As any follower of social policy will tell you, it is those times of the year when most people are winding down – Easter, Summer, Christmas – that you need to be most alert for change. For it is in those periods around a parliamentary recess where governments most often trigger unwanted policies or bury failures, hopeful that attention will be distracted or directed elsewhere. So it proved at the end of 2016 when, in the week before Christmas, work and pensions minister, Damian Hinds, admitted that David Cameron’s ambitious Life Chances Strategy, announced with great fanfare last January, had been quietly jettisoned by the government.
That Life Chances has been abandoned is perhaps less surprising than the fact that the government had adamantly stuck to its intent to publish, despite delaying the intended summer release due to the tumultuous political events which saw its principal proponent unseated as Prime Minister. But what will replace it? The present government is nearing two years in power and so far it has singularly failed to present any overarching vision for how it is going to address social mobility and poverty, which is rapidly becoming the political issue of our times. Some would say that this is inevitable in a period where Brexit is dominating the political discourse. Yet is this a valid excuse? Many, if not most, commentators believe the unexpected vote for Britain to leave the EU was at least in part caused by growing social inequality which politicians have not adequately managed during an era of globalisation.
Indeed Theresa May’s rhetoric in her leadership campaign messaging, and her maiden conference speech, has carried on Cameron’s alleged intent to create a more just society, now particularly focusing on improving life for those ‘Just About Managing’ (the latest rather distasteful label dreamt up by the political classes because it makes an easy acronym – ‘JAMS’). But so far the key material actions since the 2015 election seem to have been to downgrade the child poverty targets built into law by the last Labour administration in favour of more convoluted means of measurement, and an attempt to withdraw tax credits from millions of the most vulnerable families which was only narrowly averted after substantial political opposition.
Perhaps even more concerning for those of us in the children’s sector, though, is the inaction which is leading to potentially greater problems for the future. Even though the concept of early intervention now commands almost universal support among mainstream politicians, a report last year from the children’s sector projected that by 2020 early intervention funding is set to reduce by 71% in real terms over the course of the decade, even as we have invested in the Early Intervention Foundation to coordinate ‘what works’. A consultation on the future of children’s centres was announced in June 2015 and is still yet to materialise over 18 months later, even as reports come in of centres all over England closing, or coming under budget pressures. A clear national framework for consistent and useful parenting support at varying levels from basic advice to highly targeted approaches for those most in need still hasn’t materialised.
Additionally, though, inactivity means that present policy falls further behind the reality of people’s lives on the ground. Thus we still are not adequately addressing disturbing declines in children’s mental health, often linked to the internet, which are stopping growth. There is a growing need to help young people transitioning from education to employment even as careers advice has been stripped back and compulsory work experience abolished in schools. And as gender stereotypes continue to become increasingly meaningless to many young families, there is still far too little to support the active engagement of fathers through both public services and the workplace – leaving many frustrated, and mothers put upon. This is something it was understood Life Chances would be particularly tackling, even as the Women and Equalities Committee launches its own inquiry.
Mr Hinds has promised a Social Justice Green Paper this spring which it is understood will incorporate elements of the Life Chances work. Precisely which is at this stage unclear, but after such a long period of inactivity what is most important is to get the ball rolling with policy debate and discussion as soon as possible. Without it the life chances of the present generation of children may look very bleak indeed.