Home > General Politics > Gordon Brown’s speech and the last chance saloon for Tom Harris

Gordon Brown’s speech and the last chance saloon for Tom Harris

20090622092202_last_chance_saloon I think the promise/threat of a Fiscal Responsiblity Act is by far the most important and far-reaching aspect of Gordon Brown’s speech.

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.

Categories: General Politics
  1. September 30, 2009 at 7:26 am

    Because the last article was a tirade, allow me to enumerate the problems I have with what Gordon said.

    1. That it’s wrong for sixteen and seventeen year old girls to be given a council flat ‘and left alone’.

    They’re not left alone, and they should be given a home. Whether communal or individual, I personally think communal would be better – especially with other single mothers, with all of them willing to share burdens.

    2. ‘who get support from the taxpayer’

    Who does that cover? It is covers child credits then it is literally every teenage parent in the country – and I’m pretty sure at least some of those are fairly supported by their own families. Sounds like an attempt to grab headlines by promising to reduce the amount going out to teenage parents.

    3. ‘where they learn responsibility’

    I did actually address this one. I’m sure plenty of parents need advice on how to make the best choices for their child – but the idea that simply learning ‘responsibility’, as though it can be taught from a book rather than being evinced from how life works for an individual is preposterous.

    4. Compulsory?

    Gordon opened himself up to the ‘gulags for slags’ thing with his fudge of who these communal homes would be for, and how people would be selected for them.

    5. The sting in the tail:

    “The decent hard working majority feel the odds are stacked in favour of a minority, who will talk about their rights, but never accept their responsibilities.”

    That section comes right at the end of the bit about families and it is, whatever way one looks at it, a wholesale capitulation to the narrative of the Sun, the News of the World, the Conservative Right, not to mention the BNP. And it is rubbish that will not be tackled via harsher crack downs.

  2. September 30, 2009 at 7:50 am

    “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’.”

    This is to be expected, though — spinning them as “more help for teenage mothers” wouldn’t do anything for the government, whereas spinning it as “forcing responsibility” might just work.

    As for tackling the media narative, good luck with that. Sadly, government is rarely in a position where that’s a realistic possibility, and it certainly isn’t in such a position now.

  3. September 30, 2009 at 7:58 am

    I am not entirely willing to accept that the capitulation to media narrative is purely for the purposes of rhetoric. But even supposing it is, tactically this is a mistake – people are so jaded by New Labour ‘triangulation’ that they’ll assume the worst. It would have been a better strategy to come forward with a progressive policy, progressive rhetoric and to take out the baseball bats against Tory social policy – which is frankly appalling.

    But this didn’t happen. One has to ask why. No one, not even New Labour, could possibly think it maintains even a shred of a chance at winning over the media and chatterati. So why bother, unless the rhetoric is what NL genuinely believes, and the rest of us are conning ourselves by trying to find something progressive underneath?

  4. September 30, 2009 at 9:14 am

    Dave @1 and 3:

    I was going to do this later after a couple of letters but it’s gnawing at me……

    First, ‘tirade’ was intended to be pejorative. ‘Fusillade’, or simply ‘polemic’ might have been better given the negative connotations ‘polemic’ has picked up.

    Second, and more substantively,I agree with every word you say about the way in which the proposals were presented (and I should also have touched on the fuuziness around ‘supported by taxpayers’. It is, as I said, an utterly shameful caving in to the rightwing media narrative of the Sun in league with the BNP etc etc. It is no surprise that my mate Steve (at conference) this morning reports on twitter that Compass people were disgusted.

    My point was that it is even more shameful because what has been hijacked in the speechmaking process is existing policy which is actually pretty good. I don’t know how speeches for conference get developed but somewhre at the start of the chain must be some input from civil servants as to what is manageable policy, and at some point it is likely that decent officials saw an opportunity to promote additiional services for vulnerable 16/17 year olds. They, and many vol sector organisations aroudn the country must have been sick in their cornflakes this am when they’ve seen the way it’s been manipulated by NL’s machine.

    The challenge for the left, which I’m seeking to set out (but not successfully last night) is to try to wrestle something good from the jaws of this. My take on it is that, while there are real dangers around compulsion, the fact that nothing explicit as ‘or risk losing benefit’ was said in the speech – and that would have fitted perfectly with the whole trolll-focused narrative – suggests that this not really an option that has come forward, and that what is intended by policy people in Whitehall is actually an firming up of the scattergun offer of support currently provided.

    Third, and on your doubting whether capitulation to the dominant rightwing narrative is simply rhetoric, again I agree with you; I think the NL mainstream, as reflected by people like Harris and written into Brown’s join-the-right-wing-dots speech, is beyond this distinction, and has been for a number of years – the rhetoric is, in many ways, simply 1990s communitariansism updated for an ever more rightwing age.

    This bring me to David @2: Dave, I agree with Dave @1 and @3 that the government has swallowed the dominant narrative whole and is happy to run with it. My point is that the left – not the mainstream Labour Party or government – needs to challenge it by making the case for the policy substance that lies behing the reprehensible narrative, and suppporting the people in Whitehall and beyond who are doing what they can to do the right thing by young vulnerable adults and their children.

    Update: no comment back from Tom Harris. The saloon bar has rung for last orders.

  5. September 30, 2009 at 9:15 am

    I think Don P does a much more succinct job of what I’m trying to do with his whimsical ‘first draft of speech’ as put together by housing/teenage pregancy advisors, by the way.

  6. September 30, 2009 at 9:38 am

    “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.”

    The solution (as you say further into your post)is social housing. But what I would question is whether this ‘support’ is on the terms of the pregnant young woman? I doubt it will be, it has the strong whiff of Victorian morality along with teaching the proles how to bring up their kids, it kinda looks like a way of punishing teenagers for getting pregnant. Also, what worries me is if a young woman refuses this ‘support’ and she is on benefits, will they sanction her for refusing this support?

    As we know, NL isn’t about creating an equitable society.

  7. September 30, 2009 at 9:59 am


    Thanks for dropping in. How’s the fast bowling coming on?

    Yes, the prospect of sanctions worries me too, and I too think that services developed need to be ‘with’ young parents and not ‘to’ them.

    And yes,it is shameful that these proposals are being sold in the wy they are, with that whiff of the Victorian workhouse.

    All that said, I don’t think what’s being proposed is comparable with the studiously thought out attack on the poor that was Purnell’s Welfare Reform stuff. Rather, I take from the absence of reference to sanctions (which would have fitted the narrative Brown was setting out) the probability that these proposals started out as well-meaning efforts by civil servants to expand decent provision for young parents.

    Yes, they have been hijacked rhetorically, but when you get down to it they are going to be impplemented by and large using the voluntary and community sector (and RSLs), and using Supporting People and other housing monies. The whoele ‘culture’ of the implementation will be different from the implementation of borader welfare reforms, and that while we need to be alert to the dangers (and appropriately hostile to the rhetoric) we should also focus on suppporting what is good in the proposals as they develop into detail.

  8. September 30, 2009 at 10:15 am

    Hi Paul, Dave,

    This policy is about “firming up this offer to ensure that all 16 and 17 year old parents get the support they need” in the same way that “British jobs for British workers” was about creating new jobs and skilling up British workers to be able to compete in a global labour market. It is a very, very charitable reading of a bad and poorly thought through policy announcement.

    It’s obviously a policy which they haven’t thought through and which will unravel by Monday, presented in a way so as to try and have a fight between the leadership and the left in order to improve Brown’s “centrist” credentials.

    What I find particularly galling about this policy is that there are endless speeches about how the next stage of public service reform is to personalise services so that they meet individual needs, and then they announce a policy which assumes that every 16 and 17 year old parent has the same needs and should live in a Foyer – which a moment’s thought would reveal is not going to be suitable for some of them.

  9. September 30, 2009 at 10:47 am

    Dan @7

    I don’t often get this feeling on this site, but I am starting to feel like I’m banging my head against a wall.

    The announcement of the policy is not poorly thought out. It has been very carefully thought out by people in NL very keen to pander to the rightwing. In their own terms, Brown’s speechwriters have done a marvellous job. I think what they have done is utterly reprehensible.

    But the announcement of the policy is not the policy itself.

    The policy as it will be implemented, first by Whitehall guidelines and then by councils and then by organisations commissioned by councils who specialise in homelessness provision and parenting support, and then by foyer staff and by floating support workers, stands a good chance of being a good thing, and a better one if the left get behind a campaign to ensure it is properly implemented.

    Let me stress again – this is not Welfare Reform stage 2. This is a proposal put forward by policy advisors who have seen an opportunity to expand provision, and have gone for it. Yes, they will be very disappointed about how it’s being portrayed – and it’ll be interesting to look at the specialist housing and regeneration press over the next two weeks – but there is still a lot to play for.

    No, I agree that foyers are not for all young parents, and that additional social housing levered in on top of this policy announcement (strengthening RSLs’ and councils’ Housing Corporation business cases in new applications) will be a key.

    There are, then, two arguments here. The first is that the policy announcement was poor in our terms, but not poorly thought out in theirs. The second is that good stuff could come of this, and we should support it in our terms, because lack of engagement will means there’s a greater chance it will get implemented in theirs.

    Dan, we had exactly the same debate about the welfare reform bill, but the tables were then turned. You argued for engagement because you thought there was some good wheat amongst the rightwing chaff. I disagreed because I had argued at length that the way the polciies will be implemented will massively outweigh any potential for positive support for those on welfare.

    This time, I am arguing that both the genesis of the proposals and the fact that they will necessatrily be implemented by people who are actually supportive of young people and their needs/ambitions, means a more supportive approach is needed notwithstanding the rhetorical obstacles putin our way by Brown yesterday.

  10. redpesto
    September 30, 2009 at 11:00 am

    “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’.”

    I didn’t know about the info regarding foyers; it was very interesting, but it also highlights the way in which New Labour may have some good ideas and policies that actually work or help people, but they are forever drowned out by the ‘get tough’ rhetoric and the perceived need to ‘sell’ such ideas as punitive to reassure voters that the ‘dolescum chavs’ (or whatever pejorative is in this week) are being kept in line. In short, New Labour bought wholesale into the idea of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, and keep mounting the bully pulpit regarding the latter. If anyone then calls them on it, they react like you’ve just impugned their good intentions and integrity. It’s a tiresome ‘bait and switch’ that they are incapable of abandoning.

  11. September 30, 2009 at 11:02 am

    Anyone had a look at this?

    I wonder is Sunder simply toeing the party line now?

  12. redpesto
    September 30, 2009 at 11:21 am

    One further thought: that ‘supported by the taxpayer’ line still rankles. It could cover Child Benefit, Working Families Tax Credit, Housing Benefit or even the Educational Maintenance Allowance – unless it really is all about those on JSA.

    PS: Has anybody asked about the father’s role in any of this?

  13. September 30, 2009 at 11:58 am

    “The second argument is that good stuff could come of this, and we should support it in our terms, because lack of engagement will mean there is a greater chance it will be implemented in theirs”

    I agree that when (if) some actual proposals come forward, then lefties should lobby and work with professionals to get more funding for good stuff without the punitive and one size fits all approach which Brown outlined.

    But good old power analysis shows that whether these policies get taken forwards before the election will be nothing to do with whether lefties give them their critical support. It’s a policy designed to show that New Labour has not retreated to a ‘soft left comfort zone’, so if lefties say ‘it may look stupid, but this is a good one because it is about giving extra money to teenage single parents’ then that won’t encourage the leadership to prioritise it.

    So I think the best tactic is complain bitterly in public, and work with the policy people privately in order to make it help people.

  14. paulinlancs
    September 30, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    Sorry for hiatus – only just back in.

    Redpesto @10 and 12: Couldn’t agree more, and you put it very well. I hope my OP shows I agree.

    Dan @ 13: Yes, I have a certain sympathy with this power analysis – whether plans will be presented in more detail will be decided by greater forces we can muster. But extending the same power/resource analysis, surely the time to use our own resources – that of our understanding of what COULD be achieved – is nsoon, before a more rightwing version of the plans takes hold. In practical terms, I think that means working via e.g the specialist housiong press to forge temporary alliance and the lobbying of MPs who are more sympathetic than, say, Tom Harris to look in detail at the plans that are emerging and get early intervention in around, for example, the ringfenced budget issue and, crucially, the defining of what ‘taxpayer money’ is and what compulsion will actually mean. On the latter, compulsion (if it happens at all) could mean anything on a range from being allocated a personal support worker with whom young people can engage if they feel it is in their interests (more or less the Connexions model) right through to benefit sanctions.

    There’s a lot to play for here, and the playing for it should strengthen the hand of left activists for the future by developing alliances and proving our worth as smoething more than blusterers. To show willing, I’ll do something for New Start (a regen mag in which I’ve had a couple of things published over the years) and see if I can get it published, and a draft letter to MPs expressing concern about the language used but suggesting a way forward which will help the Labour party suffer slightly less from this ignominious episode 9cf Stephen Rouse’s reaction to your peice at LibCon on this as real loser of votes of people with sense).

    Thanks for engaging in this level of detail by the way.

    Dave @12: Didn’t really ‘get’ Sunder’s piece, to be honest. I did say in my OP that the whoel rhetoric harked back to communitarianism c1995 with nastier face, but Sunder seems to think that’s a good thing. Worrying, but i’ll give him benefit of doubt this time around.

  15. September 30, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    They’re not left alone, and they should be given a home. Whether communal or individual, I personally think communal would be better – especially with other single mothers, with all of them willing to share burdens.

    Will they get support with the Ofsted registration and ISA checks etc too?

  16. September 30, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    @Dave 3:

    I don’t think the objective now is to win, but damage limitation. Labour don’t feel in the best position to take on deeply entrenched media narrative — at a time when they’re focusing on merely limiting the scope of the backlash come the next election as much as possible.

    I agree that it’s not a healthy strategy, but I understand why they’re still trying rhetorical cameflage.

  17. September 30, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    @ukliberty – very constructive. Nevertheless I take your point, about the seeming contradiction between what happened with the two policewomen and this suggestion, where we may very well find ourselves organising exactly what those two had informally.

    All I can say is, neither I nor any grassroots members of Labour are overly in favour of the clunking bureaucracy which both Labour and the Tories seem to regularly create.

  18. September 30, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    @16. I still don’t. Who are they trying to limit the damage with? This government has proved it can lose safe seats; it has allowed the Tories to creep back into Wales – there is basically a sense that the leadership is talking the party out of the work of generations of socialists and working class militancy. If that right-wing tosser Chris Bryant manages to lose in the Rhonda, there will essentially be no Labour Party. So what are they hedging against?

    In Kent, where I live, at least two Labour MPs are going to be lost whatever happens. The others may stand or fall depending on how well the core vote is shored up – if it isn’t, we’ll lose those as well. And there’s simply no way Labour’s leadership can’t know this.

  19. Sunder Katwala
    September 30, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    re 11 & 14

    The word ‘shines’ in the headline was LC’s not mine. Mine at Next Left was ‘Gordon Brown’s communitarian core’.

    The intention was a critique of the public politics of the single mums policy –
    indeed I wrote that it has connotations of the workhouse – not an endorsement of it. (At the same time, I wanted to acknowledge that there are some important and sensible policy measures to early intervention and to reducing teen pregnancy. But I don’t think a sensible approach can be sold by using populist/hawkish language). So my position is quite similar to Don Paskino’s, though his spoof speech makes the point much better.

    My instincts are broadly liberal and not particularly communitarian, though I do think there are important arguments about embedding reciprocity, though I don’t think that demands an illiberal approach.

    Sorry if that wasn’t very clear, perhaps because these were more various observations (written an hour or two later for Next Left) about the speech, ie the point that it seemed likely to rally the party was a general point about the mood and the speech, rather than about the communitarianism.And I thought there were several good things in it, in other areas.

  20. October 1, 2009 at 7:19 am


    Thanks for dropping in. I’ve been back and read your article and it does indeed read as you’ve indicated – indeed I’m not sure why I thought otherwise first time. I think it might have been the slightly mysterious last line, but that’s no excuse for a poor first reading. Sorry.

    Yes, Sunny’s done that to me as well with his slightly strange headlines.

    Anyway, looks like we’re all more or less on same wavelength about this specific issue (your article is borader themed) – some ok ish possibly substance masked by horrible, horrible rhetoric.

  21. October 1, 2009 at 9:56 am


    As it happens, I wrote about the police office case here http://thoughcowardsflinch.com/2009/09/28/childcare-row-prediction/

  22. October 1, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    @18: They’re trying to limit the damage with the marginal constituencies. Labour still believes they can only achieve this via appealing to “middle england”, hence the rhetorical cameflage.

    It was the same with Purnell’s welfare reform legislation — the legislation didn’t actually amount to much other than a few extra hoops for claimants to jump through, but the rhetoric was clearly aimed at hoovering up the “why are my taxes going to layabouts” cliche vote.

  23. October 1, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    As I said, they’ve already lost the marginal constituencies. Even such a blunt instrument as their voter canvassing packs are bound to have revealed the change in attitude. The anger of people on the doorstep is huge.

  24. October 2, 2009 at 11:22 am

    They’ve already lost most of them, yes, but the attitude in the Labour party is that in order to survive, they need to retain as many of the marginals (or semi-marginals, or anything that simply isn’t safe). It may be wrong-headed, but it’s easy to understand, and as I see it most people in Labour don’t want to risk a big bust-up by tackling entrenched media myths head-on.

  1. October 1, 2009 at 11:21 am

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