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Early action: “We need to do more” says David Cameron

September 25th, 2015

Prime Minister David CameronIf the PM’s speech on September 11th hadn’t happened to coincide with the final act of an extraordinary summer for her majesty’s opposition, it could have made the front pages. Here are some of the headlines:

“Early intervention is key whether it’s investing in things like health visitors or improving the provision of childcare. We have got to stop picking up the pieces when things have already reached crisis point – with all the misery, and extra costs, that brings…

And for those who are hardest to reach, there should be a whole government approach rather than a series of piecemeal and inconsistent interventions…

We need to do more of this. And we need to do more to encourage departments, local authorities and charities to work together collaboratively. Put simply: it’s now time to progress these ideas further and faster.

Another big step forwards has been our pioneering use of interventions like Social Impact Bonds, which pay private and voluntary sector organisations with some of the savings they deliver to the taxpayer. …I want to take this much further by bringing models like this to scale – in areas like homelessness, mental health and looked after children too.”

I don’t imagine that that these passages really were a cut and paste job from an earlier landmark speech by a recently elected PM with a healthy democratic mandate, but they almost could have been. In his first major outing as PM in July 1997 Tony Blair spoke about “the double jeopardy – worsening social problems and escalating tax bills… government must not fall into the trap of short termism… we know that many problems in later life stem from problems in the family, from poor parenting and lack of support. We have to learn to work more coherently . In every housing estate you can encounter literally dozens of public agencies all often doing good work but all often working at cross purposes or without adequate communication. This matters because it leads to poor policy and wasted resources… our challenge must be to overcome those barriers, liberating funds from their budget silos so that they can be used to deliver the best result.”

I mention the similarity not to belittle either speech, both conveyed an important message, but to demonstrate the scale of the challenge. Blair did useful things on this territory, particularly in his first term, but as we showed in “Triple Dividend” and “The Deciding Time” progress has been very slow and patchy. Deep and enduring change needs determined and persistent leadership and, above all beyond the fine words, a gritty commitment to the kind of bold reforms in systems and structures that will, in practice, shift the dial on behaviour, culture and ultimately services on the ground.

“It is now time to progress these ideas further and faster” says Mr Cameron. How much does he mean it? The Spending review is an early test. In our submission to the Chancellor the Early Action Task Force argued that an Early Action Loan Fund would help deal with the problem of running acute services while early action takes effect and the particular difficulties which exist where costs fall to one budget and savings to another. The Fund would offer interest free loans to public sector agencies to invest in early action. The loans would be paid back over 3 – 7 years through savings in acute provision or welfare spending and would be available to promote innovation and system change within public provision. Loans would be interest free because of the bias toward the status quo and the culture of risk aversion.”

We suggested that “the Fund could be financed by top-slicing existing budgets and/or through a tax on social polluters such as the gambling, alcohol and payday loan industries. It would be administered independently to add accountability and new discipline and ensure that loans remain binding if the Government changes. It would quickly become a reservoir of best practice – both in terms of programme design and implementation challenges. Acting outside of government, it could more easily focus on the delivery of multi year programs across spending and electoral cycles. Critically, while oiling the wheels, the Fund would inject more discipline into the design and delivery of preventative, demand management spending and invest to save projects.”*

At first the Fund might be limited – say £200-250m. This would create the impression of scarcity and prompt the more forward thinking . We would envisage 10-20 programs of £10-20 million – with spend spread over a number of years. But this should be just the beginning: An Early Action Fund should be part of a wider strategy to set up funds that break down silo working and encourage joint investment. We also recommended in our submission pooled budgets and social profit sharing agreements, where different parties agree to invest in early action on the understanding that any future savings are shared to a pre-agreed formula.

The Spending Review is the first major opportunity for the new government to demonstrate the substance of the Prime ministers September rhetoric. We hope that early action really does make the headlines this time around.




* In order to draw the loan, borrowers would have to present a credible plan for the delivery of outcomes and savings. The Borrower would be required to report regularly and failure to deliver would trigger a stop on further drawings of the loan and a liability to repay early. The requirement to repay passes the responsibility for assessing attribution and cost savings to the Borrower and away from the Fund.

In some cases, sufficient benefits and savings may arise within the local authority or Departments to deliver savings over and above the cost of the loan and the local authority would be responsible for repaying the loan.

In order to make this incentive work, there should be a protocol for future spending reviews to enable borrowers to retain the benefit of additional, evidenced savings for a defined period of time before they are claimed by the Treasury to reduce the borrowing requirement.

However, where the savings predominantly fell to the welfare budget in AME, the Treasury would need to be a party to the loan and would have to agree to repay the loan and share a proportion of any additional savings beyond the cost of the loan with the public sector entity that had delivered the saving.

One Hundred Days For Early Action?

August 18th, 2015

Last Saturday heralded the one hundredth day of the current government, and in that time they have managed to fit plenty in.

As argued in the Early Action Task Force’s One Hundred Days for Early Action essay collection, the first few months are a crucial period in which any government can frame their activity over the following five years. It was therefore the perfect opportunity for putting prevention first. But to what extent has this actually happened?

Prevent today or pay tomorrow

Unfortunately the government has focussed on changes that will save money in the short term, but are likely to create costs further down the line. Not only this, but many of them are socially damaging too. Take, for example, the lowering of the benefit cap from £26,000 to £20,000 (£23,000 in London), which is likely to contribute to rising homelessness and force people away from vital support networks in search of cheaper places to live.

Furthermore, the decision to impose the climate change levy on renewable energy will make investment in this often forward-looking sector a much less attractive prospect, and rejecting the imposition of a ‘sugar tax’ (just one possible tax on social polluters suggested in a previous Task Force report) to tackle obesity is strange considering that prevention is far more effective than cure for this particular condition.

Not all bad news

There are some promising developments, however; for example, the devolution agenda offers a chance for new preventative strategies, particularly in health and social care, and, pending the national evaluation, the extension of the Troubled Families initiative could signal commitment to encouraging further breakdown of silos in local service delivery.

The government could – and indeed should – do far more. Practical programmes like parenting classes, Incredible Years group training, and a Troubled Youth Programme learning from Troubled Families might be a useful place to start. However, early action programmes alone run the risk of becoming piecemeal efforts. Equally important are efforts that focus on the workings of government, aiming to lead on changes to organisational cultures and systems. Much of this revolves around longer term planning: focussing on the delivery of outcomes, more effective evaluation, and systems of accountability emphasizing cross-departmental collaboration. All of these ideas are distilled in one of the collection’s introductory chapters.

The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, the second best time is now

Progress in the past one hundred days may have been disappointing but, as the Chinese proverb above suggests, it is never too late for early action.

Our essay collection is by no means a blueprint for the government to follow fastidiously, but it does offer some valuable suggestions as to how the state could shift towards prevention; enabling people to thrive, therefore also contributing more and costing less.

Incidental Connections: an analysis of platforms for community building

July 14th, 2015

At an Early Action Task Force meeting last year we were told two contrasting stories. The first was about an elderly woman whose failure to eat properly and take her medication led to a series of problems, eventually resulting in her being admitted to a nursing home. The second woman, a long standing member of an allotment group, fell ill but was looked after by other group members. They took turns sharing their meals with her, checking on her daily for a chat and running other errands wherever necessary. The arrangements remained in place for nine months until they were no longer needed.

One was unhappy, remains unhappy, and now depends on expensive care services. The other was happy, is happy, and costs nothing. She managed to cope with the stress of illness and was enabled to come out the other side stronger than ever. No-one was ever asked, trained, or paid to support the second woman. No-one would even call themselves a volunteer; they were just doing ‘what anyone would do’. The strong community, ‘doing what anyone would do’, is in the interest of us all and, given current trajectories, increasingly urgent.

Is it just a matter of chance, or can such communities be built? How, as a society, do we best nurture the conditions for care and support to happen ‘incidentally’, just as in the allotment group, without the structures and systems and the artificiality that would negate its essence?

These are some of the questions that we set out to answer in our latest report, Incidental Connections. To do this we spoke to people from ten ‘platforms’ – events, groups, activities and/or spaces – including a school gate, a coffee shop and a running club.

The research

The first thing we found was that whilst the functionality of a platform was the primary reason people engaged, the motivation to participate further was prompted by the platform being both friendly and fulfilling. Take the running club, for example:

“The initial reason people go is to run, but often people will stay because of the people they meet… It might be a really cold night and you’ll think, ‘do I really want to go?’ and you’ll end up going because of your friends.”

Many participants also drew a contrast between platforms that are merely functional and those that are both functional and friendly. A good example of this was the marketplace as compared to the supermarket; the former is a far more appealing place as, in the words of one participant, “there’s a fair chance [I’ll] bump into someone I know” whereas in supermarkets “by and large the number of times you meet someone you know there and you can stop for a chat are far less”.

Secondly, each platform also offered the opportunity to create and sustain a range of different relationships from casual acquaintance to long-lasting friendships. These relationships were often supportive, from minor acts of information sharing to prolonged emotional support during a period of stress. In some cases there was evidence of multiple forms of support for vulnerable people; for example, one respondent told us the story of how he and other staff at the coffee shop noticed that a man who was “borderline homeless” hadn’t “come in for a couple of weeks” and so they found “out where he lived and went to see him” to check that he was okay. Although this could be considered “stepping over a line” the person in question was ultimately very pleased to see them and be offered support with their problems.

Finally, there were seven key facilitators that encouraged the creation and maintenance of socially supportive relationships. These included trust, the permission to connect, commonality, regular and sustained engagement, collaboration, a mixture of online and physical spaces, and the personal characteristics of those involved in the platform. However personal characteristics were also sometimes a barrier to meaningful engagement, as were a lack of resources and a lack of trust.


The small nature of this project meant that some questions remained at the end of the research. It would be useful to look at several platforms of the same type to understand why certain school gates, for example, might facilitate socially supportive relationships better than others. Furthermore, as we only spoke to one or two people from each platform, who by their very involvement were quite committed to their platform, we did not manage to explore how ‘outsiders’ might experience exclusion. It would also be interesting to delve deeper into the relationship between online and offline engagement within and around platforms.

As such this project offers some tentative answers to the important questions set out above, but further research is needed to fully understand the implications of these platforms. This is particularly the case when we consider how a range of platforms within a certain area such as a neighbourhood could connect with each other, create a set of communities within a wider community, and potentially even promote local economic development.

The July Budget: smoke, mirrors and ‘merry-go-rounds’

July 9th, 2015

Merry go roundWatching yesterday’s emergency budget was a thoroughly depressing experience, not least because of the scale and range of welfare ‘reforms’ that were announced. A four year freeze on most working age benefits, the changes to eligibility for Tax Credits, and an even lower Benefit Cap (amongst others) are all likely to have starkly negative effects on individuals and families.

The new compulsory ‘national living wage’, pulled from a hat to genuine surprise, felt for a brief period like a positive step forward. As ever with Budget day, it is always worth spending more time reading the accompanying document than listening to the Chancellor’s rhetorical flourishes. The so-called ‘living wage’ doesn’t amount to anything more than a higher National Minimum Wage (NMW) for over 25s. We welcome pay increases (as long as they are on the way to an actual Living Wage), but this so-called ‘living wage’ is problematic for a number of reasons and largely feels like another misdirect in an endless political game of smoke and mirrors.

The first problem is the fact that under-25s will be exempted from the rise which, combined with cutting Housing Benefit for under 21s, amounts to a concerted attack on young people. Secondly, the level at which it is set (£7.20) falls short of the actual Living Wage (£7.85 outside of London), doesn’t take into account London’s higher living costs (the current London Living Wage is £9.15), and therefore will not make up for cuts to tax credit. Thirdly, the actual Living Wage calculation takes into account a wide range of things, including the newly cut tax credits, and so improving incomes is not quite as simple as this policy suggests. Ultimately it is a deeply regressive budget that takes far more from the poor than the rich, even with the rise in the minimum wage.

Spin and the ‘welfare merry-go-round’

The language used in the welfare reform debate is both fascinating and horrifying. At a very basic level the attempt to appropriate the term ‘living wage’ feels like a cynical way to score points against an opposition that is still reeling from the general election.

Metaphors such as ‘welfare merry-go-round’ are particularly revealing. On the surface it evokes the image of individuals spinning endlessly around a convoluted tax and benefits system; trapped in a process by which money paid by individuals in tax is then supposedly received back by the same person in the form of benefits. To free people from this ‘merry-go-round’, the argument goes, we must reduce benefit generosity and simultaneously encourage employers to pay better wages.

The merry-go-round metaphor also implies that there are people in society getting a ‘free ride’. In the words of the Chancellor, “the benefits system should not support lifestyles and rents that are not available to the taxpayers that pay for that system”. This false division between those who only ever pay in and those who only ever take out is highly damaging as it explicitly rejects the idea that a model of social insurance into which we all pay and out of which we all benefit at some point in our lives. All of the above is claimed to be in the name of ‘fairness’. But is it really fair to individualise poverty and punish those on low incomes?

Towards social security

We know from our longitudinal research that previous cuts to benefit entitlement and generosity have caused significant hardship, largely failed to incentivise work, and in many cases have forced people into a ‘survival mode’ in which they can only focus on scraping by day-to-day rather than having any real hope of building a better future. This is the real welfare merry-go-round; except instead of a ‘free ride’ the cost of a ticket  is poverty, hardship and institutionalised suspicion, often inflicted upon those who have contributed to society in the past or would do so in the future if only the opportunity arose.

Our benefits system doesn’t have to be like this. It could be something that promotes social security; no longer just compensating for system failures such as poor education, or causing costs elsewhere such as when someone is made homeless due to the Benefit Cap, but continuing to help us deal with setbacks and promoting opportunity. This could be achieved, in part, by social investment in the form of housebuilding, universal free childcare, and raising wage levels to an actual Living Wage. Lofty ambitions, perhaps, but these strategies and others will help to save money in the long term, improve social outcomes and therefore go some way towards a ‘long term economic plan’.

Alongside this we also need the Government to start thinking about the potential long-term impacts of their policies; ten year tests are one way in which this could be done, carefully scrutinising each new policy to not only ascertain it’s future impact, but also its impact across governmental departments.

Other places have already taken the initiative. Take the Welsh Government’s Well-being of Future Generations Act, for example. This has enshrined in law the promise to “make public bodies think more about the long term, work better with people and communities and each other, look to prevent problems and take a more joined up approach”. Unfortunately for the rest of the UK, this feels like a far cry from where Whitehall currently stand in respect to welfare reform.

Press Release: Rise in so-called ‘living wage’ welcome but masks cuts that will end up costing much more than they save

July 8th, 2015

For immediate release

Rise in so-called ‘living wage’ welcome but masks cuts that will end up costing much more than they save

The cuts to working-age benefits announced today will push working and non-working households in poorer communities closer to the brink, argues social action charity Community Links. Drawing on its three year research project analysing the cumulative impact of welfare reform and decades of experience delivering employment support and benefits advice, the east London based charity states that freezing working age benefits for another four years, cutting tax credits for families with more than two children, lowering the benefit cap and reducing support for disabled people deemed unfit to work come on top of previous cuts that are already pushing people into deeper poverty and crisis.

The Chief Executive of Community Links, Geraldine Blake, said: “Any financial gain low-paid people will get from rebranding and slightly raising the minimum wage will likely be lost in the widespread cuts to vital benefits for people in and out of work.  We welcome the Chancellor’s decision to begin tackling the problem of endemic low wages, however 20% of Newham residents are currently paid less than the existing national minimum wage and 50% receive less than the London living wage.  Even this moderate rise excludes under-25s and ignores the need for a higher level in London.  George Osborne should be introducing real measures to tackle our low-pay economy rather than punishing young people and children that happen to be born into larger families.”

Chair of the Early Action Task Force, David Robinson, said: “The lesson of the past five years is that slashing benefits can often be a false economy.  Even after sustained cuts to the amounts and eligibility to benefits, the working age social security bill remains roughly the same size it was in 2010.  Instead of removing financial support for those on low incomes, we need a social security system that acts earlier, tackling the drivers of poverty and acknowledging the desire of the vast majority of people on low incomes to improve their financial situation.

“Two practical steps the Chancellor could have taken today if he was serious about cutting the social security bill would have been:

  1. Analysing the future financial and social impact of policy changes over at least a 10 year period and start shifting investment towards preventative initiatives that will deliver truly transformative change and savings. Social security is an investment in individuals, communities and society.
  2. Providing additional funding to Jobcentre Plus and Work Programme providers to allow them the time and resources to provide effective, personalised employment support for people in and out of work to improve their skills and progress up the pay-scale, rather than being hassled into any job, however low-paid and insecure.”




Contact Information:

For further information or interviews with Geraldine Blake and/or David Robinson, please contact Ben Robinson at 0207 473 9644


Notes to editors:

  1. Community Links is a social action charity, rooted in east London and nationally focussed. It has over 35 years’ experience working in one of the most deprived, diverse and vibrant areas in the country. Our Vision is for confident communities ready to create and seize opportunities. Our Mission is to generate change in the communities of east London by ensuring access to all forms of opportunity: learning, skills, employment and social networks. We are sharing the lessons and promote innovations with a national audience of decision-makers.  Each year, we support over 16,000 people: providing challenging and inspirational activities for almost 8,000 children and young people; advising almost 5,000 people with benefits, housing and debt problems at a time when funding for this work is shrinking; supporting around 4,000 unemployed people over a third of whom find sustainable jobs, with many more going onto further training and voluntary work.
  2. Just About Surviving is their latest report looking at the cumulative impact of welfare reform and can be found here:
  3. The Early Action Task Force is a group of leading policy experts who have spent the last three years making the argument for a society that prevents problems rather than, as now, deals with their often more costly consequences. To date they have published a range of reports that primarily look at the ‘plumbing’ of Central Government and how spending rules currently disincentivise a shift towards preventative social policy. Most recently they published ‘Secure and Ready’ (see, an attempt to think about what a social security system with early action at its heart would look like.

Moving Beyond Enforcement: Early Action Policing

June 2nd, 2015

This week Deputy Chief Constable Andy Rhodes of the Lancashire Constabulary joined us in London to talk about early action policing. His overriding message, for me at least, was that for police work to be effective we desperately need to move away from the enforcement model. Andy argued that police work is still seen as waging total war on crime and, whilst kicking down doors and rushing around with flashing blue lights can be exciting, this is ultimately not the best use of anyone’s resources.

The work led by Andy is an attempt to address this, creating a police force that acts earlier at every possible opportunity; enabling people to flourish at the top of the cliff rather than catching them at the bottom.

Creating an early action culture

Total war on crime is also total war on criminals. This culture, reinforced by training regimes, encourages many police officers to be pessimistic and form a pejorative view of the 10% of the public with whom they have to deal on a regular basis. A few of these people are undoubtedly nasty individuals, but many perpetrators of crime also have complex problems that lead them to commit such acts in the first place.

Too much enforcement therefore leads to a deficit of compassion. As one paramedic, working on a project aimed at reducing demand created by vulnerable people who make excessive and repeated calls, put it: “don’t judge people based on where they are, but on where they have come from”.

Empathy is central to this; recognising that every individual has strengths and assets to nurture, and that everyone needs a personalised approach that takes into account their unique past and present situations. One such example of this can be seen in the Jobs, Friends, and Houses programme in Blackpool, detailed in Andy’s previous blog post for Community Links.

Leading the way for systems change

Sometimes when we talk about leadership we focus on those at the very top. They are important because they have the power to stand in the way of  (or even encourage) initiative, but as Andy pointed out it is often the front-line who are most excited by change.

Many of his comments on this reminded me of a piece by Ray Shostak in One Hundred Days for Early Action, the Task Force’s latest publication. In it he argues that we need to ensure that we need “a movement of front-line practitioners” that must “start with people working together to advance their shared ideas”.

Indeed, as Andy told us, the defining moment of his early action journey was the realisation that common ground is not good enough: you need a shared purpose. Hitting targets is not much of a motivator, but changing lives is. Due to the highly discretionary nature of police work, officers must want to act earlier. By exploiting the intrinsic link between values and a shared purpose the early action ethos can be inculcated.

This is particularly important when we consider some statistics that Andy shared with us. Firstly, from a very simple economic perspective, Lancashire Constabulary currently spends 48% of its time dealing with issues that may have been prevented had they been addressed earlier, including issues around welfare, anti-social behaviour, and public safety. Secondly, many resources are used by a range of organisations beyond the police for a small population of high intensity users. Real benefits – both financial and social – can be derived by acting together across organisational silos.

One response to this realisation was the creation of an early action department. This integrated 8 separate teams from a range of organisations that were already doing early action work. They now collaborate to decide the best course of action as early after a referral as possible, utilising a multi-agency home assessment of need and a lead professional to oversee the process. This enables a wide range of professionals to work around a shared purpose: supporting those with complex needs and ensuring they have the opportunity to flourish.

Total war

At the end of the session Andy mentioned that Lancashire Constabulary had just been awarded £4.3m from the Innovation Fund over 2 years. He welcomed this, but warned against the temptation to throw money at new initiatives when core services could be made far better by investing in integration and systems change.

Ultimately Andy is leading the charge at Lancashire Constabulary; no longer waging total war on crime, but on entrenched need and vulnerability.

Staff are being encouraged to move beyond seeing criminals as ‘the enemy’ and instead as people with histories, human vulnerabilities, and capabilities. Different organisations are being encouraged to work together and address need far earlier than they ever have been before.

There is still much work to be done. However, if inspiration is the first step in any total reinvention of a system and a culture, Lancashire Constabulary has already taken one huge leap forward.

Poverty and the Benefits Cap: Our aspirations are shaped by our experiences

June 1st, 2015

Today The Guardian have published a letter from Community Links Co-Founder David Robinson.
it is reproduced below and available on the Guardian website.

So the Department for Work and Pensions expects 40,000 more children to be pushed into poverty by the lowering of the benefit cap (Guardian Report, 29 May).Unless, that is, “these families respond by making behaviour change, for example, moving into work”, in which case they are “likely to move out of relative poverty”. Well, yes. Likewise, perhaps, if they find a Rembrandt in the loft or discover oil? Instead, the poor revel in their disabilities or luxuriate in their lack of opportunities.

How much better things would be with a dose of “aspiration”. In 38 years as an east London community worker I’ve never met a parent who didn’t want their child to get on and lead a fulfilling life, but our aspirations are shaped by our experiences. My memo to ministers, copied without amendment to Labour leadership contenders: change the experience and the aspiration looks after itself.

David Robinson
Founder, Community Links, London

Change is Possible: The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act

May 8th, 2015


The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act became law in Wales last week 

It has, in the words of the Act, been designed to “make public bodies think more about the long term, work better with people and communities and each other, look to prevent problems and take a more joined up approach”.

An international first, the Act incorporates much of the thinking of the Early Action Task Force, establishing  a Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, and placing a duty on all public bodies to base decision making on five “Principles” . The first and second principles are  “…the importance of balancing short-term needs with the need to safeguard the ability to also meet long-term needs”  and “… how acting to prevent problems occurring or getting worse may help public bodies to meet their objectives” For the other three principles and all the detail see this “Guide to the Essentials

Writing to the Early Action Task Force, Peter Davies, the Sustainable Futures Commissioner, said  “I want to thank you so much for all your support and contributions to the development of the legislation. We now have the task of making it work!”

Indeed we do. And, as the nation begins the first 100 days of a new Government, we also have a second task, equally important: We must  work to bring a similar approach to the rest of the UK. Our “One Hundred Days for Early Action” published last month, and our previous publications, show how …

It’s time to get cracking.


One Hundred Days For Early Action: Time for Government to put prevention first

May 6th, 2015

The Community Links led Early Action Task Force has recently published a new book One Hundred Days for Early Action: Time for Government to put prevention first: A collection of essays by a respected group of leading experts and thinkers with decades of experience of Government – as, civil servants, senior advisers or respected commentators.

Concluding our serialisation of the essays before the General Election, in this article David Robinson – co-founder of Community Links and Chair of the Early Action Task Force takes an overview of the collection and places the contributions in context.

Download the book.


One hundred days, FDR believed, was what it took to set the course for a presidency. It was his swift and determined grip on pulling America from the depths of depression in those early days of his first term that set the bar for future presidents.

Signalling intent is no less important for Prime Ministers and, in particular for our next one. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimate that 45% of the planned fiscal tightening will be still to come when the new Government is elected (£92bn). They will inherit a country of escalating needs, diminishing resources and an alarming direction of travel.

As funds have been cut in recent years acute services have been prioritised at the expense of earlier action. More problems have become more difficult when they might have been minimised or prevented. These trajectories are unsustainable but they are not inevitable. In this collection a range of commentators suggest the steps that might be taken by the new Government to build a society that prioritises an alternative approach – preventing problems from occurring rather than as now, struggling with the consequences. It would be, in the words of our first essayist Polly Toynbee, one that is “fairer, greener and more generous spirited”.

Another of the contributors to this collection Danny Kruger has spoken about the shift in the role of the Government from state as provider in the post war years to state as commissioner more recently. He has imagined an imminent further shift towards state as preventer in the years ahead. It may sound bombastic but when we look around and see where the flow is taking us we think the truth is inescapable. This is an idea whose time is overdue.

Unlike other Early Action Task force publications this collection does not represent our collective opinion. We wanted to generate a vigorous discussion and although all our contributors have either worked in Government or opposition, or been advisors or observers close to the centre, their experience and perspectives are very different. There is notable agreement on many of the policy prescriptions but also challenge and disagreement on some. None of the authors are responsible for the whole or, of course, for the views of others.

Sometimes the vocabulary in this territory can be confusing. In this collection we have reserved the phrase “early intervention” for work with children and their families and used the term “early action” to describe preventative work throughout the life cycle. Effective support in the early years is tremendously important but preparing for the world of the work, keeping fit in middle-age and getting ready for retirement are all also essential if we are to avoid difficulty in the next phase. A society that valued good quality lives and a sustainable economy above political fixes and short-term crisis management would do it all.

Some of our writers, remembering Gordon Brown’s dramatic activity in the opening days of the 1997 Government, suggested that early action needs a “Bank of England moment” – sweeping and decisive action immediately after the election, significant in its own right and also setting out the stall. Others urge a more patient approach, listening and learning and sharing ideas before doing anything at all. Most agreed that language is more important than ever in the early days. Government officials, parliamentary colleagues and the wider public will be alert to the signs. When electioneering is over, at least for a while, what is it that this Prime Minster really, really wants to do?

Some experts suggested practical programmes. Professor Layard recommends, amongst other ideas, Parenting Classes and Incredible Years group training, Luke Price an early action social security system and Professor Power a Troubled Youth programme learning from the Troubled Families initiative.

Of course every new minister will have their own favourites jostling for the PM’s attention and raising the thorny issue of priorities. Fortunately there are some possibilities where multiple benefits can ripple out to other agendas. Liz Meek, for instance, points out the close links between mental illness and physical ill-health. All such new expenditure programmes should, Lord O’Donnell suggested, be cleared by a new institution – the Office of Taxpayer Responsibility to ensure that “our accountability system is focused on preventing mistakes”.

Other authors also focused on the workings of Government believing that, with the machinery in place, transition to earlier action will gradually course through the system – longer term planning focused on delivery of outcomes, ten year testing, and a change in the rules allowing expenditure on early action to be treated like capital investment are suggested many of our contributors, and a “spot purchasing outcomes revolution” recommends Matt Robinson.

Better system leadership” said Rob Whiteman, is absolutely critical and others agree. Nowhere is this more important than at the heart of Government. Some think that responsibility for driving the early action agenda should reside in No10, others at the Treasury. Either way the Unit behind the leader (and there should be a Unit) must be central and it must be powerful and it must have the authority to lead change across Government – this is, above all, a cross-departmental agenda. Ultimately early action can be about saving money, not spending more, but without structural and systemic reform, vigorously endorsed from the top, change will be limited and, very likely, unsustainable.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that every development must be a step in the dark. New ministers can be suckers for novelty and, of course, an appetite for innovation is not generally a bad thing, but nor is it always needed. Sometimes old ideas could work well but need testing more thoroughly. We need to know more about what works best. Dan Corry, Carey Oppenheim and Haroon Chowdry stressed the importance of effective evaluation not least because, as Michael Kell has observed from the National Audit Office “what gets measured, gets managed”.

Governments are of course dependent on popular support and given the finely balanced state of the parties in the run up to the election it would be surprising if the new Prime Minister was not more sensitive than most to the proclivities of a uncertain electorate, even in the first 100 days. All the more important then for a wider movement, to support these big changes and also, as Ray Shostak suggested, to “get early action trending” by working on the “small practical ways to readjust the system”.

Stephen Tall quotes H.L. Mencken “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong”. In the experience of the Task Force pretty much everyone agrees that preventing problems from occurring, rather than picking up the pieces afterwards, is a broadly sensible approach but it isn’t easy. Financial procedures, operational models and deeply embedded organisational cultures get in the way. That’s why, though it may be common sense, it isn’t yet common practice.

The new PM and his or her ministerial team will face many challenges in their first one hundred days but in almost every area of Government there will be the same strategic choice – prevent now or pay tomorrow. The implications are challenging but it would be a mistake of enduring importance, and a missed opportunity, if the new Prime Minister did not declare a bold and unequivocal preference.

A new deal for parents and children Guest blog by Prof. Richard Layard

May 5th, 2015

The Community Links led Early Action Task Force has recently published a new book One Hundred Days for Early Action: Time for Government to put prevention first: A collection of essays by a respected group of leading experts and thinkers with decades of experience of Government – as, civil servants, senior advisers or respected commentators.

We are serialising the essays before the General Election, in this essay  Richard Layard – Professor Emeritus at the London School of Economics outlines that relationships ara at the core of  peoples sense of wellbeing.

Download the book.


We need policies which focus on the main problems which people worry about from day-to-day. Wellbeing research shows that, even in hard economic times, people’s main worries are about relationships, including

  • relationships between them and their children
  • relationships between them and their partner
  • the values and behaviours their children pick up at school
  • the children’s chances of meaningful work after school, and
  • mental illness in the family.

There are of course many other important relationships – above all, at work. But I suggest that the ones I have listed could form the centrepiece of a New Deal for Parents and Children. In each area there are well-evidenced things that can be done, which also have the merits that

  • they would benefit and resonate with all social classes
  • they would have very small net cost.

Let me outline them first and then revert to cost.


  1. Support for parents

a Post-natal depression affects 20% of all mothers. Most are not treated. Health visitors are now being trained to identify this but those affected need professional therapy. They should be guaranteed professional psychological therapy in the NHS within 28 days of referral (as part of the wider guarantee in 3 below).

b Seriously bad behaviour affects about 10% of children at some point. For mild to moderate cases the right approach is group training for parents in how to relate to their children. After the Webster-Stratton Incredible Years group training programme about two thirds of children improve in a way that is sustained. About 3,000 workers have now been trained but free access to this programme for parents should be guaranteed.

c Conflict between parents is common and is one of the most damaging experiences for children. It also reduces the happiness, productivity and tax payments of the couple. Couples therapy should again be available as a standard offering within the NHS.

d As a preventive measure, couples should be offered nearly-free parenting classes around the time of childbirth, covering not only biology but also relationships (between parent and child, and between parent and parent).


  1. Schools for life

a School discipline is a major issue for many parents and children. In a recent survey 43% of children said that other children were “always” or “often” so noisy that they found it difficult to work. There are well-tested Webster- Stratton programmes for training teachers to control behaviour, based on the same principles as parent training. They should be part of standard teacher training, and available to serving teachers who want to take them.

b Values. We need schools to be as concerned with character as with competence. A respectful, altruistic ethos is successfully cultivated in “values schools”. They provide a good example of what can be done.

c Resilience/PSHE. All research shows that happier children learn better. Academic results and personal wellbeing are not rivals, as DfE currently believe, but complements. There are professional evidence-based ways of teaching PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education). These should be encouraged through brief courses for serving teachers, and organisationally PSHE should become a graduate specialism in the PGCE. Every school should have a Wellbeing Policy, which includes mental health awareness.


  1. Mental illness in the family.

One million children and young people and six million adults are mentally ill. The new Act promises parity of esteem for mental and physical health. But under a third of mentally ill people are in treatment. This is true of children and adults, and is mainly due to lack of facilities. Moreover, there are no waiting time targets for psychological therapy. It is a disgrace and a new deal is required.

a NICE recommended psychological therapies should be available to all who need them. The Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme which we launched in 2008 has according to Nature set a world-beating standard, and has 45% recovery rates. But it only reaches 15% of adults with depression and anxiety. A good objective for 2020 would be 25% of adults and 33% of children – with at least 50% recovery rates.

b Every school should have a named (part-time) therapist working there (on outreach from CAMHS).

c The training of GPs should include a mental health placement.


  1.  Transition to work

An essential feature of a good society is that young people feel they are wanted, and have a natural way in which they can contribute to society. We have two excellent policies which we should reactivate:

a The apprenticeship guarantee for 16-19 year olds. This was in the 2009 Apprenticeship Act but this was repealed in 2011.

b The job guarantee. We should guarantee every unemployed youngster a job within 12 months – and remove the option of continued life on benefits (which the Coalition have incredibly re-introduced).


There is good evidence that most of the above proposals would have no net cost to the Exchequer.

  1. For adult mental health, there is good evidence that within two years, the Exchequer cost is recovered twice over, through
  • savings in physical healthcare, and
  • savings in benefits and lost taxes (mental illness is 40% of all illness in working age people).
  1. For child mental health, the savings take longer to accrue but there is good evidence that once again they exceed the cost. The same is true of resilience training in schools, where the gross cost is very small since it fits within the existing timetable.
  2. Better school discipline and values yield savings which are harder to measure. But the gross cost of the proposals is small.
  3. The apprenticeship guarantee is based on the evidence of a 40% rate of return to apprenticeship30 – much of which goes to boost tax receipts. The job guarantee is estimated to recover about half its cost in savings on benefits and lost taxes.

The gross cost of these proposals (before deducting savings) would need some work but is probably of the following order (excess over 2015):

The low cost of the first four rows is striking, when one considers their transformative potential for people’s lives and the daily worry that these issues cause.