Andy Cook: To help reduce mass unemployment, back up Universal Credit with Universal Support

2 Nov

Andy Cook is Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Social Justice

In politics, as often in life, you seldom get praise for what doesn’t happen.

But when we look back on the recent history of this pandemic, we will recognise Universal Credit as a great success story. Had we still been operating the paper-based system of the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown era, we would have had unemployment queues snaking round city centres. It wouldn’t have needed an England footballer to point this out, it would (quite rightly) have shamed the country.

I remember that time well. Despite massive government spending, I founded a charity to tackle unemployment – because there were generations of kids who were being harmed because they didn’t see the benefits of work in their home life. We musn’t return to those days.

We are now facing the grim prospect of unemployment as high as 13 per cent – that’s around four million people without a job. In July, 5.6 million people were receiving welfare with almost half officially “searching for work.” One of the areas with the highest numbers of new Universal Credit claims is leafy Guildford in Surrey.

Britain faces the very real problem of mass, long-term unemployment. At the beginning of 2020, there were 3.1 million people in Britain who were not working, but wanted a job. This figure could grow by more than two million due to the Covid-19 crisis.

Benefit claimants are increasingly vulnerable, with more complex challenges, meaning that they need more support when navigating our welfare system. Inadequate support for some claimants has resulted in some falling in to a ‘state of crisis’ – increased financial insecurity, food bank usage, evictions, and homelessness as well as worsening mental health.

Unemployment can be disastrous for any individual. Unemployment is not just the loss of an income, but the loss of a sense of purpose, identity, and dignity. Poor health quickly follows.

If we want to get really serious about tackling poverty, we have to get serious about making sure people get into jobs. Financial pressures can lead to debt, housing problems, relationship strains, and in the most extreme cases, violence, homelessness, substance misuse and criminal activity.

This is the true cost of an unemployment crisis. Worklessness has a lasting impact on communities, and children growing up in a workless household are more likely to perform poorly at school, less likely to work themselves, and end up involved in the criminal justice system.

For all the winter eeconomic plans announced by the Chancellor, tackling the human toll of worklessness will be the biggest long term challenge. Long before the pandemic struck, the UK still had a long-term unemployment problem, with particular challenges from disability, and a disability employment gap that had hardly shifted in a decade.

Despite remarkable successes over the last ten years in halving the number of people unemployed for two years or more, the other half still exist, pandemic or no pandemic. The challenge will now be to make sure that our millions of newly unemployed (and their families) don’t join them as long term unemployment ‘stats’.

There are real human lives behind the statistics – which is why the Chancellor must look seriously at Universal Support.

Universal Support gets money to local charities to offer real personal support for jobseekers. Run by local authorities, Universal Support works alongside Universal Credit payments, with the aim of helping welfare claimants tackle the real barriers to sustained work.

Helping people who may be applying for Universal Credit, but who also need help in stabilising their housing situation, advice on dealing with burdensome debt, help in accessing opportunities to develop skills, or getting an appointment for a medical diagnosis – Universal Support commissions local charities who work with people rather than statistics.

A truly compassionate social security system should be about helping to support people fallen on hard times, not just a welfare check in the post. It is self-evidently not enough for programmes to get people work ready if there is no work. So it’s also time to channel our inner Reagan and go for some big tax cuts targeted at the regions to rebalance the UK and encourage the creation of jobs.

The recovery must be driven by the private sector, but the Government should seize the opportunity to direct this in a regionalist way with rebalancing as an explicit goal.

The Centre for Social Justice’s paper “The Future of Work: Regional Revolution” makes the case for enterprise zones in the UK’s most left behind towns and cities: tax breaks and financial incentives would be offered specifically to businesses operating in these regions. State loans to start-ups should have job creation in our poorest areas as an explicit objective.

We can’t just treat unemployment as a problem on a spreadsheet. There are real human lives behind the statistics, which is where Universal Support comes in. We need to see it in every town. Economic measures to rebuild our regional economies need to go alongside welfare support that stops the spiral of unemployment and offers a compassionate helping hand into newly-created jobs.

Andy Cook: New stop and search powers are backed by the public – whatever the fashionable commentariat says

14 Sep

Andy Cook is Chief Executive of the Centre for Social Justice.

This week is law and order week, with the Government re-booting its domestic narrative using a series of tough on crime messages. It would be easy to dismiss this as simply managing a party hungry to see the benefits of a sizeable Conservative majority. Getting tough on crime isn’t just red-meat to the party faithful; it’s fundamental to any ambition to re-build local economies. You can’t even begin to spread opportunity or prosperity if the streets around you are too dangerous to walk. It’s a social justice issue, every but as much as it is about public safety. We’ve seen an upward national trend of offenders being caught repeatedly carrying knives over the last ten years, and in our major cities, especially London, this is becoming the norm in neighbourhoods that have been left behind.

That’s why we should cheer the announcement of a new form of stop and search which targets those carrying knives or weapons intent on doing harm to others. What’s more, these new powers to intervene are backed by the public and, crucially, from all white and non-white voters. If you live on a street where you children stand a good chance of being stabbed by someone carrying a knife, you’re going to support measures to put an end to the violence on your door-step. Don’t listen to the fashionable ‘commentariat’; this is a bold and popular move, even in London the polling is clear-cut with fewer than one in 10 Londoners actively opposing ‘stop and search’ powers. We found just 15 per cent of non-white Londoners and eight per cent of white Londoners opposed a new form of ‘suspicionless’ stop and search for limited periods in areas they believe will experience serious violence.

These Serious Violence Reduction Orders (SVROs), which were a manifesto commitment, were first proposed by the Centre for Social Justice in our 2018 report, It Can Be Stopped.

SVROs are designed to ensure repeat offenders are more likely to be caught and put in prison. SVROs send a strong message that violence and carrying weapons can and will be stopped. SVROs apply to individuals previously convicted of carrying a knife or an offensive weapon, including those who have received non-custodial sentences such as community orders or suspended sentences. The orders would be imposed by a court, which could also decide on the exact length of the order. Police are then given the powers they need to stop and search those who are subject to an SVRO to check if they are unlawfully carrying a knife or offensive weapon again.

It takes us a step close to addressing the fundamental issue that came from the huge collapse in stop and search: a significant minority of people who feel they can carry weapons without reasonable fear of detection. This measure backs the police to take action at a time when they need a government on their side to make our streets safer. It would require those most likely to possess a weapon after being sentenced, on contact with police, to prove to them they aren’t carrying one or be subjected to a search.

When we looked into this issue we found too many police officers, especially newer recruits, reluctant to use the powers given to them. After the largest and most sustained collapse in stop and search since records began, the effect of such a targeted intervention on gangsters used to carrying and using weapons is an important message to officers patrolling our streets that we understand they need to hear support for stepping in.

The Government’s commitment to rolling out SVROs is one of the many tools we need to land a knock-out blow required to change things on our increasingly violent streets. There’s £70million announced to develop Violence Reduction Units to divert people away from crime and changing the law to make it a legal requirement for public bodies to work together to address the root causes of serious violence. It’s not enough, we’ll be calling for bigger investment in years to come but it is the right move.

The Government trumpeted its intent to recruit an extra 20,000 bobbies on the beat, a bold vote winning move. But at the time we said it wasn’t enough if it didn’t come with the power and confidence to step in and do the job they were recruited for. Our research tells us that these measures are supported by the great majority of people living in some of our most deprived communities, who want to see the scourge of knife crime and the routine carrying of weapons brought to an end. The Home Secretary should feel emboldened to carry on and do just that.