Fifteen years ago this month New Labour heralded their intent to tackle complex and intractable social problems by launching a dedicated social exclusion unit within government. Fifteen years on, the challenges facing people with complex problems such as mental health issues, homelessness and substance misuse are still very real. In fact, there are indications that these problems are on the rise. Last year saw a 14 per cent increase in the number of homeless households. Rough sleepers are growing in number – up 43% across last year in London. There is a need for a new political agenda in this area. As research by IPPR for the LankellyChase Foundation shows, there is a real opportunity for an approach that draws on the best liberal traditions of localism and empowerment.
Labour’s social exclusion agenda had many successes and made significant progress on problems such as early years, health and education – the Coalition critique that Labour’s approach to tackling disadvantage was nothing more than ‘poverty plus a pound’ is untrue. However the reliance on centrally determined targets and measurement often failed to connect with people’s real experiences and needs. For example, initiatives to support people into work made a real difference to groups close to the labour market such as lone parents. However individuals for whom full time employment was a longer term goal such as people with long term mental health issues or addictions often missed out from these programmes because they failed to provide the local, tailored support needed. This meant that it was often the most disadvantaged who struggled to access the support they needed.
Current responses by the Coalition have also shown these centralising instincts. Many initiatives use models such as payment-by-results and social impact bonds. These models may work for some policy areas however they may not work with disadvantaged groups. This is because they make payment contingent on achieving centrally mandated targets rather than responding to the different needs of different individuals. Similarly the Troubled Families initiative delivers intensive support and has shown some positive results with the families that have received the intervention. However by identifying families and measuring success through centrally determined criteria it may miss out those most in need of support.
Moving away from this model is very difficult for governments to do. Centralising control gives confidence that results are being attained and that money is being spent wisely. Localising policy in this area is also challenging. Localising policy can remove some national entitlements. There is a worry that this could place disadvantaged groups at a further disadvantage. This is particularly the case in the current context of cuts to local authorities’ budgets.
The starting points for a new approach may appeal to Liberal Democrat instincts. Crucial to balancing localism and entitlement to support for disadvantaged groups will be deciding how the most disadvantaged gain power and voice alongside those around them in the community. On some issues such as mental health, service users are well represented and organised through groups holding institutions and services to account. But on other issues such as substance misuse or long-term unemployment, service-user groups are not organised on the same scale and few groups have direct links to commissioning and formal consultation. Empowering disadvantaged groups would help ensure that services were more accountable to those they are intended to support and would have a higher chance of achieving outcomes for the most vulnerable, as well as putting liberal principles into practice.
These local problems require meaningful local solutions. With further cuts to local authority funding announced last week, a new agenda for the most disadvantaged is needed to ensure they get the support they need. This could be a key area for the Liberal Democrats, in local areas and at Westminster, to take the lead.
‘The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.
* Jenny Pennington is a Researcher at IPPR.