Sunday, 14 February 2010

Social policy and empowerment Yesterday to an event launching new policy work by the centre-right Centre for Social Justice. Their new policy areas are elder care, youth justice, mental health, community cohesion, sport, and social return on investment; and given their realistic chances of influencing forthcoming policy, it's good to see these themes being researched and debated openly. I'm particularly pleased that some effort is to go into understanding and promoting informal support for older people, and I'll be pottering along to talk to the CSJ in due course. Meanwhile, as someone with a fair bit of experience of think-tank events on the political left, a couple of thoughts that struck me. First, there was an odd tendency to treat old ideas as new. There's nothing necessarily wrong with refreshing old ideas - it may be better than the current preoccupation with innovation-at-all-costs. One example was the suggestion that it's socially beneficial for young people to participate in sport; but when this view was put across by Iain Duncan Smith as if it were his intellectual property it was greeted by some of those present like a radical revelation. Similarly the arguments for social return on investment were unveiled as if no-one had ever heard of it before, leaving me pondering with irony the amount of thinking and effort that went into this area (using different terminology) in the late eighties and nineties under a Tory government (I recall in particular their 'Invest to Save' budget, although it was hard to crack into with social arguments: I tried). And it's a bit discourteous not to acknowledge the strong tradition of work at the New Economics Foundation. Secondly, there was a discomforting sense of moral prescription and crusade - for example in 'saving' young people from a life of crime - without a moment's reflection on the case for empowering those involved. An early question from the floor raised just this point, and went unanswered, as if the language were not quite understood. It seems a realistic ambition for me to see if I can get an appreciation of empowerment and interdependence embedded in the work on care of older people. Wish me luck.

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