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Posts Tagged ‘Theresa May’

We can’t address ‘the burning injustice of mental illness’ without proper social investment

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

Yesterday Theresa May made some welcome announcements about the government’s future direction on preventing mental illness and promoting positive mental health.

She rightly identified that not only is mental health a social justice issue, but that the best way to improve it is by making it “an everyday concern for all of us, and in every one of our institutions”. Taking an early action approach is therefore imperative to preventing mental illness, and in doing so “transforming the way we deal with mental health problems at every stage of a person’s life”. In doing so she recognises, rhetorically at least, that the current crisis in mental health is as much a social crisis as a medical or funding crisis.

Thriving Minds: Acting early on mental health

Just before Christmas the Early Action Task Force published its latest report looking at how we can act earlier on mental health. Central to the argument of Thriving Minds is that as mental health underpins so many aspects of our lives, we need a far ranging response that goes beyond simply reforming mental health services.

A useful way of thinking about this was best put by report co-author Rosie Hayes, when she asked is mental illness the ‘Great Stink’ of our time? She highlighted that since the 19th century the government has recognised the benefit of investing in physical infrastructure such as the sewer system to improve public physical health, arguing that today we face a comparable situation in mental health. Therefore, similarly to the areas identified by the Prime Minister, we argue in Thriving Minds that schools, the workplace, communities, money, and the criminal justice system are important areas for early action beyond – and in collaboration with – mental health services.

We would also add private renting to the Prime Minister’s list, as renters are 75% more likely to experience serious anxiety and depression than homeowners. This is largely down to insecurity in the private rented sector, itself a consequence of unaffordability, short-term tenures, and poor living conditions. If we don’t tackle these issues – and the issues identified in the other 5 areas mentioned above – then it is unlikely we will be able to prevent mental illness, let alone promote positive mental health. Legislative approaches like those found in Scotland with the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016 and more local initiatives like co-regulation of private landlords are promising starts, but more must be done.

Was it all just rhetoric?

As other commentators have pointed out, we should be sceptical of these pledges – however welcome they are on the surface – when previous governments have at best consistently failed on mental health provision and, at worst, actively damaged it with cuts. David Robinson wrote on our blog yesterday that announcements like this – and Blair’s “Giving Age” – are sometimes pure rhetoric entirely lacking in policy substance. The mere fact that mental health was given such prominence in the Prime Minister’s first proper speech on social policy makes us optimistic, but equally we are wary about aspirational announcements with no new money to back them up. Only time will tell how serious this government really is about addressing our current mental health crisis and, ultimately, long-term investment in key social infrastructure such as schools, the workplace, and communities is the most likely thing to yield a triple dividend: enabling people to lead thriving lives, costing less, and contributing more.

The meaning of the shared society

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Tony Blair delivered his first Conference speech as PM on October 1st 1997. He mentioned, amongst much else, the advent of the “giving age”.

Early on the morning of the 2nd I received an urgent request from the policy team at No 10 – would I attend a meeting about the “giving age” at 6.30 that night? Excellent, I thought, an early opportunity to understand what the new epoch means for us, the sector and our plans for the New Jerusalem.

I think there were 6 of us at the meeting. It might have been 5. We were asked, by way of introduction to say what we thought the “giving age” might mean. I assumed the challenge was a kind of icebreaker. It turned out to be the purpose of the meeting. Apparently the phrase had been inserted in the speech hours before it was delivered and after the PM had asked for more rhetorical flourishes. Everybody at No 10 was surprised when the press picked up on it. Now the Policy team were being asked to invent the meaning. Quickly.

Unsurprisingly the “giving age” is not generally remembered as Blair’s finest hour . Indeed it is not generally remembered. Full stop.

David Cameron’s “Big Society” was an altogether more considered proposition crafted in opposition and floated in the media long before the election. It also hasn’t been forgotten largely because the PM invested so much personal effort and political capital in sustaining the rhetoric throughout his first term. Despite his perseverance, however, the practical legacy is minimal. Community Organisers and Big Society Capital (BSC) are usually cited as the principal achievements but as the Social Wholesale Bank began life under Gordon Brown before being rebranded as the BSC even this sparse litany is an exaggeration.

Big Society always suffered from being the politically acceptable half of an idea that actually had two parts. In practise it was as much about a smaller state as it was about a bigger society. As I tried to point out in my open letters to David Cameron (which you can read here and here) the simultaneous erosion of so much of the public realm was desperately at odds with the promotion of ideas about community empowerment and social support.

That’s why I am, on first acquaintance, a little more optimistic, although instinctively cautious, about Theresa May’s “shared society” unveiled on Monday. The phraseology at least seems to acknowledge the importance of the state alongside the citizen and civil society. If the linguistic shift is intentional I think it is an important one but I know it is a big if.

As I write on the evening after the PM’s speech, I am fervently hoping that there isn’t a little huddle of worthy souls summoned urgently to stare intently at a blank flip chart in the bowels of Downing Street and to try to fathom out what the devil might be meant by the shared society.

Does equality matter? New Tory think tank Bright Blue dives into the fairness debate

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Equality has been a thorny issue for both Labour and Conservatives. Tony Blair famously said he was ‘relaxed’ about people being fabulously wealthy when challenged on Newsnight about the ever widening gap between rich and poor under Labour. His view was in keeping with the approach of the Conservative party which has traditionally put its faith in ‘trickle down’ economics, and was also criticised for increasing the gap between rich and poor when in power.

So it was bold of Bright Blue, a new Tory think tank, to face the issue of fairness head on in their first debate entitled Does Equality Matter last night at Westminster (Jonty Oliff-Cooper, co-founder of Bright Blue, explains their position above).

Shadow Work and Pensions minister Theresa May, and left of centre commentator Polly Toynbee, the two speakers, both agreed that equality mattered, but disagreed about the importance of income as a key measure of equality. Both focused their comments on policies needed to help those on average or low incomes improve their situation, saying relatively little – and in May’s case nothing – about what to do about reducing the share of wealth that goes to the very rich.

Theresa May argued that income was only one factor in a complex matrix of problems that stopped people fulfilling their potential. She talked a lot about family breakdown, drug addiction, cycles of long term worklessness and other apparently non-income related factors that contributed to poverty, following the line Cameron had adopted the day before in his speech at DEMOS, to the annoyance of some. She insisted there was no one solution to reducing levels of inequality and said what was needed was flexibility and bespoke policies that met the needs of individuals.  She gave the example of autistic young people who have special needs for help into work that could never be met by an off the shelf approach. The voluntary and private sector would be called on to meet many of these needs.

Interestingly, May did not challenge the notion that inequality needed to be reduced or that more equal societies are happier and more successful, although she did not develop these points with any great enthusiasm.

Polly Toynbee, on the other hand, enthused about The Spirit Level, a recently published book by academics Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, which shows that on a whole range of measure from health to teenage pregnancy and crime, the more equal a society is, the more successful it is. It was not so much how much money people had that mattered, she said, but the relative gap between the richest and poorest. A key issue was status, how people see themselves in relation to others. Where there are big gaps between rich and poor, those towards the bottom of the social hierarchy feel a lack of status, resulting in depression, crime and anti-social behaviour.

The obsession amongst some disenfranchised young people in the UK with ‘respect’ and their willingness to commit acts of violence to gain ‘respect’ was evidence, she claimed, that these status issues had a big impact on the happiness or otherwise of a society.

Toynbee said redistributive tax policies were needed to reduce the gap between rich and poor and praised tax credits as an effective redistributive measure. May said nothing about redistribution and did not stay long enough to be asked about the issue.

Questions from the audience focused on detailed policy issues such as where to focus priorities in allocating resources to the Sure Start programme, and how local authorities can work with central government.

One questioner asked whether cuts needed to bring down the budget deficit would be an opportunity or a threat to the next government. Toynbee said it would be an opportunity for the Conservatives to cut back on state provision. Teresa May dodged the question somewhat by saying it would be a challenge, but said it would be an opportunity to spend money better and acknowledged that cutting without increasing inequality would not be easy. When challenged on the Conservative’s record on tackling inequality under Thatcher, she said the gini coefficient (a measure of inequality) was higher now than it has ever been.

Anyone hoping to map future Tory policy on equality issues needed to read between the lines. But the focus by Theresa May on individual and family issues as the key factors in inequality, and the absence of any mention by her of redistribution or greater regulation to crack down on mega pay levels in both either the private or public sectors, suggests the new Tory approach to inequality may not be so different from the old one.

When we eventually come out of recession, will the Tories, if they are in power, allow the gap between rich and poor to grow even wider? Will they continue with the laissez-faire economics of both previous Labour and Conservative governments which have allowed the city to let rip and top earners to increase their pay to levels which would have been unimaginable just two decades ago?

That might be a good subject for the next Bright Blue debate.

The second reading of the Welfare Reform Bill: conceived in a boom world?

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

House of Commons Chamber: Speaker's tableThe Welfare Reform Bill had its second reading Yesterday at Westminster. Newly in post as Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Theresa May‘s ability to succeed her predecessor and stand against James Purnell has been questioned by The Telegraph and by The Spectator. May raised concerns over lone parents and what exactly work related activity would consist of. She was joined by other MPs from all political backgrounds in highlighting the worry that sanctioning lone parents may dangerously increase the levels of child poverty.

 Steve Webb MP, Liberal Democrat questioned the strategic approach to the Bill describing it as not only skeletal but actually invertebrate. He too asked, “What happened after sanctions, would a child live in poverty as a result?”

There too was an overall consensus that benefits were too low. Last week Lynn Jones MP picked up on a letter submitted to the Guardian and quickly turned it into an Early Day Motion EDM543. John Mason MP worried that this would cause a disincentive to go back to work and called for “more conditional carrots such as increasing the minimum wage as part of a much needed joined up government approach” Despite tweaks to the current Bill there was little in the way of outright opposition. May described their policy as ‘progressive’ and supported the bill ‘on the condition that Purnell would not back track’ She went on to advise him that he ‘needed to stand firm’

Terry Rooney MP was one of only a few who got to the nitty gritty, the specifics of the reforms needed and in doing so illustrated his knowledge of the welfare system. He quite rightly drew attention to the dramatic reduction in money lost due to fraud in comparison to the continued levels of money lost due to error. Talking about the psychology of the recession Mr Rooney touched on creating a more flexible modern benefit system,  which is what we are campaigning for at Need NOT Greed, as a way to remove the reliance on cash-in-hand work. To maintain job retention he suggested a wage subsidy scheme and spoke of changes to the 16 hour rule, earning disregards and greater benefit take up. “We need to remove the barriers so providers can be more effective

Even Conservative Charles Walker MP praised the Bill but was “worried that it may have come at the wrong time” and echoed Mr Rooney that “the barriers need to be removed and the complexities of the benefits system resolved.” He finished with ” For the most excluded the benefits are a safely net, a leg out of poverty. Some will never escape the benefits system and they must not be ignored but a civilised society must provide a route out.”

Almost all too harmonious, or at least until Frank Field  MP stepped in voicing his opposition to the Bill. “The Bill was conceived in a boom world and by the time it occurs it will be largely irrelevant to our constituents.” He suggested pulling the plug on current schemes and spending the money more effectively. Direct intervention was more favourable to Mr Field; community programmes for Young people offered real jobs for young people to go into and VAT cuts would be better spent on Job Seekers Allowance.

By the end it was difficult to assess where each party stood regarding Welfare Reform. What struck me the most was the uncertainty in the House. In an era of economic gloom it seemed that no one had the answers, but there were a lot of ‘what ifs’, ‘is the Bill suitable?’ Yet attending the Need NOT Greed focus groups it is very clear that people with first-hand experience of poverty, unemployment and benefits do have the answer, there are too many barriers and not enough incentives. Watch ‘Working what’s the point?

On February 24thwe will be launching the Need NOT Greed campaign at Westminster. Chaired by Terry Rooney MP there will be a discussion between MPs and people struggling on benefits to create a better understanding of the systematic traps, the fear and the policy changes needed to end dependency on benefits. Welfare Reform was developed in the boom, making it all the more necessary for government  to consult the experts, the individual in an era of unknown gloom.