Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Breakdown Britain

First thought on reading Iain Duncan Smith's Social Justice Policy Group report was that at long last someone had managed to claim Evelyn Waugh's prize for the longest essay, irrespective of merit.

It is a curious report. Right-wing Tories who want to slash public spending will be delighted to hear that there are 44 new spending commitments, adding up to several billion pounds extra expenditure per year - perhaps wisely many of the proposals are not costed, with two additional sources of funding identified (taxing gambling operators and taxing alcoholic drinks). It rails against bureaucratic regulation on headteachers, and then proposes new regulations for all schools to follow (Educational Failure) and warns against the dangers of the welfare state while proposing to increase welfare spending by at least £6 billion (Family Breakdown). At one point women should be supported to stay at home and look after their children, but at another they should go out to work to provide a positive role model for their children - particularly if they are lone parents (Family Breakdown and Educational Failure). It identifies the need for more childcare, but believes state-run childcare services should be shut down because they offer unfair competition to the private and voluntary sectors (Family Breakdown).

But there are some clear principles underlying it:

1. Marriage good. This has been debated elsewhere, but one thing which is worth mentioning is that the section on Family reports that 'since 1992, divorce rates have fallen by 15%' (I guess it is one of the problems of having such a long report that it's hard to check that you've managed to remove all the facts which demolish the argument that tax and benefit incentives have affected divorce rates).

2. Faith groups good, state bad. IDS believes that currently faith groups are discriminated against when it comes to funding to deliver services. He would like them to be able to set up schools, and receive a lot more funding from the government to run services. For many services, he believes that the private and voluntary sector are intrinsically better than the public sector, though he offers no like-for-like comparisons to back this up.

3. There is a consensus about welfare reform amongst the three main parties. The section on 'Economic Dependancy' reaches conclusions similar to those which the government's Freud Review did, which in turn have been supported by the Lib Dems. These envisage using the private and voluntary sector to support people into work and keep them in work. Given how far out a lot of the rest of this report is, it is interesting that this section mostly echoes the government's own policies.

4. Trust in the market to deliver, even in areas of obvious market failure. Rent controls are ruled out explicitly, and the problem with doorstep money lenders is, apparently, that there is not enough competition between them to deliver better value for the customer.

5. It took 18 months to prepare, and allegedly involved all sorts of different people, but the conclusions had already been determined in advance. Anything which did not conform to Duncan Smith's prejudices has been removed - this is not an evidence-based report, but quite literally a faith-based one.

The model for all of the above (though not explicitly credited as such) is the Republican Party - and even George Bush's most loyal supporters would find it hard to argue that the situation for poor people in America have improved since 2000. No one seriously believes that a future Tory government is actually going to increase spending on benefits, or that the people who complain about the overstaffed public sector are going to spend millions on employing 'Home-School Co-ordinators' in every deprived area, but take out all of the unfunded spending commitments and what is left involves handouts for Christian groups to deliver services rather than local councils or the NHS, a transfer of wealth to better off people who are married together with attempts to force people in unsuitable relationships to stay together to fit a 1950s view of what a family should be, and attempts to get people into work without tackling the real barriers to employment.

Even if all 188 policy recommendations were implemented in full, they would do little to tackle 'Breakdown Britain', because they are confused and incoherent, and have excluded any policies which go against a conservative Christian view of our society. If they really were given a blank sheet of paper and asked to come up with a 'money no object' set of recommendations to tackle poverty, then it exposes the poverty of thought that this is the best they could come up with. While it is good to open a debate on poverty in the UK, it is not just the section on promoting marriage which is misguided


At 9:51 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think part of the reason why the report is so muddled and contradictory is Iain Duncan Smith seems to genuinely care about reducing poverty, (albeit in a Victorian patronising way that fails to recognise poverty is a cause and not a symptom of many of the problems he identifies). Yet he is also a Tory, and hence fundamentally committed to the maintenance of the social hierarchy, which causes poverty.

Unfortunately he's not bright enough to realise this is why he's caught up in this dilemma.

Poor little Humpty-Dumpty.

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