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Wednesday, July 11, 2007 

When all else fails, bribe the middle classes.

If there's one thing you can say for the Social Justice Policy Group, chaired by Iain Duncan Smith's report on social breakdown, titled Breakthrough Britain, it's that it hasn't done things by half measures. The sheer length of the whole document rivals Alastair Campbell's diaries, with one significant difference: while Campbell's diaries are going to be pored over for years to come, no matter how much many of us dislike the idea, it's doubtful that this report is going to be subject to the same degree of scrutiny.

Even reading the 190 recommendations the report makes, which itself runs to 16 pages (PDF), is enough of a challenge, let alone getting through the 275,000 words that the 6 volumes run to in full. The 12 page Overview (PDF) though perhaps is a bigger insight into what has gone on behind the scenes: it contains no less than 6 photographs featuring Duncan Smith himself. It'd be nice to think that the former Tory leader had found his niche, having discovered the true nature of relative poverty on the most bleak housing estates, but although he's met no doubt hundreds of people who he wants to help, or help to help, he doesn't seem to have actually understood them.

At the very heart of both Cameron and Duncan Smith's discussions of the paper has been the proposition that we live in a broken society. If you're going to put such a definitive statement of fact at the centre of your proposals, you ought to at least be certain it's right. The trouble is, as much as the doom-mongers on both the left and the right like to think that we're either going to the dogs or arrived there sometime ago, society, despite the efforts of both Thatcher and New Labour, is still alive. We might treat our children worse than animals, we might have betrayed them, the underclass may be burgeoning and ignored, but the ties that bind us together are still there. We're a dysfunctional, fucked-up, overly materialistic society, but broken? Not yet.

The headline-grabbing policy recommendation concerns the reintroduction of tax breaks and other benefits to encourage marriage, more of which later, but it's some of the other proposals which either stick in the throat just as much, or considering how muddled and confused some of it appears to be, how promising some sound. Take for instance the proposal for an increase in carer's allowance, which many across the country struggling to care for their loved ones and relatives desperately need. Then compare it against the recommendations on benefit reform, which are so rigidly structured that you'd think that a New Labour bureaucrat had written them. People on Jobseekers Allowance must be actively seeking or preparing for work full-time, and this must be enforced? How exactly? People with "disabilities or long-term health condition but capable of work" must seek or prepare for it for between either 5 or 20 hours a week? It goes even further than the Freud report in attempting to get lone parents back to work: they must either prepare or actively seek work for 20 hours a week when their child reaches school age, and full time once they reach 11. That this somewhat jars with the fact that the report contends that family relationships are crucial in halting social breakdown doesn't warrant a mention.

Then we get on to the proposals for schools, another hodge-podge, which in typical Cameroon style is obsessed with the "third-sector" and with other charity/religious groups picking up the slack from the state itself. We've had specialists, academies, trusts and now Duncan Smith proposes "Pioneer Schools", which groups of parents and "alternative" providers will be given the right to setup if they think their current one is either inadequate or failing, free from the tyranny of local authority control and with charitable status, and parents from other schools can demand to be moved to them if their school has been "failing" for three years. This is all under the banner of "every parent matters" a vacuous slogan to match Labour's own effort, "every child matters". Interestingly, it seems that the views of the teachers themselves aren't welcome. That few headteachers and parents seem much enamored with Blair's plans for trusts doesn't seem to bode well for these "pioneers" either.

It's a similar story with the recommendations for dealing with drug and alcohol addiction. On the face of it there's some excellent proposals: getting rid of Labour's targets and replacing them with one measured in terms of real outcomes, families to be prioritised for obvious reasons and a review of the Misuse of Drugs Act. Then it spoils it by recommending the introduction of "treatment vouchers" (why does the right so fetishise these loathsome degrading pieces of paper?), Methadone to be prescribed in the context of change programmes, when almost all experts agree that prescribing heroin itself rather than the substitute is far preferable, support for "faith based communities", which hopefully doesn't include such faith based communities as the Scientologists who are increasingly trying to gain access to prisons with their own addiction programmes, and a new commitment to controlling the supply of drugs. The policy group doesn't seem to have taken into account that if supplies of Class A drugs dry up (no chance of that with heroin considering the Afghanistan poppy crop) the problem is greatly exacerbated, with desperate people becoming even more desperate, while if there's a glut the situation is completely different. On top of all of this, the group has already decided on one change to the Misuse of Drugs Act before any review: cannabis is to be put back in Class B because of the spread and effects of "skunk", something which has been much exaggerated and will only result in the criminalisation of yet more young people and involve even more police time being wasted. Oh, and school drugs testing, an incredibly bad idea if there ever was one, should be trialled.

The recommendations concerning alcohol and gambling are just as mistaken. Rather than examining why our streets happen to be full of drunkards at the weekends, it only wants to deal with the actual consumption, not the cause. 7p on a pint of beer in any case is hardly going to make someone think twice: even if you drink ten pints that's only 70 pence, which in some pubs will only get you 25% of one in the first place. Why is it that we, rather than our European partners who in some cases have far cheaper booze don't share our same habits? Is it because they have a better quality of life, and don't feel the need to get lashed every weekend to forget about their miserable lot? One could argue that it's our mental health and attitude, just as much as it is our family background and substance abuse that's to do with social breakdown, yet that's something that this report doesn't really cover.

Coming back to the headlines, and it's the tax incentives for married couples which rankle most. The assumption that they make for the best environment for bringing up children is squarely aimed at the natural conservative, and surprise surprise, both the Daily Mail and Sun have been applauding it. There's nothing wrong with thinking that; it's just that it's not necessarily true. While cohabiting couples are much more likely to split up, the report doesn't consider that this is probably because it's a lot easier to do so before the couple have properly committed themselves to each other: how many families do you know where the parents are sticking together because of the children? Ripping up a marriage is far more difficult and costly than a cohabitation is. Where it most fails though is that it believes that such measures would actually encourage couples to get married, when the last thing that anyone cares about at the time is whether they'll be better off money-wise if they do. Instead, it's obvious who such breaks at aimed at: the already married middle-classes, who've never been better off but are still disappointed, even angry with their perceived lack of influence.

And who could blame the Tories for attempting such a bribe? Almost everything else has failed, so why not go straight for the jugular? Cameron might dump the rest, but it's clear he's already settled on the propaganda for the family. When it comes down it, they're still about sodding (not literally, hopefully) the single mum and subsidising the bourgeois. Some things never change.

Related posts:
Stumbling and Mumbling - Against tax breaks
donpaskini - Breakdown Britain

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