The Coalition’s social policy record

Budget Cuts sign with clouds and sky backgroundLast week researchers associated with the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics published a substantial suite of papers reviewing the Coalition government’s policies across a broad range of social policy areas. They summarize the key strands of policy and try to provide an assessment of the impact of those policies, both in aggregate and distributionally.

The latter task is hampered by inevitable lags in data availability – the most recent data available for some policy areas relates to 2012 or 2013. So you are quite often still picking up the imprint of the tail end of the Labour government, rather than the full impact of Coalition changes. In that respect, a key conclusion the researchers draw on quite a few of the Government’s flagship initiatives is simply “it’s too early to say”.

The task of evaluation is further hampered by the fact that the Government has either redefined or discontinued various statistical series, making it harder to examine trends and compare outcomes under the Coalition with outcomes under the previous Labour administration.

The researchers are thus suitably cautious in their evaluation, but that does not mean that some concrete conclusions cannot be drawn.

And the picture that emerges is, ahem, decidedly mixed. There are certainly bright spots – areas where policy seems to have moved forward and improved outcomes. But in the broader context of austerity the overarching story is one of retrenchment. The big question is where the cuts fall. Have the broadest shoulders carried the heaviest burden or is it the poor and vulnerable in the firing line? The researchers’ answer to this is that in income terms the changes we already know about are broadly regressive. Income losses have been greatest in percentage terms in the lower half of the income distribution than the upper half, with the exception of the very highest vingtile. It is pretty clear that the statutory obligations on government to address child poverty by 2020 are going to be breached, because child poverty rates are moving away from, rather than towards, the target. While budgets in health and education have been protected in cash terms this has had rather different implications on the ground: whereas education has held up relatively well under the increased pressure, the rapidly increasing demand on healthcare means that the system is rather closer to buckling under the strain.

But the detailed picture of impacts on poorer households is one of differing trajectories and complex effects pulling in different directions. It is hard to say that there any unambiguous winners, even if there are some fairly clear losers. Poorer older people have done better than working age households in income terms. Families with children have been particularly hard hit in income terms. There are hints of increasing inequalities in educational outcomes, despite the pupil premium. Money has gone into some early years initiatives, but Sure Start schemes have been cut back. The NHS budget has been protected, which primarily benefits older people; but social care spending has been slashed, which primarily hits older people. And so on.

But the Conservatives’ game plan has not simply been about short term austerity. It is reform with a broader purpose, although arguably they have been a little coy about admitting this. Rather they have sought to drive through change at such a rate that it is unstoppable and irreversible.

I can do no better here than quote at length the conclusion to the overview report, led by Ruth Lupton:

In many areas of social policy, the government has pushed ahead with major reforms towards its goals of a smaller state and a stronger society, lowering public spending in the long run. The key features have been an increase in non-state provision, a redefinition of eligibility for state support (usually but not always reduced) and a preference for local autonomy and decision-making, with reduced central government direction, funding and monitoring. The government has been willing to countenance substantial and unpredictable costs of implementing these reforms … in order to achieve longer term changes. It is far too early to tell what the effects of these changes will be. They may prove more important in the long run than the short term austerity measures …

This raises an obvious question. To what extent has all this activity succeeded in moving us to a better place in social policy terms? To what extent has the coalition dealt with some of the long-standing social policy challenges? Here the CASE researchers are pretty clear in their conclusion:

Despite the Coalition’s reforming intentions, however, it will find itself passing on many of the problems it inherited to its successor, or having to address them itself in a second term. Increasing need for health and social care, unaffordable housing, a regionally unbalanced economy, large spatial disparities in people’s outcomes and continuing labour market inequalities all remain to be tackled, as do child poverty, insufficient high quality affordable childcare, a weak system of apprenticeships for young people and relatively ineffective mechanisms for helping workless people back into work. The next government, like the Coalition, will need to address these challenges in the context of very high public sector net debt and a current budget deficit. The cold climate for social policy and those most affected by it will remain into the foreseeable future.

That encapsulates the situation, and the scale of the challenges that remain, very succinctly.

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