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Coffee House

The riots, Whitehall and universality

24 August 2011

11:30 AM

24 August 2011

11:30 AM

Away from the excitement of Libya and Colonel Gaddafi’s singular definition
of ‘tactical retreat’, the post-riots debate continues. The government has announced that unemployed offenders will have to work a minimum 28 hours in their
communities for four days per week and spend a fifth day looking for a job. This is part of the plan to bolster the Community Payback Scheme, signalled by Nick Clegg last week. Crispin Blunt, the prisons minister, has described the riots as a “one-off” and said it was vital that community sentences were sufficiently firm and constructive to “break the cycle of crime and encourage a
law-abiding life.” Tim Montgomerie argues that the Tories are trying to reassert
their credentials on law and order. Community sentences needed to be stiffened in order to placate public disquiet over relaxed sentences, but today’s moves also suggest that the government is
unlikely to alter the criminal justice reforms fundamentally.

Elsewhere, Matt Cavanagh, a former Labour advisor, has an important blog
on what Cameron can learn from the previous government’s experience. Last Sunday, Tony Blair wrote that he recognised the specific social ills in Britain’s inner cities could only be solved by targeted initiatives because a general policy response was inadequate. Cavanagh examines the
Family Intervention Project and the Family Nurse Partnerships, introduced by Blair and extended by Brown. He writes:

‘These programmes share a number of characteristics which contrast with mainstream public services. They are usually targeted, rather than universal; they are designed around engagement
over months or years, rather than one-off encounters, and around engagement with the family as a unit rather than the individual; they are insistent and assertive, rather than waiting for people
to come and access services themselves; and they cut across institutional boundaries, usually with a single person taking responsibility for ensuring that different agencies are working together
to help deal with the problem, or at the very least that they are aware of what each other is doing and not working against each other.’

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Targeted and incentivised initiatives, Cavanagh says, cut across the state’s isolated public services, which are run from "departmental silos" in Whitehall. But this means they
receive little administrative assistance because no government department takes responsibility for them; therefore, they require immense political support to succeed. Cavanagh worries
that the coalition has given these programmes scant thought until now. In its determination to cut spending quickly, the government appears to have subsumed these stand-alone
projects into more general policies like the Work Programme, with the result being that worthwhile schemes are lost in the broader administrative morass.

There is a constructive debate emerging between left and right on this topic. The right’s well-rehearsed arguments concern the efficiency of public services: for instance, the DWP’s
Work Programme is a near-universal scheme, but it is sufficiently tailored by external expertise
and incentives to provide help exactly where it is needed at an affordable price, or so the argument goes. The left’s position on public sector efficiency is more nascent,
but it can be reduced to the cautionary saying: “You’ll get nowhere if you cut away the good with the bad.” My colleague Martin Bright’s reservations about the Work Programme are a case in point: if this "cure-all for Britain’s ills"
doesn’t deliver on youth unemployment, it will simply have removed the few specific supports for the young in exchange for a few shekels now and huge welfare bills in the future, or so the
argument goes.

Cavanagh’s observations add another dimension to the discussion: Whitehall’s modus operandi is governed by the principle of universality, harking back to the high tide of the
welfare state, (an observation made by reformers in the current government also). A top down approach led by the DWP or the DoH has a limited chance of contending with those
problems that do not fit into one Whitehall in-tray. Cavanagh concedes that the last Labour government adopted this precise approach and “must recognise” that it
“brought far less improvement in the kind of complex and intractable problems” that have long-afflicted some of Britain’s communities. He concludes that the party must accept that
public services needn’t be universal in their application. Plenty of Conservatives and bureaucrats would baulk at such radicalism.

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