“The Preventive State. How far has New Labour changed the direction and scope of social policy for children and families?”
New Labour has reformed the scope and direction of social policy in the United Kingdom indelibly. These changes have permeated every level and shade of social policy related to children and families. The tax credits system, and in particular the Child Tax Credit and Working Tax Credit system has been introduced; fathers have gained more extensive paternity rights; parents with young children and parents with disabled children now enjoy the right to ask employers for more flexible working hours and a minimum wage has been introduced.
This essay will explain the various social policy initiatives which have been formulated by New Labour and will attempt to explain the impact these have had upon children and families. An examination of how far New Labour has changed the direction and scope of social policy for children and families necessitates an examination of how the Labour Party traditionally dealt with policy in this area, and inevitably the transition from Old Labour to New Labour will have to be looked at since this has probably represented the single biggest catalyst for political change relating to social policy. In this way the question of how far New Labour have changed the direction and scope of social policy for children and young families will be evaluated and answered. Also, the question of whether the social policy objectives of New Labour allow one to characterise New Labour as the ‘Preventive State’ will be addressed throughout the essay.
What is ‘New Labour’?
New Labour was the name given to the Labour Party under the leadership of Tony Blair. New Labour swept to power with a landslide victory over the Conservatives in 1997. Prior to 1997, Labour had not been in power since James Callaghan’s Labour party lost power to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party in 1979. Historically, the Labour Party in Britain has been the main left wing political party, and was built upon strong association with the trade union movement (Minkin, (1991)). The historical concerns and ideology of the Labour Party, before the transition to New Labour has been set in context by Bevir (2005):
‘The leading figures in the early Labour Party – Keir Hardie, Philip Snowden, and Ramsay MacDonald – condemned capitalism in much the same terms as had the ethical socialists. Snowden condemned the competitive market for bringing out our ‘animal instincts’ not our moral ones; ‘it makes men hard, cruel, selfish, acquisitive economic machines’…..Snowden followed Webb’s theory of interest as analogous to land rent, arguing that ‘just as the landlord gets an unearned income from the increase in the value of land, so the capitalist gets an unearned increment from improvements in productive methods and in other ways not the result of his own efforts or abilities’. MacDonald followed the Webbs’s denunciation of the uncoordinated nature of the market, arguing that whereas capitalism relied on a haphazard and chaotic clash of individual interests, socialism would eliminate waste by organising economic life on a scientific basis…’.
Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party in 1994, after the death of John Smith, and gradually came to realise that ideological reform of the foundations of the party, as expressed above were necessary if Labour were to be regarded as a credible party in the eyes of voters. Therefore, ‘New Labour’ came to represent this ideological shift which rejected the old democratic socialist underpinnings of the Labour Party in favour of neo-liberal policies, which had proven so popular under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher.
This ideological shift drew the Labour Party further to the centre-right, and led to much division among the ranks of Labour Party members who saw this development as positive and progressive and those who regarded it as incongruous with the traditional function of the Labour Party. Therefore, Labour, as a party has undergone considerable change in the last two decades, and this process of change can mainly be attributed to the transition from Old Labour, with its focus on traditional socialist values, to New Labour, a party whose ideologies had shifted towards the centre-right and which seem to be driven more by political pragmatism than by any particular allegiance to ideology. The writings of Denver et al. (1998) give us more guidance on the rationale and impetus for this transition to New Labour:
‘…After private polling immediately following the 1992 general election and again at the end of that same year revealed that, among wavering Conservative voters, the Labour Party was regarded as “too old fashioned, too tied to the past, too linked to minorities rather than majorities, and too associated with old images of the trades unions,” Hill wrote that the party lacked clear identity and was “the party of the past.”….The view that, notwithstanding any opinion poll leads Labour might gain, the party would not win an election unless it reassessed itself in a fundamental manner was held among a group of party modernisers, including Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Harriet Harman, Peter Mandelson, and Philip Gould. The 1992 defeat confirmed these modernisers’ view that fundamental changes were necessary….Their target included both the left and the right of the party. Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Tony Crosland, and Tony Benn were all equally identified with the flawed politics of old Labour. In Blair’s view, “Labour needed a quantum leap to become a serious party of government again.”….His project, as first publicly articulated in his 1995 party conference speech, was to eradicate all aspects of party doctrine and ethos, of policies and strategies, that were of the past….’.
The changes to the ideological foundations of the Labour Party, brought about principally by Blair, have in turn precipitated wide reaching change to the social policy which is now espoused by the Labour Party, and these changes have arguably impacted upon families and children more sharply than they have impacted upon any other groups or sectors. The next sections will chart these changes to the social policy perspective of the Labour Party under Blair and will attempt to relate this discussion to the situation of families and children. In a wider sense, this discussion will address the issue of whether New Labour can be regarded as a ‘preventive state’.
New Labour in Power
New Labour has changed the face of social policy which can be seen to have a direct effect upon the family and children. The introduction of the minimum wage in 1999; the revolutionary idea of allowing fathers paternity rights and the ideas about flexible working arrangements for women, parents with children and disabled people have all had the effect of bringing the institution of the family in the UK into the modern era. Labour have worked to reduce poverty and to improve working arrangements for those with families, partly as an expression of commitments to ‘popular’ politics, but also as a necessary series of measures to ensure that the UK complies with the requirements of European Union. This section will examine these measures, how they have come about and how effective they have been at changing the direction and scope of social policy within the UK.
When Labour took power in the 1997 General Election, they promised to radically reform government policy to make it appeal more to the average voter, they promised to eliminate ‘sleaze’ which had been a central flaw in the previous Conservative administration, and they also promised to radically reform their own party, not just ideologically but in terms of a general democratic function, which they argued had put too wide a distance between Government and groups including families and children. Therefore Labour was committed to make the party more geared towards the concerns of contemporary voters who saw issues relating to family and children as important. These were all rhetorical promises, of course, yet nonetheless they can be regarded as being of particular significance to the core social policies which were to emerge following the election of the fledgling Labour Government in 1997.
The appointment of Frank Field in 1997, as Welfare Reform Minister communicated the first message that the object of this radical rhetoric was to be social policy, in particular. Field identified flaws in the social policy system which had been inherited from the Conservatives, and these problems, according to Field emanated from the antiquated system of means testing for benefits. Mainly, Field objected to the fact that the social security system, in particular the system of means testing seemed to create disincentives for those returning to work, after a period of dependency on benefits. This flaw, in particular, affected children and families because many families with young children faced the decision either to return to work, or to remain on benefits with an adult in the home to look after the child or children. However, Field’s rationale in regards to means testing did not find favour with the Government. However, Field’s proposals for reform of the youth employment policies fared a little better.
The New Deal for eighteen to twenty four year olds was introduced as a way of addressing wider social concerns about youth unemployment and a link between crime or ‘anti-social’ behaviour and young people leaving education with few qualifications or prospects. This policy was arguably the main social policy reform introduced during the tenure of Frank Field.
The New Deal was first publicised in October 1997, as part of the Government’s ‘Welfare to Work’ strategy, and was a policy directed at providing work opportunities for young people leaving school at eighteen, and was also intended to indirectly benefit those families who had young people living in the family home just after that young person had left education.
The New Deal was not a new conception. As a policy, it was first introduced by F. D. Roosevelt to deal with the consequences of the depression in America, in the early 1930s. However, the Labour Government of 1997 adopted the ‘New Deal’ brand to communicate a policy which was targeted towards young people, and was intended to operationalise New Labour’s social policy objective of encouraging young people aged 18-24 to enter the UK workforce. In this sense, the social policy initiatives which were products of the tenure of Frank Field can be regarded as ‘preventive’ since they recognised the problems which disillusioned youths might pose to society if they were not encouraged to follow a smooth transition from schooling to the world of work.
However, Field’s tenure as Minister for Welfare Reform was thwarted by Cabinet feuds and grassroots suspicions (in particular from backbenchers) that a radical reform of the social security system would disenfranchise those within the Labour Party who remained loyal to socialist ideology. Therefore, although it is true that Frank Field did not precipitate radical reform of the social security system or wider social policy, he did lay the foundations for Labour’s social security policy focus which was pivoted upon encouraging individual self sufficiency and recognition that working was more beneficial than reliance upon the support of the social security system. Ironically therefore, although Field’s title as Minister for Welfare Reform would have suggested otherwise, Field’s ideas were regarded as too revolutionary, and even as subversive by some. The translation of Field’s reform ethos was arguably stunted while he was in power, for many reasons, but principally because, during this time New Labour struggled to repudiate old socialist ideological ideas, which traditionally and historically were central to the Labour Party.
The reform of means testing became government policy in 1998, and the conception of welfare rights coupled with ‘responsibility’ reflected a wider rationale which encouraged people on welfare to regard state support as a mechanism which might be relied upon where an option to support oneself was impossible as opposed to undesirable. We have seen this rationale continue into 2006, with the recent reform of Incapacity Benefit, which is now more difficult to claim. These reforms of the social security system, although some have not been specifically targeted at children and families, have indirectly benefited children and families in significant ways. However, if one looks to the reform of the tax credit system, New Labour’s direct concern to change the circumstances of families and children, by implementing the rationales which have been explained above can be seen more sharply.
The Child Tax and Working Tax Credit System
The 2000 Budget communicated the Government’s plans to revise the benefits system, and this process resulted in the creation of the tax credits system, which was intended to be a singular system which would provide social welfare support to families, disabled people, low income employees and children which had previously been available through a plethora of complex individual benefit schemes. In particular, the system replaced the WFTC (Working Family Tax Credit) and the DPTC (Disabled Person Tax Credit) systems.
The tax credit system was aimed at operationalising New Labour’s commitment to eradicating poverty and social exclusion, especially poverty among children and families. Tax credits were also intended to target relief towards those who were in need of it the most, and financially reward families for choosing to work. A special tax credit was also introduced and this was aimed at assisting families with young children with childcare costs, which arose because a parent needed to work. The tax credit system was seen by many as the Government’s response to the criticism that families who worked were not much better off financially than families who did not work and sought financial support from the social security system. The system of tax credits was also seen as a way to eliminate the problem with the previous means testing approach to welfare calculation which tended to heavily penalise those families and individuals who had savings.
The tax credit system was operationalised alongside targets to reduce child poverty rates and specifically to deal with the fact that Britain was criticised as having one of the highest child poverty rates in Europe. However, the tax credit system is a transitional policy initiative and has suffered from various criticisms which have resulted directly from the transitional nature of the system. Current criticisms of the tax credit system point to the persistent problem of over payments which have to be recovered from low income families. The bureaucracy of the system has also encountered heavy criticism, in much the same way as the Child Support Agency has under New Labour.
Also, under New Labour the Housing Benefit and Council tax systems have remained largely untouched, and this can arguably be criticised as an inconsistent social welfare policy approach. The rationale for this particular critique is that the problems which prompted reform of the social welfare system and the resultant introduction of the tax credit system still exist, albeit in different niches within the social welfare system, giving rise to an inconsistent and inadequate reform focus.
Children and Anti-Social Behaviour
New Labour has also been radical in dealing with concerns about anti-social behaviour in children. Their approach has arguably been to impose a more paternalistic and authoritarian culture upon young children, while at the same time increasing the responsibilities and duties which parents owe to their children, and those children in their care. These trends have taken shape in the form of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003, which has classified littering, causing criminal damage, vandalism, noise, hoax calls and street drinking amongst other things as anti-social behaviour.
New Labour: The Preventive State?
New Labour can be seen to have assumed the mantle of the ‘preventive state’ given the focus it has directed towards, dealing with the ‘causes’ of crime and dysfunction in the youth sector and in relation to the family. This focus, coupled with New Labour’s focus on trying to eradicate poverty through the welfare initiatives which have been explained above, and the attempts which have been made to make youth transition from the end of education to the beginning of employment more smooth (i.e. the New Deal initiative) has cast Labour as being concerned with preventing problems associated with the family and children before they arise. In this sense, New Labour can certainly be seen as a ‘preventive’ state. Their concerns are paternalistic in the context.
However, one only has to turn to the provision of social services within the UK to see the converse of new Labour’s role as a preventive state. In particular, the death of Victoria Climbie provoked criticism that the social services system, under the supervision of the Blair administration was grossly inadequate and fraught with flaws which undermined the institution of the family and endangered to position of children by failing those vulnerable individuals who either need assistance from the state to help them support children, or those individuals who are children and indirectly need to state to provide this support to those caring for them. The next section of the essay will examine this critique of the New Labour Government.
Children and Social Services in the UK
New Labour has implemented a series of legislative initiatives aimed at protecting the situation of the child in the UK. A Children’s Minister (currently Beverley Hughes) has been appointed to oversee the needs of children. The Children’s Act 2004 and the Every Child Matters agenda were aimed to improve and modernise the protections available to children within the UK, a system which had been highlighted as containing serious flaws, particularly in the aftermath of the death of Victoria Climbie, an eight year old child who died following systematic abuse inflicted by her carers, which was not identified by the social services whose ultimate role it had been to oversee Victoria Climbie’s care. These initiatives were aimed at bolstering the protections offered by The Children Act 1989 and responding to a climate of deep unhappiness about New Labour’s handling of the social support mechanisms available to children and families of children who needed to avail of such support.
The area of the social services and how these actors assisted families and children was a policy concern largely ignored by the Labour administration when it assumed power. Labour’s concerns, as has been explained above were mainly ideological in focus and concerned ‘bigger picture’ issues which included education, crime, social exclusion, poverty, employment, welfare and other such issues which existed as inter-related and intersecting socio-legal and socio-political policy concerns. It is possible to make an argument therefore that New Labour’s concern for these ‘bigger picture’ issues has resulted in relative neglect of issues which concern policy niches, and policy concerns which exist at a more micro, but nonetheless critical level. Among these niche issues are the services provided to children and families through the social services.
Lord Laming’s enquiry into the needs of children in care was established after the death of Victoria Climbie in 2000. Laming published his report in January 2003, and it heavily criticised the government for not having enough communication channels open between agencies working within the social services sector separately, while at the same time serving a singular function to provide support to children and families in need to state support. Therefore, one of Laming’s main recommendations was the formulation of a national database where social services actors would be able to access information about children, nationally. Commenting on Lord Laming’s report, the Children Minister, Barbara Hughes has made the following statement, acknowledging the accuracy of Laming’s criticisms:
“We have seen the tragic consequences that the failure to intervene early can have, as identified in Lord Laming’s report on Victoria Climbie. But even in less extreme circumstances, all too often children who need additional help are faced with services which are not joined up. We need to ensure that professionals work together across service boundaries for the benefit of children…..These proposals balance the need to do everything we can to improve children’s life chances whilst ensuring strong safeguards to make sure information stored is minimal, secure and used appropriately. Parents and young people will be able to ask to see their data…’.
It is clear therefore that New Labour has taken Laming’s concerns seriously and the policy response that New Labour has delivered has been open, direct and speedy. However, this does not absolve the Government of the responsibility for failing to foresee the problems that eventually did arise for families and children because the social services sector had been sidelined while the Government dealt with ‘bigger picture’ issues. Perhaps it is arguable therefore that the Labour Government have changed the direction and scope of social policy ideologically, while failing to understand that grassroots issues such as social services provisions, needed ‘on the ground’ were under resourced and outdated.
This rationale can account the apparent contraction in terms which emanates from a vision of the Labour Party as a modernising party who changed the face of social policy indelibly and undoubtedly in positive ways, while simultaneously failing in their responsibility to effectively oversee the operation of services on a more micro level. In this sense, the Labour Party can be critiqued as thinking preventively about ideological and holistic policy concerns while only thinking and behaving reactively to grassroots level services for the family and children. It is clear, however, that lessons have been learned from policy failures and policy ‘gaps’, and while these critiques are certainly serious they are ameliorated through the Labour Party’s willingness to accept criticisms, such as those delivered by Laming and to implement far reaching changes as a response to these.
In conclusion therefore, the New Labour Government, which has been continuously been in power since 1997 has implemented far reaching change within the area of social policy relating to children and the family. These social policy developments have been explained throughout this essay, and an argument has been made that in many ways, New Labour has drastically changed the direction and scope of social policy within the UK. However, as has been one of the central arguments of this essay; this far reaching change has been manifested more at an ideological than at a grassroots level. In this sense, New Labour can be regarded as being a ‘preventive state’ more at an ideological than at a grassroots level. Grassroots services and social policy concerns relating to the family have recently been highlighted as seriously deficient, but as has been another central argument within this essay, these failures have been offset to an extent by willingness on the part of New Labour to accept and respond constructively to political criticism.
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Denver, D., King, A., McLean, I., Norris, P., Norton, P., Sanders, D. and Seyd, P. (1998) New Labour Triumphs: Britain at the Polls. Publisher: Chatham House Publishers. Place of Publication: Chatham, NJ.
Minkin, L. (1991). The Contentious Alliance: Trade Unions and the Labour Party. Publisher: Edinburgh University Press. Place of Publication: Edinburgh.
Hayton, A. and Leathwood, C. (2002) Educational Inequalities in the United Kingdom: A Critical Analysis of the Discourses and Policies of New Labour. Title: Australian Journal of Education. Volume: 46. Issue: 2.
Anonymous. (2005) Better Services for Children as Government acts on Lord Laming Recommendation.
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