How Early Action would help improve services

9:00 am - November 28th 2012

by Don Paskini    

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By Will Horwitz

The Ministry of Justice does ‘not propose to devote these limited public funds to less important cases on the basis that they could indirectly lead to more serious consequences for that person’ said Lord McNally, Justice Minister in the House of Lords, as he piloted the Legal Aid Bill through the House earlier this year.

‘Let’s not waste money on minor problems when we could spend more once they’ve become extremely serious’ doesn’t sound like a promising mantra by which to reduce public spending, but is the default option for a department forced to make short-term spending cuts with little room for manoeuvre. Meeting this year’s budget target is the only target (and is well-rewarded), irrespective of the impact on your own, or others’ budgets in years to come.

These powerful public spending incentives to act for the short term in government are a significant barrier to the kind of investment in prevention which would transform public services. In a report published today the Early Action Task Force estimate as much as 40% of public spending goes on dealing with problems that could have been tackled earlier. Only 20% goes on early, preventative action. The Task Force, chaired by Community Links’ David Robinson spans the sectors, a disparate group united in their shock at the wasted potential these figures represent.

Programmes involving significant long term investment are exceptions proving the rule. Take the Olympics, a 15 year commitment honoured and delivered by successive governments and local administrations. They couldn’t have happened any other way, and indeed little else is happening that way.

Youth offending costs the nation just as much as the Olympic games every year,. £11bn. Successive short term programmes have shown how the costs, social and financial, could be significantly reduced with earlier action yet year after year the overwhelming majority of the budget is spent on imprisonment, less than 10% is invested in prevention. Here is just one challenge that can only be met with long term collaboration and sustained commitment. There are many more.

Ed Balls recognised this in his party conference speech earlier this year when he said that an incoming Labour government would not “duck the hard long-term issues we know we haven’t properly faced up to and which transcend parties and parliaments and where we badly need a cross-party consensus.’

He proposed ‘… a long-term plan to support the most vulnerable in our society – looked-after children and adults needing social care.’ The underlying rationale he said ‘is not just about policy, but about the kind of country we want to be and the way we do our politics.’

Of course this option will always look more attractive from the opposition benches than it will from No 11 whoever occupies those seats but the Canadian experience of sustained cross-party support for a consistent approach to criminal justice shows that it is neither naïve nor impractical for the major parties in a parliamentary democracy to collaborate on the kind of agenda that cries out for sustained commitment to long-term goals and strategies.

We could do better earlier. This is a practical proposition but it calls for a different kind of politics, one that values sustainable solutions above short term goals, and a different kind of leadership, one that builds on common sense, in opposition and in government. Understand this and grip the challenge and in the coming years there will be more to make us proud than one glorious summer.

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About the author
Don Paskini is deputy-editor of LC. He also blogs at donpaskini. He is on twitter as @donpaskini
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Reader comments

1. Man on Clapham Omnibus

Not mentioned is the complete eradication of aspects of legal aid for families and restricting access for domestic violence. If your kid gets snatched by your partner after April that maybe the last time you ever see it. Great way to reduce costs in civil and to add to the grief of those already struggling.

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