Ryan Bourne: If you want to feed hungry children, don’t target food poverty. Aim to reduce poverty as a whole.

28 Oct

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. 

Covid-19’s initial economic impact fell disproportionately on those least able to mitigate it. An Institute for Fiscal Studies paper in July found that single parents, low educated poor households, and ethnic minority groups suffered the worst relative hit. Since then, workers in low-wage services industries such as hospitality, transport, and retail, have faced both the worst of unexpected job losses and uncertainty about their income.

With this unique shock, it is unsurprising that a welfare state built around previous experiences has exhibited failures in protecting against hardship. Falling incomes, especially for those without savings or access to government benefits, have consequences. The Food Standards Agency reports greater food bank use, self-reported hunger, and families eating out-of-date produce.

That context is why the Government faces intense pressure over extending free school meals during school holidays through Easter 2021. Given the uncertainty around the efficacy of other government support, you can see the temptation to follow the advice of Iain Martin, who proposes caving to Marcus Rashford’s campaign again. Give the “£20m, handshake with Marcus R on steps of Number 10 on Monday and Royal Commission into child poverty,” Martin tweeted.

That defeat might seem a small price to pay to end the optics of opposing meals for hungry children, regardless of any questions you might have about the realities, or the desirability of extending the government scheme. As Isabel Hardman writes, the belief that Conservatives are insensitive to “food poverty,” coming first in righteous anger over food bank use in 2010-2015 and now “free” school meals, has hung around the Conservatives for a decade, whether fair or not.

Martin’s short-term solution, however, neglects that campaigners won’t be satiated by extending out-of-term meal vouchers to Easter 2021. Rashford’s campaign’s ultimate aim, remember, is to implement the Dimbleby Review, which would double the number of kids on benefit-triggered free school meals by extending eligibility to every child from a Universal Credit household (an extra 1.5 million kids.)

Crossbench peer Baroness D’Souza is already pushing for out-of-term meal vouchers to become a permanent feature. Combined, that would be billions of pounds, year on year, not tens of millions.

Come next year, no matter the labour market’s health, the Government will face the same criticism. If much of austerity taught us anything, it’s that even when acute need passes, wrapping up programmess will renew accusations that Conservatives “want to starve kids” by “snatching” their lunches.

Milton Friedman’s warning that “there’s nothing more permanent than a temporary government programme,” in part stems from recipients’ aversion to losses. A Royal Commission packed with do-gooders who examine food poverty in isolation will bring further demands for spending and diet control.

That is why, I suspect, some Conservative MPs vociferously oppose the Rashford campaign. It’s not heartlessness, or even this specific extension they oppose, but the precedent and direction of travel. They can foresee the vision of government this type of reflexive policymaking and its paternalistic particulars end with.

The problem for them is that they are on a hiding to nothing in claiming this specific measure risks creating longer-term “dependency” or “nationalising children” if the public think today’s needs are real. Conservatives who believe in a small, limited state have to have answers —about what responsibility the Government should have in dealing with hardship, what tools it should use, and what its role should be for those falling through gaps.

After ten years in government and riding cycles of support for the welfare state, there’s a lack of clarity in the Party’s position, with a mix of preferences among its MPs for income support, service provision, civil society solutions, and combinations of the three. There is a clear, principled alternative vision of how to deal with poverty if the Tories want it. But it requires getting off the fence.

That alternative would say that “food poverty” is not distinct from poverty. Free school meal campaigners are broadly right that hunger is not usually caused by parental fecklessness.

Therefore, logically, food poverty largely results from insufficient disposable income for some families. If widespread hunger is evidenced, the debate should therefore be about whether benefit levels or eligibility are sufficient to meet basic needs—the goal of a safety net welfare state.

This type of limited support that trusts people to use top-ups for the betterment of their families is vastly preferable to a paternalistic state stripping us of responsibility, through demeaning out-of-term food vouchers akin to U.S. style food stamps.

In deep unexpected crises, the case for additional emergency income relief is greater. But if there really is a more structural problem of hunger, then it demands examining why wages plus benefits are insufficient to deliver acceptable living standards. Rather than just look at benefits then, we should examine living costs, too—the poor spend disproportionately high amounts on housing, energy, food, clothing and footwear, and transport.

My former colleague Kristian Niemietz wrote a free-market anti-poverty agenda back in 2011, which I’ve pushed MPs to adopt since. He showed that market-friendly policies on housing (planning reform), food and clothes (free trade), energy (ending high-cost green regulations), childcare (reversing the credentialism and stringent ratios), and cutting sin taxes to economically-justified levels could shrink poverty by slashing the cost of living for the poor, so reducing food hardship, homelessness and more.

Most of this agenda would require no extra spending or busybodying from government paternalists; some of the policies would bring the double-dividend of raising wages .

The Government has ambitious policies in a number of these areas. But why are they never linked to the poverty discussions? As they press for planning liberalisation, why is nobody highlighting how cheaper housing would lessen these tales of distress? Why is nobody identifying the discrepancy of some campaigning about food poverty while opposing trade deals that would make food, clothes, and manufactured goods cheaper, to the huge relative betterment of poor consumers?

Sure, there would be families who make bad decisions and find themselves in trouble, even in a world of cheap and abundant housing and an effective safety net.

But instances of poverty owing to lack of resources would be much lower and these thornier challenges (often stemming from addictions, loss, ill-health, criminality and more) are much better identified by local charities and civil society groups anyway, as Danny Kruger argued in the Commons last week in relation to hinger. Giving nearly three million kids “free” school meals year-round would be an absolute sledgehammer to crack any remaining nut.

In today’s emotive debates, it’s not enough to just oppose proposals when the need is perceived as urgent. Conservatives must be better at re-setting the debate on their terms—a task much easier if they held a clear vision of the role and limits of state action.

Matthew Barber: A new approach to defeat drug crime

27 Oct

Matthew Barber is the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for the Thames Valley. He is currently the Deputy PCC for that area.

Many people have declared that the war on drugs has failed. Instead of criminalising the use of certain psychoactive substances, some people argue they should be regulated. There are many challenges in this very emotive debate, not least the fact that many proponents of legalisation advocate a system where the state effectively subsidises and supplies substances known to be damaging to certain sections of the population.

One area where I do agree that our system has failed, is in dealing effectively with drug users in a way that makes them stop. There has been a focus – not unreasonably – over decades to focus on the suppliers and dealers of the narcotics that sadly ruin the lives of thousands every year. The recent emphasis on tackling county lines gangs is a great example of this. While the National Crime Agency tackles drug importation, police forces have been making arrests and breaking up gangs that move drugs around the country and exploit the most vulnerable along the way. This is admirable work and in the most recent national week of action, Thames Valley Police topped the league tables with 91 arrests and the seizure of 27 weapons, 91 mobile phones, as well as drugs and £50,000 in cash.

Dealing with those serious criminals higher up the food chain is of course vital, but tackling one gang and reducing the supply for a short while can often simply drive up the price and cause more harm and criminality along the way. There has been little effort to tackle the market. The real harm is to individuals, and those around them, who consume drugs either recreationally or habitually. The acceptance by many parts of society of what is known as “casual drug use” is no more than tacit acknowledgment of “casually breaking the law”.

Many people feel that the police already turn a blind eye to drug users, and police officers get frustrated by the lack of sanctions and the cycle of the criminal justice system that simply goes through the motions without ever seeking to fix the problem.

So I am delighted that in Thames Valley, as part of the work of the PCC’s Violence Reduction Unit, a new approach is being rolled out. Thames Valley Police are working with partners on a new scheme to reduce drug use and tackle those who are consuming the drugs as well as those who supply them.

The Drugs Diversions Scheme uses Out of Court Disposals (OOCDs) to direct young people under 18 who are caught in possession of drugs to a rapid assessment and education programme run by drug service professionals locally. The intention is to actually deal with the underlying problem, rather than simply pushing children through the courts, often ruining their life chances and pushing them further into drug use and crime.

There are additional sanctions in place for those who refuse to take up the offer of help, or refuse to attend; they can still be arrested and prosecuted. As will anyone who is suspected of supplying drugs to others. This approach makes it more likely that those taking drugs will receive sanction from the police and also means that, with help education and support, they are less likely to both reoffend and to commit other drug related crime.

We must, of course, continue to tackle the supply of drugs and while others may continue the debate about legalisation and regulation there is a much more urgent job to be done and that is stopping people, particularly young people, from embarking on a course that can ruin their health, lead them irreversibly into the criminal justice system and sadly all too often cost them their lives.

This new approach from Thames Valley Police has already been piloted and has had notable success in getting people to engage with the programme and therefore reduce drug use and reoffending. Some people have described this as a “soft touch”, but they are mistaken. Criminal sanctions remain available for those who do not take the help that is offered. But sadly in the past, we have seen the system failing to the extent that those prosecuted for minor offences find themselves on a one way street to greater addiction and criminality. This approach seeks to reduce the harm of drugs to the individual, but just as importantly to reduce the harm to society. Getting people to stop taking drugs means less crime, less addiction, and less of a market for those who seek to push their poisons on our streets.

Frank Young: What drug dealers really think about legalising drugs

22 Oct

Frank Young is a Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice.

Drugs legalisation is a cockroach policy that is almost impossible to kill. Even now, as the country tries to contain a pandemic, there are calls in the press from Left and Right to legalise cannabis: rather like the arguments over grammar schools, it is a debate that seemingly will never die.

Dealers themselves are dismissive of calls to legalise drugs – as we found out when we spoke to some about arguments put up by political types for and against legalisation.  Today, we publish an account of what they told us: A raw deal: drug-dealing discussed with lived experience.

Our ex-pushers told us, very clearly, that like any entrepreneur they would simply undercut the (heavily taxed) market in any newly legal drugs. One former dealer told us that if high street chemists started selling legal cannabis, they would “either match that price or do better than that price”.

The supply of “recreational” drugs is immune to lockdowns, as a recent study of drug supply found. Ordering recreational drugs is now as easy as ordering a pizza. This isn’t just an issue that is happening somewhere else. The chances are that there will be drugs whizzing around a street near you, impervious to class or any other sort of social stratification.

One ex-dealer told us about dealing Xanax, a common anti-anxiety drug, to university students: “a lot of these people that I was selling drugs to in university, I was just their doctor”.

We were told about, in their words, “middle-class” students, who didn’t think they were buying drugs because they were getting brand name PfizerXanax at a fraction of the price of a high street pharmacist. These are the sons and daughters of our “ethical” consumers of ‘Cali’ cocaine.

What our conversations really taught us is how our debate in this area is increasingly out of date: the political class will forever discuss laws they can tinker with, but what we need to really talk about is how we provide support to help guide people away from the dangerous temptations of criminal activity. Our ex-dealers were caught in a trap just as bad as any poverty trap.

When you speak to young men ‘trapped’ in a cycle of drug dealing and violent offending, the idea of parallel societies is a constant theme. Our conversations with ex-drug dealers shed a spotlight on career routes in gang life and the drug trade.

They were drawn in by the easy cash, which then hooked them into a lifestyle of small-time dealing. Tougher policing through newly announced Serious Violence Reduction Orders will help, giving the police the chance to step in when they can see drugs all around them, making dealing in the spotlight a much less attractive proposition. But good ol’ Tory tough-on-crime is not enough by itself.

The solution to these problems is not endless debate over regulation, but to get serious about engaging early and scaling up tried and tested programmes focused on young people heading for the clink.

Take Josh Babarinde, who was awarded the OBE recently. Josh set up Cracked It: he literally went door to door to encourage young people to join his social enterprise mending phone screens and supporting ex-offenders into work.

For those much further down the path, charities like Key4Life who work with offenders stuck in prison and through mentoring and education put them on a path tolegitimate employment. A year after release,14 per cent of those who went through the Key4Life programme have re-offended, compared to a national proven re-offending rate of 64 per cent. There are plenty of charities stepping in to do this work: what we could do with now is a national effort to scale up what they do, bottle it and do more.

If you want to kill supply, you have to kill demand, so get in early with young users – if you’re found with small quantities, you should be sent on a drug awareness course, like a speed awareness course, to learn about the damage you are doing.

This should be used as a funnel to scale up these charities – and pick out the young people heading to the clink,  or worse. Police Commissioners should be given a proper role to step in and deliver these programmes, and an innovation fund for commissioners should be set up, making them proper laboratories for fighting crime.

The next time someone tries to peddle legalisation to you, just say no – and ask them what they would do instead about the young men caught up in ‘the trap’, from tougher street policing to backing charities stepping in to change lives for good.

Frank Young: What drug dealers really think about legalising drugs

22 Oct

Frank Young is a Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice.

Drugs legalisation is a cockroach policy that is almost impossible to kill. Even now, as the country tries to contain a pandemic, there are calls in the press from Left and Right to legalise cannabis: rather like the arguments over grammar schools, it is a debate that seemingly will never die.

Dealers themselves are dismissive of calls to legalise drugs – as we found out when we spoke to some about arguments put up by political types for and against legalisation.  Today, we publish an account of what they told us: A raw deal: drug-dealing discussed with lived experience.

Our ex-pushers told us, very clearly, that like any entrepreneur they would simply undercut the (heavily taxed) market in any newly legal drugs. One former dealer told us that if high street chemists started selling legal cannabis, they would “either match that price or do better than that price”.

The supply of “recreational” drugs is immune to lockdowns, as a recent study of drug supply found. Ordering recreational drugs is now as easy as ordering a pizza. This isn’t just an issue that is happening somewhere else. The chances are that there will be drugs whizzing around a street near you, impervious to class or any other sort of social stratification.

One ex-dealer told us about dealing Xanax, a common anti-anxiety drug, to university students: “a lot of these people that I was selling drugs to in university, I was just their doctor”.

We were told about, in their words, “middle-class” students, who didn’t think they were buying drugs because they were getting brand name PfizerXanax at a fraction of the price of a high street pharmacist. These are the sons and daughters of our “ethical” consumers of ‘Cali’ cocaine.

What our conversations really taught us is how our debate in this area is increasingly out of date: the political class will forever discuss laws they can tinker with, but what we need to really talk about is how we provide support to help guide people away from the dangerous temptations of criminal activity. Our ex-dealers were caught in a trap just as bad as any poverty trap.

When you speak to young men ‘trapped’ in a cycle of drug dealing and violent offending, the idea of parallel societies is a constant theme. Our conversations with ex-drug dealers shed a spotlight on career routes in gang life and the drug trade.

They were drawn in by the easy cash, which then hooked them into a lifestyle of small-time dealing. Tougher policing through newly announced Serious Violence Reduction Orders will help, giving the police the chance to step in when they can see drugs all around them, making dealing in the spotlight a much less attractive proposition. But good ol’ Tory tough-on-crime is not enough by itself.

The solution to these problems is not endless debate over regulation, but to get serious about engaging early and scaling up tried and tested programmes focused on young people heading for the clink.

Take Josh Babarinde, who was awarded the OBE recently. Josh set up Cracked It: he literally went door to door to encourage young people to join his social enterprise mending phone screens and supporting ex-offenders into work.

For those much further down the path, charities like Key4Life who work with offenders stuck in prison and through mentoring and education put them on a path tolegitimate employment. A year after release,14 per cent of those who went through the Key4Life programme have re-offended, compared to a national proven re-offending rate of 64 per cent. There are plenty of charities stepping in to do this work: what we could do with now is a national effort to scale up what they do, bottle it and do more.

If you want to kill supply, you have to kill demand, so get in early with young users – if you’re found with small quantities, you should be sent on a drug awareness course, like a speed awareness course, to learn about the damage you are doing.

This should be used as a funnel to scale up these charities – and pick out the young people heading to the clink,  or worse. Police Commissioners should be given a proper role to step in and deliver these programmes, and an innovation fund for commissioners should be set up, making them proper laboratories for fighting crime.

The next time someone tries to peddle legalisation to you, just say no – and ask them what they would do instead about the young men caught up in ‘the trap’, from tougher street policing to backing charities stepping in to change lives for good.

Rough sleeping has fallen sharply. The challenge is to stop it rising again.

9 Jul

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.