“F*ck off Dom, what do you know? The benefits system won’t let me work!” Bang. Kieron, dubbed ‘King of the ASBOs’, ignited my lifelong passion for getting vulnerable and disadvantaged people into work on a Prince’s Trust programme in Gloucestershire.
A young lad with the longest ASBO in the country had just given me a lesson in the perversities of Labour’s welfare system – measuring compassion by spending and a blind belief that throwing benefits at vulnerable people lifted them up. Nonsense. It trapped them. I was trapped, too; I had broken my back in RAF flying training and was volunteering as a Prince’s Trust Team Leader to give me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. King ASBO had done just that and I will always be grateful.
Brexit must be delivered if the Conservatives are to survive, but what comes next? When will we get to a debate about what caused Brexit and what must be done about it?
Beyond matters of sovereignty and migration, for me the Brexit vote unearthed a political settlement under strain where blue collar workers, Conservatives under Mrs Thatcher, feel increasingly excluded from our economic and social order (covered far better by Professor Matthew Goodwin).
A large and unsung part of David Cameron’s legacy was a huge rise in employment. Bringing the nation’s budget under control and kickstarting the economy provided an enabling environment on the demand side. But it was Iain Duncan Smith and his team’s welfare reforms on the supply side which removed the inhumane taper rates and perverse incentives that stopped Kieron, King of the ASBOs, climbing out of his safety net and taking that leap into work.
The net effect was the ‘jobs miracle’. It was the envy of the Western world. By contrast, youth unemployment in Italy, Greece and Spain still stubbornly sits at 30-40 per cent. That is morally and politically unacceptable.
Whilst Cameron’s jobs miracle lifted up the millions who were ready to work, the next phase of Conservative reforms was to lift up those who were not. This was a far more complex task, requiring a new, cross-government approach co-ordinating departments that oversee doctors and teachers, and work with employers. The ‘burning injustices’ agenda was intended to pick up where Cameron left off.
For me, Theresa May’s burning injustices diagnosis was bang on; its delivery was not. Not only was it morally right, it was politically popular. People will be shouting at their screens but the Prime Minister’s early polls and the 2017 local election results told an important story – even the BBC was forced to declare the 2017 locals as ‘May’s Day’.
So how can our next leader deliver a moral, popular policy which lifts up the most disadvantaged and vulnerable and reshapes our economy to work for all? I believe part of the answer lies in fundamentally restructuring our approach to welfare, joining up government departments in a National Welfare Council to bring together all the levers of the state. This would end the nonsense that says only the DWP is responsible for getting the vulnerable and disadvantaged into work.
Surprisingly, the origins of this cross-government approach lie in the fields of Helmand where I worked to bring government operations together under fire. On the frontline in places like Nad-e-Ali I saw how different government departments were failing to work together. It haunts me to this day. We had failed to come to a cross-government understanding of the problem, had planned and delivered programmes separately and had reported our successes (and failures) to different decision makers. The Chilcot Inquiry into Iraq and Afghanistan was damning and rightly so. But Chilcot encouraged a new approach to how Her Majesty’s Government does its work overseas.
Iraq and Afghanistan showed that no single individual or institution had ‘owned’ and managed our national security. The National Security Council (NSC) was established by the Conservative Government to change that. The parallels between conditions leading to the genesis of a single national security structure then, and departmental silos in the welfare space now, are striking.
Fusion Doctrine builds upon the NSC’s success to strengthen the Government’s collective approach to national security. This orchestration of all national security capabilities makes better use of the full range of our nation’s capabilities, coordinating economic levers, military resources, our wider diplomatic and cultural influence on the world stage – every part of government plays its part and is increasingly held to account.
I believe that Fusion has profound potential for our domestic agenda. We need to move on from a position where supposed experts argue about how small changes to DWP benefits mean that people on ESA or JSA or PIP or any other TLA (Three Letter Abbreviation) will make claimants a few pounds worse or better off. The ‘groupthink’ assumption here is that DWP-administered benefits alone will get the disadvantaged back into work. This approach belongs in the 20th Century and does an injustice to those we all seek to serve.
A Fusion approach to understanding the drivers of disadvantage and a National Welfare Council that makes departments work together to get people back on their feet must be the way forward. Central to this is a common understanding of the problem. The National Security Council uses a Joint Analysis of Conflict and Stability (JACS) to build a cross-government understanding of what is causing a conflict. A National Welfare Council would need a JACS equivalent to bring together a cross-government understanding of what is causing disadvantage and how to coordinate a response.
Fortunately, a new independent measure of poverty is just around the corner. Baroness Stroud’s independent Social Metrics Commission brought together thinkers from left and right to develop a new measure of poverty. It offers a tool to define, measure and diagnose poverty in order to work together to solve it.
Whilst these are still early days, my sense is that the new official poverty measure will find that government is not always allocating assistance through the right department, to the right people, in the right way to improve life outcomes. Only a National Welfare Council can provide a truly cross-government review of this process and deliver a new, fused cross-government approach to lift up the vulnerable and disadvantaged.
The good news is that a National Welfare Council is within reach of the civil service, morally right and politically popular. The question is whether our leadership candidates will embrace a cross-government approach to tackling the burning injustices that caused Brexit and begin the process of reaching out and healing our divided nation.