“Social Justice” or something else…?

When I’m in charitable mood, i think that Iain Duncan Smith just
doesn’t get it. He uses all the right phrases – “early intervention”,
“social justice” – well-meaningly but doesn’t manage to sound like he
means them. On my cynical days, I think he ‘gets it’ completely – in
the sense that he knows full well he is using these words and phrases
to conjure something egalitarian and compassionate, while instead
supporting practices that are coercive, exploitative and fundamentally

Who in their right minds would argue against “early intervention”?

Fig6 on p17 of the Marmot Review “Fair Society, Healthy Lives” shows
how bright toddlers of poor families fare so badly, compared with rich
toddlers with low cognitive capability, in the period between 22
months and the end of Key Stage 1. This should be considered a
terrible failure of social justice in this country.


Marmot’s policy recommendations include increasing spending on early
years development and early education, improving parenting and family
support, including through paid parental leave, and focusing these
efforts on (though not restricting them to) harder to reach and more
disadvantaged children and families.

As practitioners who really know this field are well aware, the
evidence base for early intervention has been building for decades.
This C4EO publication, Grasping the Nettle
provides as good a primer as any for those who are new to the concept.

Iain Duncan Smith appropriates this language well.

So, early intervention acts against profound social injustice, has the
potential to improve the lives of millions and – crucially – is
significantly lower cost in ‘whole system’ terms than waiting for
things to go wrong and then having to step in with welfare programmes,
prison costs, drug and alcohol interventions, social care placements
etc. This is a fantastic argument for directing the expenditure of
funds fairly gathered through general taxation Into interventions that
will improve lives and eventually lower costs to the taxpayer.
Progressive and redistributive. Socially just.

Is that what IDS is planning to do? No.

His own Comment is Free article, and Patrick Wintour’s piece in the
Guardian this weekend (below) outline his latest wheeze.



IDS starts to anger me from his first paragraph, where he lazily, and
mean-spiritedly equates love with prosperity. In a Tory world-view,
where pretty much everything can be purchased, maybe this is a truism.
But he needs to understand that the cramped homes of the workless,
where families often struggle, are not love-free zones. And money
can’t buy us love.

IDS is excited by ‘innovatively funded’ early intervention schemes,
which will channel ‘private billions to the poorest children’. Oh
really? So far, this government’s innovation in the field of early
intervention has been to bundle together more than 20 grants to local
government which were for a range of early intervention programmes, to
re-name the bundle the ‘early intervention grant’ while cutting its
value by up to 20% and to remove the ring fence against a background
of other cuts, so that it doesn’t have to be (and in many cases won’t
be) spent on early intervention at all.

If the government’s commitment to early intervention is this
lacklustre, what can the current fuss be about? The fuss is about the
‘powerful message about social justice’ contained in the IDS
proposals. This powerful message seems to be ‘rich people won’t act to
make the lives of poor people better unless they can make money out of
doing so’ (sorry!… unless they are financially ‘incentivised’).

(IDS’s method of ‘incentivising’ poor people into work is to remove
money from them by cutting their benefits. Yet rich people are
incentivised by giving them more money? There’s social justice in
action for you! A blog for another day, perhaps)

Volunteers all over the country give their time to communities for
nothing, hundreds of thousands of low paid public sector workers are
daily engaged in helping the most vulnerable for wages that
millionaire ‘philanthropists’ wouldn’t get out of bed for, but for
rich people to work* in this field IDS thinks they should expect a
return on their investment.

(*when I say work I don’t mean actual, get-your-hands-dirty work,
obviously, I mean the kind of work where you give some of your money
that you don’t need, to someone else for a little while and then get
it back in its entirety, plus some more. Cos you’re -what? prosperous
and loving? Nice.)

Apparently we ‘start re-engaging the top of society with those at the
bottom’ (and don’t you just love that sort of disparaging language?)
and ‘reviving the sense of shared community’ by finding ways for rich
people to interfere in the lives of poor people and make money out of

People already working in early intervention are often engaged in
highly focused projects with specific objectives, but all understand
that entrenched social problems are ‘whole system’ issues; that
positive impact in one area can be offset by negative impact in
another; that families with problems (not ‘problem families’) often
need the support that additional time, effort and professional
resources can bring but that their greatest and potentially most
effective resource is the families themselves. And people already
working in early intervention also understand that ending
intergenerational poverty and disadvantage is a ‘whole life’ issue.
That next week’s positive ‘outcome’ must lead to a further positive
outcome next year, and in five years time, and in twenty-five years
time. And that the interconnectedness of these interventions,
resources and outcomes means that if done well, and sustainably, early
intervention calls on the resources of the whole of society and the
reward should rightly belong to society as a whole.

Instead, IDS wants to take the ‘savings to the public purse’ from
successful early intervention and to direct them into the hands of
private investors, privileging the narrow impact of the interventions
that they sponsor over the value of the collected effort of wider
society. His ‘powerful message about social justice’ is biblical: “to
the one who has, more will be given”.

I predict that a financier-driven ‘payment by results’ system of early
intervention will prioritise short-term outcomes over long term ones;
will skew individual and organisational behaviour towards the
externally set objectives of financed programmes and away from
focusing on how best to meet individual needs and enable individuals
and families to take control of their own lives and progress; will
introduce competition rather than integration between programmes so
that particular programmes can claim ‘success’ and therefore their
financial reward; will lead to ‘cherry-picking’ so that families whose
problems seem intractable are diverted out of privately-funded
programmes so as not to negatively impact on their ‘ROI’ and into
public-sector programmes which will provide the inevitable safety-net
and for which they will be derided for ‘inefficiency’ (translation:
working hardest within the most complex and challenging situations).

The last paragraph of Patrick Wintour’s Guardian article explains that
there will be tax breaks for charities and companies ‘investing in
social impact bonds’. In other words, a form of legitimised tax
avoidance from next year, for a scheme which ‘could take 15 years to
bear fruit’.

I am an ardent believer in the value of early intervention, and the
importance of social justice. These proposals are not social justice.
They are a rich man’s scam.


4 thoughts on ““Social Justice” or something else…?

  1. good blog as usual. The thrust of current policy seems very regressive. It’s odd that the government are dredging up solutions to current situations from turn of the century industrial philanthropism. We don’t live in the world of the Cadbury family or the Rowntree family any more.The key difference is that social welfare is big business. A point you allude to without just nailing it. The welfare state, the NHS, schools etc are ‘industries’ that generate huge ‘profit’ (just wait before you duff me over OK? :)Profit in terms of money and also profit in terms of social value. And crucially, profit in terms of moral value. Doing something that is right because it is right. We need that.The apparent contradiction at work here is the use of the rhetoric of social and community development from IDS, with an economic model that has already collapsed. What we are actually seeing is an attempt to asset strip some really very profitable businesses (the NHS, Social Services etc). There are lots of big private social and health businesses waiting in the wings ready to pounce and fleece the UK tax payer. This government are so inept economically they might just let it happen.Having said that I am more in favour of mixing our health, social care and educational economies than they currently are. But I am an unreconstructed Keynesian. The references to love are a hijacking of our understanding of early childhood development and in particular the understanding of the role of secure attachment in early maturational processes. Both in terms of emotional development but also in terms of neurological development. It views trauma to a baby as some sort of platonic event. It doesn’t seem to happen in the real world of bodies and hunger and soiled nappies and too much noise from overcrowding and exhausted overworked parents with no time to play and and and and etc etc. There is a myth peddled that if you ‘love’ a child enough it can develop secure emotional bonds in the face of anything. The love at work is something more spiritual and conceptual. The sort of love a boy in boarding school might read about in a poem by John Donne for example.As long as the parent say ‘coochy coo’ and think nice thoughts every now and then everything will be OK with little Jonnie or Joanna.It’s utter bollocks.It’s not possible to love child enough to stop them from being damaged by the material impact of poverty. What we do know though is that it is possible to give a child all the material wealth in the world and starve them of love. They will be damaged horribly by that.WAs little IDS in that category? I don’t know…What IDS and fantasists like him really need to take on board is the truth of another psychological frame: Maslow and the hierarchy of needs. There has been recent research looking at this model cross culturally and cross societally and it seems to be holding true. We develop sort of like that, needing a secure base made of food, shelter, love.Parental love to an infant is a very practical thing as well as an emotional thing. An infant doesn’t have the mind to be able to distinguish between neglect to meet it’s hunger needs or neglect to meet it’s needs for eye contact, or being tickled, or being held etc. It gradually learns to distinguish those things over a period of years as it’s mind develops.So once again: Ian you are talking bollocks matethanks for the post mum 🙂

  2. IDS in my own view has always been given far too much credit for his concern and compassion towards to poor his agenda streches further than just helping them he is just a very solid Tory who has come out of himself more since he was dropped as Conservative leader

  3. Brilliant blog as usual. Early intervention should be about saving our young making saving costs to public services down the line so the welfare system is enriched. It should not be about making savings to be squeezed out by private interests and ulitmately weaken the welfare system.

  4. Great blog! Where do IDS proposals place our society? Are we willing to tolerate huge social inequalities because there is no profit in tying to help the most vulnerable! Shame on us. Some things should be done because they are right and a civilised society should not be able to call itself such if it fails to address these issues- not because it is cheaper in the long run; not because it is profitable; but because it is right. IDS is a wrong thinking old style Tory!

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