Tuesday saw another excellent panel of speakers take on the thorny issue of individual responsibility in the rather apt surroundings of the Thatcher Room, Portcullis House. Kate Bell of Gingerbread; Steve Reed, leader of Lambeth Council; and popular blogger Tom Harris MP came together in the light of the welfare reform bill to consider the Labour party’s sensitivity to intervention in peoples’ private lives and the social and political consequences of it.
Having spent 3 years as a minister in the Department for Work and Pensions, James Plaskitt MP was suitably qualified to chair the evening, which began with a speech by Kate Bell. As a representative of the largest charity supporting one parent families, she highlighted that only a small proportion of single mothers are teenagers and that many of instances of teenage pregnancy occur in the context of social exclusion. Teenage pregnancy isn’t therefore a problem to be judged as wrong, but social exclusion is. Although the welfare reform bill focuses on individual responsibility, Kate argued that the problems people are facing are really structural, particularly at a time of high unemployment.
Steve Reed followed with an example drawn from a different field, that of guns and gangs. He pointed out that when Labour came to power in Lambeth in 2006 the borough had the lowest level of spending on youth services and the highest rate of youth crime. Looking at research into this crime it was clear that it was also linked to social and economic circumstances and the limited choices that faced many local youths. Steve highlighted the need for policy makers to give each child the choices they need, citing Lambeth as a practical example. It was interesting to hear that a battery of measures, including increasing youth services and providing skills training, has led to a halving of the number of youth homicides and a 17% reduction in youth crime in the area.
Tom Harris MP rounded up our speakers with a call for a radical manifesto, arguing that Labour ministers have stopped talking a language that the electorate understand on these issues. Whilst agreeing with Kate Bell about many things, he argued that Labour is too scared of offending people and needs to be more in tune with an electorate that generally celebrates marriage and considers teenage pregnancy to be a bad thing. For Tom this agenda is not about victimization of individuals or the making value judgements about them, but about trusting and empowering people to make their own decisions.
A lively debate followed with most of the assembled audience weighing in with their own views and experiences. A broad spectrum of views emerged, from the suggestion that where Labour has really failed is in not being compassionate enough in relation to the difficulties people face to the idea that we should be being more honest about our dependency culture and unafraid to condemn bad choices. Although there was much disagreement about where the lines are drawn, most present seem to feel that it is possible for the state to intervene without moralising and to empower through choice.