The state must invest – and boost decision-making at a local level

A recent publication of the Department for Work and Pensions’ annual statistics on households below average income made clear problems are getting worse. The severity of hurdles that a significant number of our fellow citizens have to deal with and the impact of the hardship which selfish and evil people inflict on others illustrate as well how thinly stretched, after a decade of austerity, the public services intended to help people surmount these hurdles are. It is vital that the next government makes progress in this area a priority and is willing to commit resources to making it happen. This is what I call for in People not Problems, a new Fabian Society-Centre for Social Justice report on severe and multiple disadvantage.

In response to the case studies in the report, I argue the city region is the best level to draw together the support offered to enable people to participate in work and learning; that substantial investment by the state to enable unemployed people to access employment pays off; and local and national government needs to recognise fully the value of voluntary sector provision, including faith-based provision.

When I was employment minister, I met regularly with the minister for skills and we always reached agreement. But ensuring that large nationwide bureaucracies – which were accountable to each of us – worked together was much harder than merely reaching an agreement between the two of us.

Getting the local branches of these bureaucracies to work together is much more realistic. For example, Greater Manchester – taking advantage of an early devolution settlement – set up its ‘Working Well’ project to support into employment people who were out of work on health grounds. It was established in response to the government work programme’s failure to provide effective support for people claiming health-related employment benefits. Working Well has brought together employment support, including job centres and independent providers and education, with local colleges and the NHS, including the mental health trust, in an effective partnership focused on helping people get jobs. It is very difficult at national level, but achievable at a sub-regional level.

However, it cannot be taken for granted that a model that has worked well in Greater Manchester will work well everywhere else. It is not at all clear what the equivalent of the Greater Manchester level is in many parts of the UK. But marshalling resources at a sub-regional level is most likely to minimise the risks of people falling between the gaps. 

It is clear in four of the five case studies in the report that having a job is key to overcoming multiple disadvantage. And I believe it is worth the state’s while to invest more in supporting people into work than it has often been prepared to.  

We can learn from the success of the Future Jobs Fund, introduced in October 2009 to tackle youth unemployment in the teeth of the global financial crisis. It provided wage subsidies in order to guarantee that unemployed young people could find a job. An independent evaluation published by Department for Work and Pensions in November 2012 showed its effectiveness, concluding that it had delivered ‘a net cost to the Exchequer of £3,100 per participant; and a net benefit to society of £7,750 per participant’.  

I would also like to see state agencies, and particularly local government, overcome current reluctance to work with faith-based groups, for fear (invariably unfounded) that they will end up trying to convert people. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on faith and society, which has drawn up a set of principles for local authorities to sign up to, together with the faith groups in their area wishing to work with them, with the aim of encouraging more collaboration.

I was struck by one account that “social services literally packed my bags, gave me some food vouchers, and left me near the local church with no help, nothing”. We regularly hear of the decline of religious faith in our society, but it is a remarkable feature of the past decade that, as austerity has caused more and more families to be unable to afford enough food, the churches – through the Trussell Trust network of food banks – have been the one agency with not just the motivation but also the capacity to help. And one of their strengths has been their capacity to deploy volunteers able to build relationships with needy families, as well as simply providing food, and so to provide at least some of the love and support which some find so invaluable. State employees are rarely in a position to give that. 

If we can learn anything from the experiences of the people in the report, it is that to enable people to work and learn, the state must invest, embrace voluntary provision and enable decisions to be taken at a local level.

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