Social justice: transforming lives

Speech by the Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP


It gives me great pleasure to be here today to launch the Government’s Social Justice Strategy.

When I entered Office almost two years ago I came determined to bring change to a broken welfare system.

Last week we took a huge step towards that ambition, and I am delighted that the Welfare Reform Act has now been signed into law.

But for me welfare reform has always been about something much bigger than the welfare system alone - it is about social renewal.

When we came into Government the Prime Minister set up the Social Justice Cabinet Committee so that we could not forget about this wider challenge.

From day one the message has been clear: we cannot conduct our social policy in discrete parts, with one part of Government tinkering with the welfare system over here…

…another with the education system over there…

…a third with the criminal justice system, and so on.

It has to have a fundamental vision and a driving ethos - otherwise it will be narrow, it will be reactive, and it will not work.

Failure to look at the individual

When services for the most vulnerable aren’t joined up they tend to collide, each pursuing its own narrow ends and failing to see the whole person or family caught in between.

This is the point the Prime Minister made recently when he spoke about the 120,000 most troubled families in this country.

He told a story of a family in the North-West who - in a single year - were the subject of a huge amount of disconnected state activity.

The police, the ambulance service, A&E, the council, youth offending teams, and more.

Each tried to deal with the problems in their own particular area.

But no one saw the whole family - there was management and maintenance of their problems, but no VISION for helping them change their lives.  


A coherent social policy requires this coherent vision…

…a driving ETHOS…

…which means that whether in reform of the welfare system, the education system, the criminal justice system, addiction services, or whatever else…

…the work that Government does is underpinned by a fundamental set of principles.

Last year our social mobility strategy set out our vision for ensuring that all people have a fair opportunity to fulfil their potential and move up the social ladder.

Today, with the Social Justice strategy, we are setting out our vision for those who do not have a foot on the first rung - our vision for the most disadvantaged individuals and families.

The Strategy

So what is this vision, and why is it different from what has gone before?

Of course, a focus on the most disadvantaged is not new or unique to this Government.

But in recent years I feel that - while well-meaning - this focus has become distorted and incoherent.

First, we have seen a social policy overwhelmingly focussed on moving people above the income poverty line.

A laudable ambition surely?

Yes, if done in a meaningful and sustainable way.

But too often it has been the exact opposite, fuelled by out of work welfare transfers that marginally increase incomes, but do little to change lives.

So, for example, we know that between 1998/99 and 2009/10 the likelihood of being in relative poverty declined 1.5 times faster for children living in workless families…

…than for children living in families where somebody worked.

This approach isn’t just unambitious, it has been shown to be ineffective.

Some £150 billion was spent on Tax Credits between 2004 and 2010, much of which was targeted at families with children.

Yet it seems highly unlikely that the previous Government’s target to halve child poverty by 2010 will be hit.

We will find out in a few months time when we see the figures for 2010, but predictions - including those from the IFS - suggest that they will have been missed by a wide margin.

Moreover, we now know that under the previous Government income inequality rose to the highest level since records began.

So the old approach is ineffective.

It is also completely unsustainable.

If a family is suffering from a fundamental problem - for example addiction or serious debt - simply increasing their benefit income may push them above the poverty line temporarily…

…but the chances are they won’t remain there, because you haven’t tackled the real reason they find themselves on a low income in the first place - you haven’t touched the root cause.

This has been called the ‘poverty plus a pound approach’, doing just enough to push someone over the line.

Great for the poverty statistics…

…but no real change for the person or their family.

From maintenance to life change

The fact is governments have spent so much time measuring how much money is being poured in to the system…

…simply treating the symptoms of social breakdown…

…that they have hardly noticed what is coming out the other end.

It has been almost like a bidding war between politicians and lobby groups - the more you spend the more successful you are seen to have been.

Yet what does that spending mean for the people it’s supposed to help?

For every pound we spend we should be asking - how does it promote LIFE CHANGE?

Yet so often the question has been: how will this pound affect the statistics?

Now that’s fine when what you are measuring in the statistics is real change in people’s lives.

But we have been measuring symptoms not causes…

…and what has so often resulted is the maintenance and containment of social problems.

Social breakdown

We see the results of this failure everywhere we look.  

Huge numbers of people maintained on out of work benefits - one million for a decade or more.

Young people maintained in a culture of low expectations in schools, forced to accept that their level of attainment will be determined by their background rather than by their ability.

Family breakdown managed rather than prevented, with money spent overwhelmingly on picking up the pieces of breakup rather than in preventing it.

In a former life at the Centre for Social Justice we found that family breakdown was costing the Government £20bn a year, but Government was spending just 0.02% of that amount to prevent it happening.

We see addicts maintained in their condition, moved onto less harmful drugs but not offered sustainable help to get clean.

And we see offenders locked up and swept under the carpet rather than being worked with and rehabilitated.

This has been an approach based on managing social problems - on containing them - rather than investing in changing them.

That is what happens when Government policy is designed to hit a narrow and static target, based on the limited concept of income poverty alone.

And it is what happens when each Government department tries to manage and contain its own challenges, but no one has a vision for the person or the family as a whole.

New vision

It is that vision - for this Government - that I want to set out today.

First: we need a completely new focus on how we deliver support for the most disadvantaged.

This must be based on prevention throughout someone’s life, intervening early to tackle the root causes of problems before they arise rather than waiting to treat the symptoms.


That starts with the family, the most important building block in a child’s life.

When families are strong and stable, so are children.

We know that children raised by parents reporting high relationship quality and satisfaction tend to have higher levels of wellbeing, while intense conflict between parents has been shown to be detrimental to children’s outcomes.

And when families break down, the consequences can be severe.

That means we have to get behind stable families, not shrug our shoulders when they fall apart.

But in recent years Government has been sending out the message that stable families don’t matter.

It has cloaked neglect of the family under the veil of neutrality, failing to invest in the prevention of breakdown and introducing rules and institutions - such as the couple penalty in the tax credit system - that made it more worthwhile for couples to live apart than to stay together.

Today we are sending out a clear message that stable families do matter.

They matter for the most vulnerable in society…

…and they are a priority for this government.

That’s why this strategy sets out how we will ensure that families at risk and families who experience difficulties can get the help they need to stabilise and improve the quality of their relationships, and provide a stable environment for raising children…

…whether that be through our work on reversing the couple penalty in the welfare system…

…providing relationship support, acting early to help keep families together and so reducing the cost of family breakdown…

…or providing more money to give separated parents support to work together in the best interests of their children.

And at the heart of this, it means emphasising the Government’s support for marriage - we are clear in this strategy that marriage should be supported and encouraged.


But if family is the most important building block in a child’s life, school is often the second most important.

Yet our schools have been failing pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds time and again.

It’s as if previous governments came to terms with the fact that some children would be disruptive or repeatedly absent from school…

…and grew accustomed to knowing that a proportion of children would leave school each year unable to read, write or do even quite basic sums.

Yet so often these are the early warning signs for much bigger problems later in life - one survey found that some 64 per cent of young men permanently excluded from school in adolescence had gone on to commit criminal offences.

This will no longer be tolerated - we’ve made it clear that an ‘educational underclass’ is morally unacceptable to this Government.

Getting young people attending and engaged with school is one of the most powerful protections we can offer against social breakdown.

And this strategy brings together all the reforms underway to make this a reality, from the pupil premium for the most disadvantaged children to the work being done on attendance and alternative provision by Charlie Taylor.

Welfare system

Then - once our young people leave school - they have to be met by a welfare system that works, a system that acts as a springboard to independence, not as a crutch.

We have to do that through keeping the welfare system simple…

…through making sure that work pays more than benefits…

…and through ensuring that disability benefits do not trap people on the sidelines.

That’s what the Act we have just passed is all about.

Second chance society

So prevention throughout the lifecycle is crucial.

But this strategy is not just about prevention - it is also about second chances.

When people’s lives go off track - whether as a result of addiction, problem debt, homelessness or some other issue - we have a duty to offer a way out.

This involves recognising that the causes of poverty and multiple disadvantage are about more than income alone.

Income is critical, but it is frequently a symptom of some deeper and more complex problem - whether that be addiction, debt, educational failure or some other factor.

Solve that problem - get someone clean…

…get them engaging at school…

or get them into work…

…and you help them find a foothold in society again - you help them move, SUSTAINABLY, back towards independence.


Finally, there is the question of how we make all of this happen.

How do we make the principles of social justice a reality?

Yesterday I visited a project called ‘ThinkForward’, being run by the Private Equity Foundation and Tomorrow’s People as part of my Department’s Innovation Fund.

The project is getting ‘coaches’ into schools and working with struggling students from the age of 14 right up to 19.

These coaches offer stable support to help children through challenges at home and school, with the ultimate aim of keeping them engaged in education and on track to employment later in life.

This project encapsulates the kind of change we need to see.

It is turning young people’s lives around…

…and the voluntary sector provider is getting a secure income.

Yet at the same time the financial backer will reap a return from government if it achieves the results it says it will…

…and Government itself should see savings to the public purse from the reduced costs of social breakdown.

These are the kind of principles we want to promote in everything we do.

So first, that means prioritising early intervention and prevention, getting in there and tackling the root causes of disengagement before children leave school.

Second, it means being innovative and locally led, with partnerships between public, private and voluntary sector,

And third, it means building and growing a market for a new way of funding social interventions based on investment in social returns.

Social investment

As a society we possess great wealth, but we also have a massive disconnect between those at the top and those at the bottom.

I want to find a way in which we can bring the two together - the wealth creators and our most disadvantaged individuals and families…

…the City with the inner city…

…to unlock the skills of a generation.

The answer - and our answer in this strategy - is through social investment.

This is about enabling investors to put their money into projects which yield BOTH a social return for the community AND a financial return for them.

Next steps

But I won’t stand here today and pretend we have all the answers.

This strategy explains some of the work that Government is already doing to create a more socially just society - but rather than marking the end of a process it marks the beginning of one.

It sets a framework, focussed on:

  • prevention
  • recovery and life change rather than maintainence
  • and innovative, results-focussed delivery

…but it is also a call to organisations the length and breadth of the country - including those of you here today - to help us make this happen.

I have always been clear that it is organisations who are working in their communities, at a local level, that are best placed to understand why people’s lives go off course - and the way that they can be turned around.

That includes so many of you here.

You deal with people, not just processes.

You work with the grain of human nature, rather than against it.

You take life as you find it, not as you would wish it to be.

So we need this to be the start of a conversation, building on the good work that many of you have already done…

…and my social justice team will be focussed on making that conversation a reality in the weeks and months ahead.

Early Intervention Foundation

One thing we are already committed to is providing a much sturdier foundation for the social investment market, so that more funds can flow to the kind of organisations I’ve just mentioned.

We are already seeing a major new source of investment funds coming on stream via Big Society Capital.

But I have been told time and again that if the market is going to grow investors have to have a better understanding of the returns they can expect from social investments.

That’s why I am delighted that we have today announced the procurement process for the Early Intervention Foundation, a body that will be independent from Government and will use best in class techniques and analysis to provide expert advice on early intervention…

…as well as building the evidence base on social returns.

So when I spoke before about knowing what impact each and every pound government spends has on someone’s life - this is what I meant.

This foundation should move us closer to that reality.

It comes off the back of a recommendation from Graham Allen, so I want to take a moment to thank him for all the hard work he has done on this.

He is someone who believes passionately in outcomes not inputs…

…and as a champion for early intervention in good economic times and bad he has put real change for the people of this country above questions of party politics, something all too rare in the modern political world


So this should be seen as a clear signal of our intent.

We are not willing to simply talk the talk - the launch of this strategy represents a change of ethos which we want to build into policy, processes, and institutions across Government.

For too long we have allowed millions of people in our society to sit on the margins - in many cases we, as a society, have put them there…

…writing them off…

…managing social breakdown…

…but not believing that there could be a path to fundamental change.

Meanwhile the disconnect between those at the top and bottom of society has grown ever larger, stretching our social fabric to near breaking point.

I hope today we can start the process of stitching that fabric back together and…

…through that…

… begin the difficult but necessary process of transforming lives.

Published 13 March 2012