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.
Mark Lehain is Director of the Campaign for Common Sense, and the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.
On Tuesday, towards the end of an otherwise run-of-the-mill debate on Black History Month in the Commons, Kemi Badenoch said the following:
“I want to be absolutely clear that the Government stand unequivocally against critical race theory… We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt. Let me be clear that any school that teaches those elements of critical race theory as fact, or that promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.”
And boom: there it is – the clearest statement yet that the Government is serious about taking on some of the hard-left ideas that have taken hold of large chunks of the public and private sectors in recent times. You can see the whole of Badenoch’s speech above.
Her words build on guidance released by the Department for Education last month, which contained a reminder for schools of their legal obligation to “offer a balanced presentation of opposing views” when covering political issues.
The requirement for schools to be impartial on such matters is longstanding – including private schools and academies – but you wouldn’t think this was the case judging by the reaction of some people. Even John McDonell popped up to claim it was more evidence that a “drift towards extreme Conservative authoritarianism is gaining pace”, bless him.
Reminding people of a law that growing numbers are ignoring is important, but not in itself enough.
My campaign group, The Campaign for Common Sense has been tracking the issue of biased schools for a while now, and we’ve four simple, low-effort, suggestions as to how schools can be helped to get back on track.
First of all, the Department for Education should work with the Headteacher unions to develop further guidance and exemplification on the kinds of issues that are tripping schools up. (Sadly, there’s no point talking to the big teacher unions as they’re completely in thrall to Critical Race Theory and other leftist ideology.)
Next, Gavin Williamson should write to the Headteacher and Chair of Governors (or Trustees) of every school in England. He would remind them of their obligations to impartiality, and share the results of the union collaboration to assist with compliance.
Third, schools are already obliged to publish curriculum details on their website, and we propose that they add to this a statement from the Headteacher confirming one thing: that they have checked the curriculum programme and resources and are satisfied that pupils will received a politically impartial education. (They should be doing this already, so this is literally two-minutes work for them.)
Finally, Ofsted should spot-check for impartiality as part of their inspection process; this could be whilst evaluating the “Quality of Education” or “Personal Development” areas. If non-compliance meant a school’s all-important “Overall Effectiveness” judgement couldn’t be “Good” or better, you can be sure political balance would be restored very quickly indeed.
These steps would go a long way to improving things for pupils, but it raises questions about the wider public sector.
The previous Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education was particularly keen on Critical Race theory and other “woke” ideas, but even though he has been moved on the department still runs “Project Race”, and has civil servants who act as “Race Champions”. Much time and money is also given over to other politically correct initiatives including gender identity, unconscious bias, and so on. And of course, this is happening across all departments, not just education.
Stopping civil servants from allocating precious resources to these kinds of things is vital if politically contested ideas are going to be removed and the Civil Service depoliticised.
It probably shouldn’t stop there, though – after all, lots of public services are provided by quangos, third sector organisations, and charities. Obviously, how these organisations spend their own or other people’s money is absolutely their own business. But future public sector grants and contracts should insert a clause that the money that comes from them cannot be spent on politically contested ideas and practices.
All of the above would make a big difference to the focus and quality of lots of our public services. However, these changes would pale into insignificance if the government got the right people into key roles.
Consider how Liz Truss has taken the heat out of the issue of transgender rights and self-ID. Or the way the Commission of Race and Ethnic Disparities is moving the issue of racism away from emotions and onto evidence & practical improvements.
And look at the impact of a quiet letter to museums about historical displays – places previously under pressure to remove objects are now standing firm.
The bad ideas we’re challenging are like the Emperor’s New Clothes – point out how wrong they are, and they quickly fall apart.
Marvel at the impact Badenoch made with a few words in parliament. Now imagine a government filled with similarly clear-sighted souls. We could quickly get back to common sense issues and improving everyday lives. Here’s hoping that Badenoch’s speech in parliament marked the start of a concerted push, and not a chance blast in the dark.
Matt Vickers is the MP for Stockton South. He is a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Loneliness.
Are you itching for things to get back to normal?
Are you looking forward to that holiday, trip to the pub, meal with friends?
Like me, do you feel like you’ve been cooped up at home forever, and are just bursting to live a full life again?
What is it you’re missing most?
A long walk on a sandy beach? That first cold frothy pint? Your favourite restaurant’s fish and chips?
Probably. But it’s bigger than that, isn’t it?
It’s the people we miss most.
As lockdown eases and we venture out more, it’s the people we’re looking forward to seeing – our family, friends, and workmates; people we connect with at our football matches, bingo halls, and places of worship.
For many, that will be easy but, for some, they will face challenges that make it harder to get back to normal because lockdown has compounded their isolation and loneliness.
A new British Red Cross report – Life after lockdown – reveals how big those challenges are and, this week, I chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Loneliness where we discussed its findings. What the report shows is that lockdown is affecting some people more than others.
People from Black, Asian and minority Ethnic (BAME) communities, younger people, those on lower incomes or unemployed, people who live alone, those with underlying health conditions, and parents with children at home are the loneliest of all.
As many as 41 per cent of UK adults surveyed feel lonelier since lockdown began, with 33 per cent saying they haven’t had a meaningful conversation in the last week. We all have work to do to help people connect and feel part of their communities again.
At this week’s APPG, we heard from 22-year-old Harry Foreman from the Co-op Foundation’s Lonely Not Alone campaign and he told us of his experiences graduating from university and suddenly having to leave behind some of his closest friends during the Covid-19 crisis. He said:
“There’s no handbook for graduating during a pandemic.”
But that’s true for all of us, isn’t it? We’ll all have to adapt in some way.
I’m lucky to be part of a vibrant community in Stockton and have been inspired by the sight of volunteers – both organised and spontaneous – who have been helping the most vulnerable with things shopping and other essentials.
I’ve been trying to play my part too, teaming up with Age UK to help constituents who are feeling lonely.
That spirit must blossom beyond this crisis because people were feeling very lonely before lockdown and many are feeling lonelier because of it – they’re going to need our help as we recover. Members of Parliament have a big role to play.
We must argue for sustained funding for services that help people overcome loneliness while looking to find ways of addressing the reasons why people become so lonely in the first place, like financial hardship and mental health.
We can champion approaches to health like social prescribing that put the focus on activity and interaction, helping people connect and improve their wellbeing through groups, classes, and events.
Rather than looking just at medical options, we need to look at social solutions – doing something you enjoy, meeting other people, forging quality relationships, feeling less lonely, feeling healthier.
It’s clear that, whenever we look at people’s health, there are inequalities at play in our society that impact on our ability to thrive, strive and prosper – MPs have to be at the forefront when it comes to tackling those too.
We can perhaps see loneliness as a signifier that other things may be going wrong in a person’s life and get to work addressing those issues and health concerns.
The Red Cross, Age UK, Mind, Sense, and many others have been supporting people throughout this emergency and will continue to do so when the crisis is over.
The examples of this sort of good work in my own constituency are just too numerous to mention and I know those people who have leapt to action to support others will want to continue to play their part in helping the most vulnerable.
Now is not the time to simply salute that good work alone. Now is the time to build on it.
Ending rough sleeping poses a particular challenge in a free society. That is because it is not only a matter of making help available, but of persuading those who need it, to accept it. Another complication is that the help required goes beyond accommodation. The lack of a bed to sleep in is invariably a symptom rather than the cause of an individual’s difficulties.
The coronavirus prompted greater urgency for the Government to take action. Ministers had already outlined in February a determination to find a long term solution – with the assistance of Dame Louise Casey.
Though this issue is a moral disgrace and source of national shame the numbers involved are relatively small. The latest snapshot survey for those sleeping rough on one particular night last autumn came up with a figure of 4,266. The BBC gave a figure of 28,000 (based on FOI requests to local authorities) of different people who had slept rough at one stage or another over 12 months.
How many have come off the streets during the coronavirus crisis? 15,000 have been provided emergency accommodation – though not all of those were rough sleepers. Some are from hostels and shelters which have had to close due to social distancing rules. Others will be those who would otherwise have got by as “sofa surfers”. There will also be those escaping domestic violence. However, there might also be around 5,000 who came straight from the streets.
What is impressive is how high the acceptance rate has been from the rough sleepers offered a room. Many have been surprised it has been so high. Only a few hundred are thought to have spurned an offer. It could be the attraction of a hotel rather than a more humble shelter. It could be fear of the coronavirus. Then there is the tough choice that getting food – or the money to buy food – while staying on the streets would be harder. As noted, coercion is not available, but the tone of encouraging people to accept help has been emphatic rather than passive.
Amidst the statistical fog, a couple of points emerge. Firstly, that in proportion to the population, the number of rough sleepers was already tiny. The population of England is 56 million. It follows that accommodating them is a relatively modest claim on the public purse. Providing for others – children, pensioners, the unemployed, the disabled – are vastly more costly items. Secondly, that the already small number sleeping on the streets before the pandemic has fallen substantially.
Dame Louise says in an interview for The Big Issue:
“I was due to do a review into rough sleeping and homelessness but we have all been turned upside down by Covid-19. The primary motivation so far was led by Covid-19 to do an extraordinary thing in unprecedented times, which was to say, “Let’s just get everyone in.” We had everybody getting on the phone to hotels, getting [charities] St Mungo’s, Thames Reach and Look Ahead in London to stand up enough staff to literally in a couple of weeks add to the estate in London by 2,000 beds.
“We were chasing the virus just trying to stay ahead of it. When the inquiry eventually comes saying: “How did you do it? Why did you do it? And what choices did you make?” We just went for it, everybody went for it. We had to get everybody in, we cannot have people dying on the streets. And we cannot have people dying in communal night shelters and that is the prospect that we were facing. We need to be clear that right now we are dealing with this extraordinary situation where 15,000 people have been accommodated at this time.
“I’m not saying that we don’t want to work out how do we not return to the situation that we have seen in the last few years. But our primary purpose so far has been to keep people safe. That will remain our primary purpose, but at the same time we feel that we should see this as an opportunity to think that we can get something extraordinary out of this but that will take an extraordinary effort. The homelessness sector itself and the wider community also needs to think, at this horrific time in our nation’s history, what they can do to help as opposed to what they call on the government to do.”
Jeremy Swain, the Government’s adviser on homelessness, was also interviewed. He said:
“I was involved with Housing First in the 1990s and I’m a big fan, but the problem is there is a slight danger that we think that everybody in those hotels at the moment needs wraparound support and they need it for a long time. What we need to be doing, as well as getting people into housing, is to get people into work. And that is what they are wanting. That’s what they want – when I was at Thames Reach and you put out the questionnaires, 75 per cent of people wanted the services to help them get jobs. Consistently it is bottom of the list for the homelessness sector when for the people themselves it is top of the list.”
That is the tricky part. Amidst Government spending of £850 billion a year, funding an extra 5,000 hostel beds is a footling item. (That’s even before we consider the £10 billion a year we give to charity, often to help the homeless.) Getting those who have taken a wrong turn in life back on the path to proud, independent, and responsible existence is harder. Getting a job would be a pretty obvious ambition. Often that will mean overcoming such afflictions as drug addiction, alcoholism, and mental illness. When I was a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham I found that very little specialist accommodation was provided – even though the Council had a very substantial Public Health budget which was largely wasted.
Many of those in emergency accommodation have been put up in hotels that would otherwise be empty. It is welcome that hotels are going back to normal business as the economy reopens. That does mean that alternative places to stay are needed – though some hotels are extended their contracts for emergency accommodation. Some universities have made rooms available in their halls of residence – after all college authorities need the money and these rooms would otherwise be empty at present. Some YMCA hostels have single rooms. Then councils have managed to find rooms for some in the private rented sector.
In the long term though, the Government plans new hostel places for 6,000. Much of this will be for specialist housing to cater for particular medical conditions. That will be crucial for these unfortunate souls to have their lives turned around.
“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” declared Winston Churchill. The signs are encouraging with respect to the impact of the pandemic on rough sleeping. A passive response from the authorities to those sleeping in shop doorways and along underpasses is no longer acceptable. Most of those people have already made some reconnection with society and there is every chance that it will not be broken.