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One Early Action Nation?

By Will Horwitz

The phrase of Labour’s annual conference was undoubtedly ‘One Nation’ not Early Action, but scattered throughout fringe meetings, articles and keynote speeches were increasingly encouraging references to prevention, to the long term consequences of decisions made today, to the calamity of cutting now to spend more later.

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls got the ball rolling last week when he said that “if you cut public health or targeted youth support, and other preventive budgets, that would be completely perverse.” He could have mentioned that health problems, even in those under 65, cost the Exchequer the equivalent of the entire budget deficit, each year.

Shadow Justice Minister Sadiq Khan did point out that the annual cost of reoffending could build and pay for an Olympics, every year. He could have added that we spend 11 times as much on locking up young people as we do on preventing them committing crime in the first place. He lay blame on the drug, alcohol and mental health problems that propel people into prison and keep the door revolving: “we’ve replaced the Victorian asylum with the Victorian prison’. He pledged ‘a new front in the war on reoffending’ with a ‘Justice Minister [with] specific responsibility for rooting out mental health problems in our criminal justice system.’

Shadow Health Minister Andy Burnham said “public services have never done prevention properly”, and lamented hospitals that “are paid by how many older people they admit, not by how many they keep out… We can get better results for people if we think of one budget, one system caring for the whole person – with councils and the NHS working closely together.” He even suggested full integration of health and social care as a way of removing the barrier between them, which distorts incentives and prioritises acute intervention over early action.

The indomitable Graham Allen continued his tireless early intervention crusade, standing by the importance of cross-party consensus as the only route to long-term success, even as he digested the news that Government seems to be on the verge of cutting the early intervention grant. Shadow Education Minister Stephen Twigg declared his support for the prevention as a core principle underpinning education and early years reform, backed up by Shadow childrens and families minister Sharon Hodgson.

When our second Early Action Taskforce report launches later this year it’ll touch on many of these issues, and several of these solutions – a budget review, a long term perspective, a new Minister, a cross-party commission, breaking down silos. There seemed to be an awareness not just of the benefits of early action but also the barriers to it, as we have been urging. But weary experience has taught us that rhetoric does not necessarily lead to change – witness Tony Blair’s stirring 1997 speech on the importance of prevention, calling for “departments to draw up plans for shifting energy and resources from cure to prevention, from clearing problems up to anticipating them.” Guess which other phrase crops up in the speech: “one nation Britain.” Can Labour, this time round, make it One Early Action Nation?

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