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Jonty Olliff-Cooper: If the Prime Minister is serious about fixing the "Broken Britain", he should create a dedicated Ministry of Social Justice

Jonty Olliff-Cooper is Director of Policy & Strategy at A4e

Screen shot 2011-09-07 at 05.24.04 It is time for a Ministry of Social Justice.  Creating new departments has a bad reputation in Westminster. Civil servants working on planning must have ost track of the number of times their department has mutated from the old Department of the Environment to John Prescott's DETR and MAFF, to DEFRA and DCLG.  The business department has suffered a similar fate, evolving from The Board of Trade to the DTI, DBERR, BERR, Mandelson's super department BIS and now its Cable successor.  Merely unscrewing a nameplate in Whitehall achieves nothing. However, there is now a serious case for the reorganisation of government around social justice.

The issue has been put on the agenda by the riots.  A better reason for a new Ministry is that successive governments have failed to make transformative progress on the root causes of poverty.  Tackling these root causes requires a joined up approach.  Integrating services becomes more crucial the more deprived you are, as problems heap upon problems in a downward spiral.  A classic example is the interrelationship between depression and unemployment.  Depression might lead to job loss.  But being unemployed is known to affect mental health.  One reinforces the other.  The answer is to tackle both simultaneously, as numerous reports and bodies have recommended - such as Breakthrough Britain, the Making Every Adult Matter coalition, the Frank Field review, the Social Exclusion Task Force, and The Family Life Chances report. But although the problems are closely connected, the support we offer is not.

Even so, haven't we seen enough departmental reorganisations over the past few years? If problems cut across boundaries, can't ministries just cooperate and pool budgets?  Just because government needs to join up, that does not necessarily require a new government department does it?

Well, yes, actually it does.  A new department may seem like simply rearranging the deckchairs, but in this case, it is the layout of the deckchairs that is the problem.

There are three reasons for this.  Firstly, trying to work cross-departmentally runs counter to the hierarchical set-up of the Civil Service.  Staff follow their line-managers, not instructions from other departments.  Although there have been attempts at shared objectives between departments, inevitably they receive less focus than what is perceived to be the Department's core business.

Secondly, there are practical barriers to joined-up government. Data is stored in different ways across departments.  Staff are physically separated into different buildings across Whitehall.  Joint teams too often act as negotiators on behalf of their home department, like ambassadors sent off to a foreign land.

Thirdly, separated departments means separated budgets.  The spending for a policy might come from the pocket of one department, but the benefits accrue to another. Conversely, the same happens with the costs of failure. If a local authority cuts older people’s social care, the costs fall on the NHS, not councils.  "Costs shunting" like this is endemic across government.

None of this is the fault of Civil Servants.  Cost shunting is perfectly logical in the present system.  The problem is not pernicious people, but pernicious structures.  All policy areas are interconnected, but none more tightly than those focussed on deprivation.  A new department is not always the right answer, but it is in this case.

So what exactly should be in this new ministry?  Well, according to the Whitehall joke that all government departments are named after the opposite of what they actually do (The Ministry of Attack, the Department of Illness, the Department of Alienation and Central Government, etc.), so this new Ministry should include the gamut of areas aimed at combating injustice.

At a minimum, that means enhancing the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), by hiving off the ‘P’ to HMRC, and replacing it with skills policy from BIS.  Of course, any redrawing creates new boundaries. However, linking employment and skills makes better sense than separating them.  This is already the model of Northern Ireland's Department for Employment and Learning. Debt advice and financial education could be usefully brought in too.  Personal debt is an enormous driver of poverty, yet government’s response is dissipated across departments.  Until recently, responsibility rested in the Treasury, where it has to battle for attention about concerns like the collapse of the world economy.  So, employment, skills, financial advice would be in the new department at a minimum.

However, if the PM is feeling bold, he should not stop there.  MoSJ should include the full range of central government departments working on social justice too: early years and families policy from the Department for Education; probation, rehabilitation, drug and alcohol addiction from the Home Office and MOJ; housing and rough sleeping from DCLG; philanthropy, social innovation, social finance and public service reform from the Cabinet Office; and mental health from DH.  Disjunctions would remain, but perhaps in better places.

Of course, creating a new department comes at a cost in time (and stationery), but this is miniscule compared to the cost of inaction.  We waste millions of pounds every day on disjointed, ineffectual services that paper over problems rather than solving them.

A more fundamental objection is that many of the tools needed to solve social problems would still be divided between a MoSJ and local government.  The lasting solution to this is to transfer much more social spending to local level, as proposed in the CPS's Council idea.  The same institution that spent would then reap the benefits of spending, in lower costs in another part of its own domain.  However, that is still some way off.  A new ministry is something we can do now.  It is not the full answer to poverty, but it could be part of the picture.  Poverty is hard enough to eliminate without the hindrance of "man-made" obstacles like deliberate siloes between the tools for the job.

At the end of the day, it's a question of focus.  What should be the big priorities of government?

Conservatives seek to reduce the size of the state.  But, the debate on the right now is how best to do that: to not simply cut back the supply of the state, or outsource problems to other sectors, but to reduce the underlying demand for government too – the need for it.  An integrated Ministry is an important step towards that.

At present, departments are built around processes which make sense at the centre: ministries for paying out money, ministries for collecting it in, departments for operating hospitals, prisons or schools.  But these are bureaucratic imperatives, not what citizens - especially those in deepest deprivation - need.  A Ministry of Social Justice would be a start towards building government around you, not you around government.  That is surely something which all conservatives can applaud.


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