Goals won’t be scored from the right wing alone

Goals won’t be scored from the right wing alone
Ruth Wishart
The Herald

He came to Celtic Park yesterday with a reputation as an orthodox right-winger, but in the course of the game he strayed all over the pitch. At times, even left midfield seemed a comfortable berth.

Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith’s debut at Parkhead offered further proof that we live in an era of party cross-dressing. He came as head honcho of the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), set up after his visit to Easterhouse just over six years ago. It is not recorded how all the denizens of that Glasgow neighbourhood feel about being subsequently (and endlessly) recycled in Duncan Smith’s pronouncements on poverty and unemployment, but some local groups, including the long-serving Family Action in Rogerfield and Easterhouse, were happy to go along and share their grassroots experiences following yesterday’s launch of Breakthrough Glasgow. The third report of its kind – Birmingham and Manchester have been similarly scrutinised – it concentrates on that most heavily populated part of the current policy battlefield: how to deal with intergenerational poverty and unemployment, with its collateral social damage of crime, substance abuse and poor health.

Yesterday brought fresh evidence that this is a conundrum much exercising the New Labour cabinet, as the shiny new Housing Minister, Caroline Flint, suggested the unemployed should have to look for work or lose their council homes – a debut scamper well up the right flank. Take into account the current bidding war as to whether New Labour or the New Tories can throw more people off incapacity benefit, and the old party labels look increasingly confusing.

So where does Duncan Smith’s crusade fit in? The first half of Breakthrough Glasgow covers familiar statistical territory on the city’s dispiriting success in occupying the wrong end of the league tables on ill health, violent crime, poor educational attainment, life expectancy, serial unemployment and lack of social mobility. The proposed remedies are something of an ideological pick’n’mix. Core Tory policies such as tax incentives for married couples are in there alongside Blairite mantras of rights and responsibilities. And in the CSJ proposal for parent-led ‘pioneer schools’, set up outwith local-authority control, there’s more than an echo of the English city-academy model.

But there’s also much to suggest the 3000 hours the centre claims to have invested in public hearings have resulted in a clearer understanding of the important contribution made by the voluntary sector at community level. The injunction for local and national government to recognise street-level experience and expertise, to resource it in less prescriptive ways and to make that support long term will be music to the ears of many third-sector organisations plagued by ministerial addiction to the novel over the tried and tested. The assertions that good leadership is at the core of good education, and that good education delivers the personal aspirations to acquire qualifications and secure employment, are not ones with which any well-motivated politician could quibble.

It seems to be common ground that future social provision will be a three-legged affair involving the state, the private sector and the voluntary sector. But crucial to that recipe is the balance of ingredients. There are some areas – I would argue the NHS is one – where privatisation and segmentation damage the essential ethos, and where the public sector must remain the major provider. There are some – the reclamation of damaged lives is one – where a number of voluntary-sector and community organisations have developed programmes with clearly delivered outcomes. Often these succeed in part because the ‘clients’ are able to relate more easily to the less formal structures.

The private sector is more problematic, and its role has to be examined in the light of motivation and agenda. The recent enthusiasm of the Westminster government for outsourcing benefit work to private firms on performance-related fees is based on American schemes. America is not a country I would hold up as a shining beacon of welfare provision. It is perfectly reasonable to pursue the holy grail of a fraud-free benefits-to-work society – but not if essential safety nets are shredded in the process, or the needs of the most vulnerable are sacrificed to the ambitions of the Treasury.

Tory policies on benefits are still something of a work in progress, although Duncan Smith’s talk of one-to-one contracts between specialist advisers and the unemployed recognises that the contract has to continue for at least a year after a job is secured. That’s a rather more cuddly tone than adopted by Conservative shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Chris Grayling. For that matter, it’s rather more cuddly than Labour’s Caroline Flint. That right wing is getting alarmingly crowded.