Danny Kruger: Charities must be allowed to carry out their work. Our most vulnerable children need them.

29 Apr

Danny Kruger is MP for Devizes. He chairs the Centre for Social Justice’s Commission on Safely Reducing the Number of Children in Care.

The number of children in care has never been greater. Over 68,000 children were living apart from their families in June 2020 – an increase of three per cent over the previous year.

Already before the pandemic, the care system that should support these children was under pressure. In 2018 Ofsted judged 58 per cent of local authorities to be ‘Inadequate’ or ‘Requires improvement to be good’ with regard to their children’s services.

But the pandemic has made things much worse. In the first six months of the pandemic, incidents involving death or serious harm to under-one year olds because of suspected negligence or abuse increased by 31 per cent over the same period in 2019. Among one to five year olds, it increased by 50 per cent.

Directors of Children’s Services reported that, as a result of Covid-19, families face less support, more investigations and more removals of children in response to their difficulties.

But the pandemic has also tapped an extraordinary voluntary movement in this country. Small local charities have worked in innovative ways to help feed, educate and advise families. Charities provide ideas, energy, and cost-effective interventions.

By relying on these under-used grassroots voluntary organisations, service professionals can reach deep into the community, engaging with the most disengaged. Using informal networks – including youth organisations, church groups, local volunteers – complement statutory services to support the most vulnerable. Free of bureaucracy, place-based and highly flexible, this community-level support can transform outcomes for children at the risk of going into care.

Vulnerable families like volunteers because they are local, less intimidating, and often unpaid. They also invest the kind of time that social workers, overwhelmed by caseloads, cannot afford to dedicate.

One model is the wrap-around service offered by the charity Safe Families for Children. A church-based volunteer organisation, Safe Families for Children delivers temporary foster care to support families in crisis.  The charity offers a befriending service whereby a volunteer will act as a mentor/befriender for the family in crisis and offer financial support for the family in terms of goods or skills. They host the family, and will support them for months on end, developing a strong relationship with family members.

The programme has reduced the flow of children into care by between nine to 16 per cent, and is now working with more than 30 local authorities. It numbers 4,500 volunteers from over 1,000 churches and community groups, and 100 professional staff.

The West London Zone for Children and Young People, a charity I set up in one of the most unequal areas in the country, is another example. WLZ covers an area with 60,000 school-age children and young people, among whom one in five is at risk of leaving school without the proper skills to thrive. Twenty-nine schools across four councils refer children to the charity because of needs such as low grades, poor attendance, wellbeing concerns, low levels of parental involvement. All children referred are below the threshold for additional statutory support.

Service professionals should welcome such collaborations, as they offer a way to scale programmes in a cost-efficient way. But, all too often, grassroot organisations report a defensive, “territorial” mindset among statutory partners. A survey of the 400 plus Centre for Social Justice Alliance’s charities found that members felt undermined by statutory services:

  •  “It’s as if they see themselves in competition with us”.
  • “It has not always felt like a mutually respectful platform”.
  • “I think some budget holders see us as competition eg. we have had occasional times where the cost benefit the LA has been willing to attribute to services has been down scaled because of concerns it would result in them losing staff.”
  • “It’s as if they see voluntary as secondary.”
  • “The demands to fall in line with “clunky” operating systems and LA databases can be prohibitive from a resource perspective with a small staff structures.”
  • “There is a definite sense that we are helping them with “their” cases. “

They also reported facing serious obstacles in getting funding from local government and non‑governmental organisations.[5]  One reason for this is that government funding comes in a large number of discreet, time-limited funds, pilots and initiatives which are too short-term for small charities to cope with.

Government can enforce the stipulation that public service commissioners’ contracts meet “social value” criteria. The taxpayer spends £300 billion a year on goods and services through hundreds of thousands of separate contracts that follow guidance laid down by government.

The Public Service (Social Value) Act 2011 required commissioners to consider the wider social value of bids when awarding contracts for services. Despite this, Social Enterprise UK found that only eight per cent of the £300 billion public sector procurement budget actively champions socially and environmentally responsible business practice.

Government can also ensure that Job Centre Plus staff are aware of the amount of volunteering claimants can take part in, and correctly informing them of it; and it can include information on volunteering in the pensions pack sent to those who reach retirement age, as was recommended by the House of Lords committee on civic engagement.

The post-pandemic economy will see a surge in unemployment. Channelling the energy and creativity of job-seekers and the job-less, especially among the young, into community engagement will benefit these individuals and the local area. According to Department for Work and Pensions guidance, volunteering can count for up to 50 per cent of a jobseeker’s time that they are spending taking reasonable action to find a job.

The introduction of the government’s Innovation Partnership model may help counter this: it allows commissioners to work with potential providers on the design of a contract, seeking to leverage their resources to support the public budget using simpler, outcomes-based contracts.

It would be a shame for the goodwill, energy and flexibility of the voluntary sector to be wasted by bureaucracy and wrong assumptions. Government must act urgently to ensure that charities are allowed to carry out their work: our most vulnerable children need them.

The CSJ’s report Safely reducing the number of children going into care was published this week.

Danny Kruger: Trans. The distinction between the sexes is real. And on self-identification, the Government must uphold it.

15 Jul

Danny Kruger is MP for Devizes.

The politics of sex and gender is a minefield, made more dangerous by a great confusion of language. But at root the issues are straightforward, and the Government should gently but clearly assert the truth. Two facts need stating.

First: gender is no business of the state. Gender is the complex, psycho-social construction we build on the foundation of our immutable sexual biology. For most of us, our gender conforms to our sex. A small number of people, however, feel uncomfortable in their biological sex, and adopt a different gender. This is their right. If biological males wish to live as women, or biological women as men, in a free and tolerant society they should encounter no objection.

Second: sex is the business of the state. The distinction between maleness and femaleness, the essential qualities written into our biology, is a fundamental building block of society. For someone to cross the border between the two, formally to assume the legal status and the rights of the opposite sex, is a big deal, properly requiring the permission of government.

This permission is available through the (misnamed) Gender Recognition Act 2004, which allows people to be recognised as legally belonging to a different sex (nothing to do with gender) from their biological one. Recognition consists of the award of a (misnamed) Gender Reassignment Certificate (GRC). To get a GRC you need a diagnosis of the medical condition known as gender dysphoria, defined as acute psychological discomfort arising from the sense of inhabiting the wrong sex, plus a period of living as a man (if a biological woman) or vice versa.

Some trans activists, backed by the LGBT lobby group Stonewall, are conflating these two facts, by seeking a change to the GRA to let people change their legal sex as easily as they can change their gender. They argue that people should be allowed to ‘self-identify – to receive a GRC simply on the basis of asserting their desire for one, with no need for a gender dysphoria diagnosis or a ‘lived identity’ period.

These activists won a victory in 2016 when the Women and Equalities Select Committee recommended reform of the GRA to allow self-ID and the Conservative Government of the time agreed to a public consultation. That consultation closed in late 2018, but our turbulent politics since then meant that the nettle has never been grasped. It appears the new Government is now preparing to respond to the consultation and state its position on self-ID and the GRA.

I fervently hope that ministers will confirm the status quo. They should also issue clear guidance that service providers should be allowed to establish single-sex facilities and services based on birth sex, assuming this is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

But though the thought of a predatory man simply claiming a GRC and gaining access to female-only changing rooms, hospital wards and prisons is troubling, to my mind the argument against self-ID is not the immediate practical one about single-sex spaces. The case for a high bar for anyone crossing the line between legal ‘man’ and legal ‘woman’ is more fundamental.

The distinction between the sexes is real. Preserving this distinction is to defend the grammar of our common life, and to uphold the essential point that our society and legal order are founded on the truth as we understand it. To concede the claims of the extreme trans lobby – that sex is not fixed in biology, but simply ‘assigned’ at birth – is to sell the pass. We will be in Wonderland, or in 1984, where truth is what the people in charge decide it is.

We are arguably already there. Lewis Carroll described a child perplexed by the antics of grownups living in an alternative reality. The Tavistock NHS Clinic, where children are told they can be the sex they want to be and given puberty-blocking hormone treatments, is our Wonderland.

Debbie Hayton, the courageous campaigner against this madness (and a transwoman herself), quotes Orwell: ‘If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’ Such is our intellectual corruption that front bench Labour politicians can argue that sex (not gender) is a social construct. Liz Truss, the Equalities Minister, should stand against this, and unequivocally say what is true. Our party, and the country, will applaud.

Danny Kruger: We should build, build, build the social housing we need. And build it beautiful.

10 Jul

Danny Kruger is MP for Devizes.

At the last election, the Conservative Party Manifesto promised to end rough sleeping, to build more homes and to build better homes. These remain the right aims for our country, even though the challenge in achieving them is now even greater.

The Prime Minister is right not to give up on our ambitions. We must “build, build, build.” But build what? The answer is very simple. Alongside the economic and social infrastructure the country needs, the gGvernment needs to make a major new investment in building genuinely affordable social homes – not least for those millions of families living in poor private rented housing or temporary accommodation. Sitting out the lockdown in a cottage in Wiltshire, as I did, was one thing. Doing it in an overcrowded flat in White City, where I used to live, is another.

Direct investment in a new generation of high quality, carbon-neutral, social homes would protect the skilled jobs in the construction trade that are now at acute risk. We should prioritise this over protecting the big housebuilders whose business model depends on winding down output when prices are low. Social housing faces no such risk in demand terms. Well over a million people are waiting for a social home. Every home we built would be snapped up.

In 2008, the major developers received financial help from the Government, and they are asking for this again. Persimmons made over a billion in pre-tax profit last year. Taylor Wimpey limped in with just over £800 million. The fact that the big developers, with their profits, huge dividends, plenty of cash, and their land banks, feel the need to turn to Government at the first sign of a market downturn suggests there is a problem with house building that needs some new thinking.

We need to think about the right rules for planning. It is undoubtedly the case that planning reform could free up more land for building in ways that don’t harm communities or the environment. And while we have built many more homes in recent years, it is an inescapable fact that some of these – particularly those in converted office blocks – haven’t been to the standard we would want. But we must not let the vexed issue of planning reform get in the way of building the social homes we need.

Most fundamentally, we don’t want house building dominated by ten enormous companies and one underwhelming product: your standard, small, identikit, uninspiring newbuild. We want innovation, a consciousness of beauty, and multiple products for buyers to choose between.

A diversity of suppliers will create resilience in the housebuilding industry, particularly when we have to weather another economic storm. As the Letwin Review pointed, supplier diversity leads to faster build-out rates.

Most of all, we need local involvement in planning and building. Community Land Trusts – like the excellent Seend CLT in my constituency – are the best way to get public support for development. CLTs and custom builders are vital source of contracts for local SME builders and many are developing on sites mainstream developers won’t go near. My party committed in its manifesto to more support for community led housing. I hope that at the autumn Budget, I hope we’ll see a renewal of the Community Housing Fund to help kickstart the engine of local growth.