Fashionably early

6 Feb 09
GRAHAM ALLEN | Youth problems are a drain on society and the taxpayer.

Youth problems are a drain on society and the taxpayer. But early intervention – devoting resources to younger children to improve emotional and social skills – can prevent antisocial behaviour in later life

These days it would hardly be a surprise to see David Attenborough hidden among the undergrowth in the Westminster jungle, as sightings of political ‘big beasts’ dominated the news in January.

The match-up of former Conservative chancellor Ken Clarke and returning New Labour pioneer Peter Mandelson at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has been welcomed with a plethora of pugilistic analogies. Meanwhile, former health secretary Alan Milburn has been called back to look into the age-old British problem of social mobility.

Despite the fantastic headlines all of this generates, the solutions to our country’s problems, including the troubling decline in levels of social mobility, lie not with ‘big beasts’, but with big ideas.

I believe there is no bigger, simpler or more beautiful idea than that of ‘early intervention’.

The idea of early intervention is to refocus the attention of public spending to the earliest years of life, to give all our children the emotional and social skills they require to make the right choices later.

This pre-empts several problems that are a drain on society and the taxpayer, including high levels of teenage pregnancy and low levels of educational attainment.

Nottingham — the city I was born and raised in and now represent in Parliament — has had success in tackling knife crime through such measures. A book that I wrote jointly with Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative Party leader, with a contribution from Liberal Democrat MP David Laws, explained the advantages of early intervention and there have been cross-party discussions on the subject.

The idea of early intervention is now established and its influence is growing, with Nottingham declaring itself the UK’s first ‘early intervention city’. In 2009, we need to establish mechanisms to fund an expansion of this. The best way to do this would be to borrow money against the massive savings that would be made further down the line.

People will want to invest in early intervention because it is a proven finance saving scheme. The 2005 Nobel Prize winner, James Heckman, has shown that the economic payback of pre-school intervention is three-to-six times higher than that of any intervention post-school.

Similarly, research in the US into the effects of nurse-family partnerships demonstrated that children who receive this kind of intervention have 81% fewer arrests than their peers and as 15-year-olds have 63% fewer sexual partners.

The Treasury has identified the financial benefits in this area by funding Every Child a Reader, which gives one-to-one attention to disadvantaged children struggling with reading and writing.

This decision had an unmistakable spend-to-save rationale. A Comprehensive Spending Review policy review had estimated that if ‘children with poor education could be raised to the average’, £6bn would be saved. Despite these positive stories, it is imperative that we develop new financial models. As chair of One Nottingham, my city’s Local Strategic Partnership, I learnt from first-hand experience the difficulties of securing money for early intervention programmes.

Their advantages can sometimes be invisible in the short term when competing against highly-visible schemes that bring about the instant results craved by the media.

To overcome these problems, we need to free up local government and allow it to pursue its own radical solutions to its own unique local problems. In this way, as Chairman Mao described, ‘a hundred flowers [will] blossom’, with innovative policies being trialled across the country, and success stories inevitably being imitated and improved on by other local authorities.

One idea is municipal bonds. The principal is long established in the US, where anyone can invest their money with state governments and be guaranteed a generous rate of return. Investors are attracted to the idea because, in a world of collapsing banks and businesses, it is actually governments, local and national, that are the most secure option.

Currently, my constituents can invest their money in the state of Colorado but not in their own city, where they would get the double benefit of a financial return and of living in a city really getting to grips with its social problems through well-financed intervention policies.

Independent local government, free to fund early intervention in whichever way it likes, is the ‘big idea’ our country needs in these tough times. Because, as our ever-growing evidence base proves, it is currently the safest bet for improving social mobility in town.

Graham Allen is MP for Nottingham North, chair of One Nottingham and chair of Nottingham’s teenage pregnancy task force

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