To watch the speech, please follow the link below.
Heidi Allen MP Speech on Life Chances Strategy:
Someone once told me there is no such thing as luck. Luck they said, is a place where opportunity and preparation meet, I suppose you could call it right place, right time.
The right time is the opportunity, the ‘break’ that comes your way….that job, that house, that chance meeting. But the right place doesn’t just mean the pub where you meet your husband to be, though it worked for me! The right place means when you are in the place here, in your head, when you are prepared and able to grab an opportunity with both hands and transform your circumstances.
Many of us in this chamber will have grown up with everything pretty much sorted. A stable family, friends, a decent household income, a great education, good health; that perfect mix that gave us the confidence we needed to control our lives and make use of opportunities that came our way. So when we talk about a “Life Chances Strategy” we are talking about identifying the things Government can do to plug the gaps for individuals not so fortunate as us, where one or more of those key ingredients is missing.
I applaud the Prime Minister for making this one of the central themes of his work, it’s certainly why I came into politics. But now we have the challenge of translating that policy aspiration into detail - and that challenge is huge. Not just because we are still recovering from economic turbulence, and wage growth and productivity have not yet fully bounced back, but because one of the solutions cannot easily be measured nor have metrics attached.
People transform the lives of people. Hearts, heads, promises, support, mistakes but above all trust. People.
So if I return to my premise that it’s about opportunity and preparation. Well, Government can certainly develop policy to provide the opportunities, and it has done that very well already.
An improving economy, record levels of job growth and employment, an increase in the minimum wage, a transformation of the benefits system through Universal Credit, investment in the NHS and mental health, help to buy schemes, starter homes. Admittedly, we would all agree we have much more to do on the affordable housing front in high cost areas. And we are still uncovering the enormity of the mental health challenge. The success of Universal Credit will be made or broken by the revolution that needs to happen in our Job Centres.
But overall, these policies will provide those essential opportunities and many millions of people are already benefiting from them.
It’s the preparation part of the luck equation that I want to focus on. How do we help those folk who don’t have the building blocks of family stability, education or good mental health? What catalyst can we inject?
When I think of all the people I know who have transformed their lives, without fail, the single common denominator has been another person. There may have been Government interventions in the mix somewhere, a grant to set up a business, affordable housing, a benefit payment, but alone that would not have been enough.
Those Government interventions only work in isolation, for those folk with preparation in the bag. When you really need help to turn your life around, you need another human being to help you. And this is where it gets tricky. How on earth does the tanker ship of Whitehall deliver that level of detail and local interaction? And more to the point, how does it measure it?
There are opportunities to offer support and mentoring every time an individual or family touches the ‘system.’ Although the Work Coach in Job Centres is arguably the greatest and most obvious interface, it is not the only one. We have amazing people already embedded in the DWP who have the skills and passion to transform the job centre brand from the concrete monstrosity of despair to a place of welcome and support.
I met such a person last week, a lady called Julie Nix who manages our Job Centres in the East of England. She and her colleagues have a huge mountain to climb, so we shouldn’t leave them to do it all.
Every Government department has a role to play. Ministers need to identify where people touch their departments and embed the Big Society into their areas of responsibility.
Take DCLG and their incredibly successful troubled families scheme. We need more of this. Look at Croydon Council, doing amazing work to breakdown their internal silos to place the best interests and potential of their residents at the heart of everything they do. A holistic approach that we should mirror in central Government too.
I applaud the proposals by the Department of Education to work with business to encourage employees to volunteer as mentors in schools. This is a tremendous initiative; however, it is not the only interface the Department has. What about the parents too? Think Billy Elliot’s father!
Already under incredible pressure of workload, but isn’t the Department of Health the most natural interface for care and support? Can we give our medical professionals the time and resources to enquire beyond the immediate urgency of a heart attack, really do something about that depression or guide a new mother through the first few critical months?
Our GPs must surely be at the heart of this support transformation, but goodness knows many of them are themselves reaching breaking point. I and they welcome the extra funding to help relieve their workload, but that money must come now, directly, not via corridors of NHS power, but straight to the GPs with no bureaucratic salami slicing en route. If it doesn’t, I fear we may be adding GPs to our list of folk needing support too.
There is a huge opportunity for the DWP and Department of Health, more than any other 2 departments, to work together. Mental health services, addiction support and disability awareness, must be embedded in our DWP and Job Centre network. And that means releasing and sharing budgets. We can’t expect our Work Coaches to become mental health or disability experts overnight so they will need help and support to identify people’s barriers to a happy working life. Who knows, integrating health support with the DWP might just save the NHS money further down the line.
But there is another army of mentors and champions out there desperate to give their support to this revolution. The third sector. Almost totally frozen out of the Work Programme or relegated to be the sub, sub, sub-contractor at the end of the line, we need to bite their hands off and bring their expertise into the centre of this debate. These organisations whether charitable, social enterprise or home grown volunteer have one thing in abundance and far more than any politician or Government agency. The trust of the people they want to help. We would be fools not to find a way of accommodating their direct commissioning. And this I think is our greatest challenge. Rather than monitoring the performance of huge prime contractors, we need to allow our shiny new co-located Job Centres and local authorities far greater discretion of budget and targets to build a system of community and health support that works for their locality. Funding should follow the person, not the systems and assessment processes we currently make them jump through.
So the DWP white paper, green paper must come soon. I don’t care what colour it is, so long as we look at the relationship between all our systems and Government departments together. That means Universal Credit, PIP, ESA, ESA WRAG, the Child Support Agency, health, housing and caring responsibilities.
Talk to Julie Nix, local authorities, GPs, third parties like the Papworth Trust, the Trussell Trust, the Citizens Advice Bureau. What freedoms and access to third party providers do they need to really do the best for every individual they come into contact with?
This should be non-political, because we must surely all want this to succeed. We all have a role to play. This is bigger and more important than the colour of any political badge.
And the glue that will hold all of this together? The Cabinet Office and Treasury. I do not believe in the end this revolution will cost more. We just need to let go, put individuals not metrics at the heart of everything we do and allow people to transform the lives of people.