Work and education, not benefits, are the keys to social mobility

July 11, 2012

Tory MP Nick Boles has a reputation as a leading light in conservative modernisation, and friend of the PM.

So his speech about public spending at the Resolution Foundation the other day is well worth a read.

Boles’ speech generated some headlines because of what he said about pensioner benefits.

But I think the more interesting bit is what he said about spending on benefits for children, and social mobility.

If people in Britain are going to have more chances to get ahead, we need to get unemployment down, and improve education, and Boles has things to say about both.

On work, he had this to say:

“Child Tax Credit has grown in today’s money from £15 billion in 2004/05 to £22 billion in 2011/12. And that comes on top of a child benefit bill of £12 billion before the recent restrictions on higher rate taxpayers. While these transfers provide a vital boost for the incomes of many poorer families with children, unlike working tax credit on which we only spend £8 billion, child tax credits and child benefit do little to help parents get into work and nothing to incentivise them to take steps to improve their capacity to command a decent wage in future.”

I completely agree with this – the Government should redirect future resources away from benefits for children towards things that help their parents earn more.

Interestingly, a new political consensus seems to be emerging on this. In a piece this week for the New Statesman, Labour MP John Denham (who is an aide to Ed Miliband) talked about how Labour were now thinking about “Shifting investment from tax credits to affordable child care.”

This is progress, and I suspect it reflects work done by the IPPR on rethinking Labour’s approach to child poverty.
Boles also had interesting stuff to say about education, and particular, the great hopes that “early years” interventions like Sure Start might help avoid poor children starting school so far behind their richer peers:

Many might think that Sure Start would be a good candidate for more money. But I am afraid that would be to perpetuate the kind of lazy sentimentalism that has seen so much taxpayers’ money wasted over the last decade.

The most recent evaluation of Sure Start noted that, despite costing £1,300 per child and £1.1 billion in total, “no differences emerged” between children who had attended Sure Start and those who hadn’t on seven different measures of cognitive and social development.

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge, herself a former Minister for Children, has said “we tried to do too many things on not enough money.”

And Sure Start’s former director Naomi Eisenstadt has said, “the core design principles of Sure Start were more to do with what government wanted public services to be… and not really based on evidence of interventions that had been tested through scientific methodologies.”

As if to underscore Boles point, new data released by the Department of Education in the last couple of weeks has found that Sure Start doesn’t seem to have had much effect on children’s development:

“No consistent SSLP (Sure Start Local Programme) effects for child development emerged at 7 years.”

This is pretty damming for a project on which we spend £1,200,000,000 a year.

But worse still is that we can’t even conduct a proper evaluation of Sure Start – the report notes how “early decisions not to undertake a randomised control trial” have meant that academics have had to bodge together data and make assumptions about which areas are similar to try and form a view.

The Cabinet Office are trying to make sure that in future as many policies as possible are given this kind of clinical testing (the sort that we use to test whether medicines work)

It is interesting how the lack of money is making politicians in all parties much more discerning about how to spend it, and a bit tougher-minded about what actually works. It’s another sign that after Britain’s great spending binge (2001-2010) perhaps we are finally sobering up.

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