and believe that reform to the House of Lords is needed to represent a greater diversity of vocations, cities and regions.

Similarly, we believe that the question of civil society is important enough to warrant political and party consensus. Such consensus already exists for questions of national security. The same should be the case for resolving Brexit, constitutional reform, and the divisions within our communities. We argue that, along with certain institutional reforms, Government should consider the idea of a “Civic Commission” that brings these voices together.

5.      Invest in early, proactive support for our nation’s children

The UK’s poorest children are more likely to start school without key social and emotional skills, such as communicating easily with adults. Evidence tells us that children’s abilities when they start school are closely linked to the outcomes they achieve at later Key Stages. While there are individual boroughs in more deprived areas with positive early years outcomes, in general children from disadvantaged backgrounds are being set up to achieve less than their better-off peers from the earliest ages.

Changing this will require both raising the status of work in the early years sector (and the caring profession more generally) to help move towards a more highly-skilled workforce, and increasing economically disadvantaged families’ engagement with formal childcare.

Government should fund universal, free childcare for all children aged 1-5, moving away from the imbalances of England’s demand-led system. To encourage take-up of this service across all demographics, childcare and early education services should be linked to entitlement to support in finding employment, retraining, and parental leave top-ups. It should also close the disparity in bursary funding between early years educators and school teachers, recognising that the care of children is a valuable profession.

The same principle of early intervention should also inform the approach to children’s wellbeing more broadly, in particular the crisis in young people’s mental health. This approach should form the core of the Government’s forthcoming green paper on this issue.

6.      A new offer for school leavers

The raising of the school leaving age to 18 has yet to be recognised in the options available to our young people as they transition out of school-based education. In particular, the system is not well-adapted to the needs of students wishing to pursue a vocational rather than academic route into employment, and there continues to be a stigma attached to such paths. This transition is also the right time to help young people consider the implications of their taking on adult citizenship, in line with our concern for civic identity expressed above.

We recommend that GCSEs are brought forward by six months to enable the creation of a post-examination programme, to be undertaken by all young people. This programme would combine the National Citizen Service programme’s focus on “discovery” and “social action” with a period of work experience in a professional setting relating to their intended post-GCSE study. This would also build life skills, develop work ready experience and enable young people from different communities and backgrounds to mix.

In turn, post-16 study should be reformed to recognise the need for different learning pathways for children – including academic, vocational, technical, and creative. This necessitates curriculum reform combining a focus on “traditional” subjects with skills more closely adapted to the modern labour market such as languages, business management and coding, as well as more technical courses, together with the creation of different institutions such as European-style technical universities.

This should be accompanied by improved careers advice, and deepened links between schools, universities, and business, in order to further assist students, especially those pursuing vocational options. Looking beyond institutional education, this thinking should be expanded into a lifelong learning offer encompassing greater emphasis on training and development across the UK workforce as well as adult education.

7.      A national conversation about social care

The Government plans to release a green paper on adult social care later this year, in response to the long-standing capacity and financial crises faced by the sector. As a society, we risk passing an ever-greater burden of care onto relatives, and seeing care costs overwhelm an increasing number of families, if this situation is not resolved.

The Conservative General Election campaign promised to cap individuals’ care costs; yet this proposal represents an uneasy truce between intergenerational fairness (asking the elderly to pay more for what is predominantly an older person’s service) and the principle of social insurance (the acknowledgement that care needs are largely beyond the individual’s control). If plans for such a cap are taken forward, the amount in question should be adjusted for asset wealth on an individual basis, so that pensioners with fewer assets at the time of their retirement see a lower cap than those with assets of greater total value.

In the long-run, we believe the solution advocated by the 2014 Barker Commission, for a singly commissioned ring-fenced budget for health and social care, remains the correct one. As part of the ongoing NHS Sustainability and Transformation Process, it is therefore crucial that Government sets out plans to end the long-standing divide in the UK between health and social care. But it should also consider how to begin a national conversation on the changing needs of our aging population, an urgent discussion which for too long has been ducked by successive Governments.

8.      Finally build the homes that Britain needs

Affordable, secure, and comfortable homes should be the foundational blocks of our communities, and yet we have an increasing deficit in housing supply, caused by decades of undersupply. With private rents at record highs and home ownership at a record low, this has become a crisis that is beginning to define a generation.

A shortage of suitable, affordable homes where they are needed makes it harder to find meaningful employment, have a happy and lasting relationship, raise children and have a secure retirement. In depriving a generation of the hope of owning their own home, this crisis has contributed to the great divides that are diminishing community life in our cities, towns and villages.

We have called for a National Housing Fund to be established, with the remit to finally build the homes the nation needs, generating a returnable £10 billion annual investment that could deliver over 40,000 new houses for families around the country. This Fund would drive wider economic benefit through skills, innovation and industry, and would embed growth in local communities. We also believe that Government must look at complementary solutions to unlock new housing. In particular, there is a need for community-led housing solutions, including build-to-rent that provides a much better tenant offer with mutual ownership models, that make best use of public land and the potential of institutional investment to deliver the homes we need. We believe new developments from garden cities to estate regeneration should seek to develop co-operative communities, that actively promote more mutual models with people having a stake in housing, public spaces, community organisations, services and employment. Housing and planning policy must also be tasked with creating places not just housing units. Alongside establishing metrics around quality of place this new direction would support place-making and a good built environment, quality of community life, child-friendly cities, and creating communities in which all people can flourish.

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