Leading article: Quit talking, start acting

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Once upon a time, Tony Blair used to quote one of those voodoo factoids which so disfigure American politics and journalism. Did you know, he used to say, that for every dollar spent on pre-school nursery provision, the taxpayer saves $7 later on reduced crime and welfare support? He may never have believed it, and its arithmetical precision rings with implausibility, but he was making an important point: public spending is not a fixed cake, to be cut up and shared out, but a series of cash flows, which arise, swell and diminish for different reasons. It helped to make sense of other things that Mr Blair was saying before he became Prime Minister, such as his concern with the causes of crime rather than clearing up the mess afterwards, and his case against the Conservatives for increasing the burden on the taxpayer to pay the costs of social failure. So, under Labour, we could expect to see public spending shifted from the social security budget - clearing up the mess - to education and employment - tackling the causes of social exclusion, crime and Bad Things generally. This would inaugurate a virtuous circle in which taxes would be cut and social cohesion restored.

But there was always going to be a time lag, and now we are in it. It was the time lag that was always most unreal about that "invest $1 to save $7" ideal, because the returns on investment in education in particular take many years to come through. Now, though, Mr Blair has a historic opportunity to take the long view. His huge Commons majority means that he would not be absurdly optimistic if he tried to plan for the next 15 years. Labour's landslide offers an unusual chance to break the short- termism that often weakens policy-making.

In the meantime, inevitably, we are in a period that will be filled with cosmetic measures and rhetorical flourishes. Jack Straw's paper on youth crime had plenty of both. The proposal which has attracted most attention - for local curfews on nine-year-olds and younger children after 9pm - is also the most irrelevant. It addresses itself to symptoms rather than causes. If one of the causes of juvenile delinquency is parental neglect, then confining youngsters to their dysfunctional homes is hardly going to help. Equally, fining parents who fail to control their children evades the underlying problem of dysfunctional families. And teaching schoolchildren parenting skills are not going to make much difference to children who are truanting or excluded from school, who are usually precisely the ones who need to be "taught" how to be parents, if such a thing is possible.

The real tests of this Government's resolve lie elsewhere. What matters is the seriousness with which resources are put into bringing young people into the social mainstream, either by supporting them in their families or by giving them a chance to make it if their families fail. Behind the rhetoric, how much urgency can the Government summon up now to make changes which will bring rewards only after the next election? One way to make families function better is to bring them into the labour market by tackling what Mr Blair described as the "workless class". The Government should be congratulated on its energetic start, even though it is not clear how much of the pounds 3.5bn welfare-to-work scheme will be spent on the adult unemployed rather than young people. Early indications from pilot schemes to advise lone mothers on how to get work are encouraging.

We have heard much less about nursery education for all three- and four- year-olds, the universal panacea and surefire social investment. The growth of places under the Tory voucher scheme has meant that many four-year- olds have been swept into reception classes in primary schools, which is not ideal. But Mr Blair's $7 sentiment remains true - quality nursery provision is a sound investment, especially for children of lone mothers, or unhappy families. Even less has been heard about the young people who fall through the net, who need help from society - and quickly. Much has been made about the success of Foyer schemes in France, where homeless young people are presented with a deal: get trained and look for work in return for a flat and help with looking after themselves. There are 50 of them in France, but only a handful here. Surely a tiny proportion of the welfare-to-work billions could be allocated here?

So, let us hear more about education and employment measures, and less about curfews, and get serious about the causes of crime, social exclusion and Bad Things.