The rhetoric and reality of early action on social problems
For the last two decades (and no doubt before that) politics has been littered with references to the importance of early intervention and of work on prevention by public services and communities, when it comes to dealing with a broad range of society’s problems.
It is little more than common sense to assert that acting earlier to forestall a problem, rather than waiting and then coping with its consequences, is likely to be cheaper in the long term, as well as better for those involved.
In his first ever speech as Prime Minister Tony Blair said:
“Government must not fall into the trap of short-termism. Huge sums are spent dealing with this year’s problems, but very little on preventing the problems that will arise in five years time… We need to go further if we are to avoid the double jeopardy of worsening social problems and escalating tax bills. We will be calling on departments to draw up plans for shifting energy and resources from cure to prevention, from clearing problems up to anticipating them, and I will judge their success by how far this is done.”
This government, in welcoming reports – like the Allen Review and the Field Review – has expressed very similar sentiment, and numerous government reports and other official documents have reached the same conclusion. Take this, for instance, from a 2009 Audit Commission report:
“A young person who starts showing behavioural problems at five, and is dealt with through the criminal justice system will cost the taxpayer around £207,000 by the age of 16. Alternative interventions to support changes in behaviour would cost about £47,000. Over £113 million a year would be saved if just one in ten young offenders was diverted towards effective support.”
Why, then, does today mark the launch of yet another report on the importance of acting early? The Early Action Taskforce’s new publication, The Triple Dividend: Thriving Lives, Costing Less, Contributing More partly asks why the rhetoric has so rarely been turned into action.
The Taskforce (a panel of experts, backed by Community Links) identifies, amongst other issues, the way this ‘early action’ spending is dealt with by the Treasury and in spending rules, and the difficulties with spending on early action, when the savings are not necessarily accrued by the department which makes the investment.
The report looks at the problems with evidence – not for the overall economic case for acting earlier but for the business case for each specific intervention. And it considers the issue of shifting from acute to preventative spending in a situation where government can’t just take limited funds away from the acute.
We hope our recommendations go further than others have before in addressing these specific barriers to progress, although they are intended only as the start of a conversation.
And for inspiration we needn’t look far: the Finance Committee of the Scottish Parliament concluded a report earlier this year, which argued that:
“the current reactive approach to public spending is unsustainable. There must be a shift away from reacting to crises to a greater focus on prevention and early intervention.”
The political interest this has engendered for early action in Scotland has culminated in a draft budget proposed this September containing a £500m increase in preventative spending, despite a 9.2% reduction in funding from Westminster. The SNP minister Angela Constance has recently remarked that:
“Apart from independence, preventative spend is the most radical and exciting agenda that this government is pursuing.”
Hopefully before long rhetoric on early action will give way to reality in a similar way at Westminster.