A month ago, we were all deeply concerned by the fate of a number of vulnerable girls who had fallen prey to a group of predatory men while living in care. The system had failed these girls badly. Institutional concerns with the way race factored into the case had seemingly led to failures of policing over a number of years. It was widely felt that a separate political decision, which had little or nothing to do with the actions or lives of these girls had been allowed to impede the state’s duty of care to them.
Yesterday, David Cameron threw these girls, and thousands of young people like them, to the wolves. And the same newspapers that were so horrified by the way these children had been let down cheered along.
One third of former looked after children in England are not in employment, education or training. Half have fewer than 5 G.C.S.Es. The system is clearly failing them as children and failing them in their journey into adulthood. But it seems that once you’re entitled to more than 15 candles on your birthday cake, vulnerable instantly mutates into feckless. 16 and low paid? You’re on your own.
Of course,we there is plenty that could be done to help these young people and millions like them without increasing the Housing Benefit bill one iota. In fact, it would dramatically reduce that bill. The money is rarely seen by the tenants themselves, or not for long as it is really a benefit for landlords.
If the government moved to regulate the private rented sector, then out-of-control rents could be lowered and tenure could be changed to ensure the stability young people (all people really) need to build a life and work towards their futures. At the moment, you are more protected by regulation in a minicab or the supermarket than you are in your own home. There are no incentives for landlords to behave in ways that would cool down the over-heated market, or to provide long-term housing solutions that work for both parties.
But this government will never do that. They are ideologically wedded to the freest of all possible markets, and the consequences be damned. Even though that free market is being over-heated by state inactivity and funded by taxpayers money in the form of housing benefit paying inflated rents. Once again a political decision, which has little to so with the lives of actions of the young people it affects is impeding the state in its duty of care to its citizens.
The ink on the government’s huge and hugely controversial Welfare Reform Act is not even dry. Some of the changes are less than a few months old. Some of the biggest and most difficult changes have not yet come into force and won’t until early next year. The government have not yet started receiving the savings they are expecting, and have no idea yet what the impact of these changes will be.
So why has David Cameron chosen now to start kicking down? This too is largely a political decision not based on the needs or actions of the young people he’s kicking, feckless or otherwise. He reads the same polling I do, and he knows that kicking benefit claimants and continuing myths about their fecklessness is popular with an electorate in the process of falling out of love with him. He needed some red meat for his own backbenchers as he enters a legislative period fraught with danger for the Tory leader, and he threw them the bone of benefit “scroungers”. He must know he’s messed up Tory detoxification to such an extent that it is no longer a viable play, so now we have tough Tories, and he knows that plays well and is a trap for Labour.
Labour can have a decent narrative on welfare. One that brings down the overall bill without doing so at the expense of the poor and vulnerable, but it will have to be at the expense of the well-financed landlord lobby. Interventionist policies would be required at several different levels, something Labour showed little attitude for while in government. It’s a much harder political sell than simply following the established narrative of “dealing” with the “feckless”.
There are signs that the courage to do this may exist. For the sake of those young girls in Rochdale and thousands of vulnerable young boys and girls like them, I hope it does.