Gordon Brown’s speech and the last chance saloon for Tom Harris
I’ll be coming back to why I think it’s a very stupid idea, and evidence that New Labour really has caved into a resurgent neoliberal narrative, but for starters let me say I broadly agree with Giles analysis, both of this plan and the Tories proposal for an Office for Budget Responsibility, which ‘far from ‘transforming government’, would in fact neuter Parliament and allow Conservatives to force fiscal hawkishness on future generations.‘
Tonight let’s focus elsewhere.
Grace Fletcher-Hackwood is correct to identify the proposals in Brown’s speech for ‘all 16 and 17 year olds who get support from the taxpayer’ as the most immediately controversial aspect of the speech, and of course it is at the centre of my comrade-in-blog Dave’s tirade earlier this evening, as well as getting an immediate makeover in troll-land to become the plan for ‘gulags for slags’.
Here, just for much needed clarity is what that part of the speech says:
‘And I do think it’s time to address a problem that for too long has gone unspoken, the number of children having children. For it cannot be right, for a girl of sixteen, to get pregnant, be given the keys to a council flat and be left on her own.
From now on all 16 and 17 year old parents who get support from the taxpayer will be placed in a network of supervised homes. These shared homes will offer not just a roof over their heads, but a new start in life where they learn responsibility and how to raise their children properly. That’s better for them, better for their babies and better for us all in the long run.’
The battle lines are easily drawn.
For Dave, this is evidence of ‘the utter bankruptcy in the face of right-wing aggression on social issues’.
For our old friend Tom Harris, at the other end of the party, it’s an opportunity to crow ‘I told you so’ about the newly announced policy, and await the loving embraces of his trolls, blissfully forgetful of the fact that the post in which he told us so is simply an attack on the immorality, and actually states: ‘This post isn’t about policy.’
The reality is a little more complex.
Whatever the trolls may be saying about new institutions in which to lock teenage mothers away, and however much they want to compare this speech to what the BNP have set out in their dross, that is not what the speech says.
The speech talks of a ‘network of supervised homes’.
That is precisely what we have at the moment up and down the country. We often call them ‘foyers’ and the foyers have their own well-established federation.
In other places, they may be called hostels, but the aims are broadly the same, and many or most of them work with young parents to get them into employment and training and help them move into ‘sustainable tenancies’. Many are run by the voluntary sector.
In other areas where there is no such provision, the voluntary sector works with young parents to get them their own place, and then support them when they get in there. In the homelessness charity I used to work for, these people are called Floating Support Workers, and the ones I worked with were brilliant at their job.
All of these options fit the description of ‘a network of supervised homes’. What the speech is about is about firming up this offer to ensure that all 16 and 17 year old parents get the support they need. It is actually about building on good stuff that’s been happening.
It is a desperate shame, indeed shameful, that plans for this perfectly reasonable and laudable extension of provision towards a universal service, of which the government should be proud, has been masked by what Dave rightly suggests is a rhetorical pandering to the right on social issues, and that what in practice could be genuinely socially useful is being sold as a response to ‘tough social questions’.
Sensible social housing policy wonks in Whitehall, who will have advised the government on the practicalities of implementation, must be tearing their hair out at what the spin doctors have done to their plans and to the prospects for the universalisation of this decent service being rolled out.
Of course, I’m concerned about the implied threat of compulsion in the new scheme, though in practice I suspect that this would be no more compulsory than the current ‘compulsory’ attachment to a Connexions/careers advisor for young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEETS) (indeed it might be that the job of a careers advisor might have elements of parenting supervision built into job roles to cope with the new requirements at no great extra cost).
There is one problem with implementation, and that’s where Dave and Tom Harris come back into the equation.
Dave has already set out the problems caused by the end to ringfencing of the £1.6bn Supporting People (SP) grant paid by central government to councils.
This means that in some places – Dave quotes Coventry and Canterbury – homelessness and accommodation services of the type envisaged in Brown’s speech and which are currently largely funded through SP monies, are coming under threat, as council use the new flexibilities to move money away from the most vulnerable and towards ‘sexier’, vote winning spending.
Dave’s key concern in with Coventry is the Cyrenians, and their counterparts in Tyneside have put the problem very well in their Select Committee evidence:
‘We believe that removing the ring fence from SP and transferring funding without criteria or restriction to Area-based Grants fails to mainstream services for the socially excluded, does not improve joint commissioning or planning, places short-term supported accommodation at risk (whilst also removing emergency access and withdrawing funding for supervision), and that an alternative model is required.’
Now, I am a charitable man at heart.
I have therefore left a fullish comment on Tom Harris’s blog, despite his own inappropriate self-acclamation, setting out the facts as I see them – that the proposals set out are not actually as his trolls interpret them, but actually have a basis in sound and progressive policy, but that the current problem with funding needs to be sorted out before they can be implemented. I then invite him to join in lobbying both on this matter of detail around ringfencing, and around the wider issue of the Tories’ plans for General Power of Competence legislation, which would set in train cuts in services to the most vulnerable up and down the country.
If Tom Harris really cares about young people, he’ll get involved. He will at least get back to me with his views on what I am suggesting.
He has returned with comments to some of his trolls, who commented after I did, but has not responded to me. He may still do so. I genuinely hope so. But it seems to me he’s in the last chance saloon.