Gordon Brown succumbed to mounting pressure from the somewhat unrelenting Tory line on public spending cuts and used the “c-word” in his speech at the TUC conference yesterday. The message was that cuts under a Labour government may be necessary to restore public finances, but they won’t be as bad as under the Conservatives.
Of course, the devil is in the detail and neither party has shed much light on where these cuts will take place. Brown has assured us that “vital” frontline services will be saved from any future belt-tightening, because the cuts will happen in “low priority budgets”. What he didn’t say was how we decide which services are high priority and which are low. In the scramble for votes before the General Election, there’s a risk that all parties will try and score points simply by promising bigger savings and this will narrow the focus of the debate.
Quick fixes will be seen as cheap and attractive. Those services that generate significant social value by way of bringing wider benefits to society but which will not deliver an immediate return to the State may be brushed aside, in favour of those designed to provide a short, but temporary, solutions for our most critical social problems. Already professionals working in children’s services have expressed concern that preventative services – which typically work ‘behind the scenes’ to keep families together, keep children in school, and promote mental and physical health – will be some of the first to go. Yet, the work of these services, particularly in early childhood, has far reaching implications for generations to come, beyond the next term of office starting after the Election.
Consider, for example, nef’s analysis of the social and economic benefits of preventative and early intervention services, released today in Backing the Future: why investing in children is good for us all. Our reseach shows that if we invest upfront to rebalance our system of service delivery towards one that is more preventative than our current model, we can expect to save £486 billion over the next 20 years – even when the transaction costs of making the transition to a new system are taken into account. When compared to conservative estimates which show the UK’s preventable social problems – crime, mental ill health, family breakdown, drug use, and obesity – look set to cost the UK economy £4 trillion over the next 20 years, the case for investment is overwhelming.
And while it may seem like a strange time to be looking to temporarily increase and reconfigure public spending on children and young people, the evidence indicates we can ill afford not to. At the moment it looks extremely unlikely that the UK will meet its poverty reduction targets, it is languishing at the bottom of international rankings of child well-being and the UK has the lowest rates of trust and belonging among 16-24 year olds in all of Europe. The current system of services has got things the wrong way round. It spends much more on children and young people when problems have become entrenched, when they are often impossible and certainly expensive to remedy. Despite being one of the richest countries in the developed world, our society is one of the most unequal and one of the least child-friendly. By not proactively tackling the root causes of our social problems, we have for too long allowed them to become a drain on public resources: the price tag of the UK’s social problems is a third more expensive than the next most troubled nation in Europe.
Even in a time of immediate crisis, any politician worth their vote needs to keep one eye on the future. Out of the ruins of the recession, we need to harness the opportunity to build a stronger society, with fewer social problems. To achieve this, we need policies that can improve the life chances of today’s most at-risk children and succeed in preventing the same root causes of social problems, including poverty and inequality, from having an adverse effect on the next generation. As the details of spending plans are unveiled, we should not be won over by easy political sells at the expense of funding decisions that will put the UK on a trajectory to a stronger, fairer and happier future.
Backing the Future: why investing in children is good for us all makes the social and economic case for switching to a preventative model of services for young people and children. This research was carried out by nef in partnership with Action for Children, whose Executive Director Clare Tickell makes the case for change in today’s Society Guardian.