Q&A: Charlotte Pickles on her ambitions as newly installed Reform think-tank director

22 Aug 19

PF’s Dominic Brady talks to Charlotte Pickles soon after her starting as Reform’s director about justice, social care and the one-year Spending Review.

Charlotte Pickles Charlotte Pickles took over the reins at the Reform think-tank in April of this year. The appointment marks her return to the organisation having previously been deputy director. 

PF catches up with the former advisor to Iain Duncan Smith – when he was work and pensions secretary - shortly after her staunch criticism of prime minister Boris Johnson’s spending spree on criminal justice – one of Reform’s key areas of work. 

Pickles talks through the importance of evidence-based policy and sets out her priority areas for her tenure. 

You recently branded Johnson’s justice spending pledges as a “monumental waste of money” – what’s the problem with his proposals?

The criminal justice system definitely needs more investment but as with any area of public policy it needs to be targeted and evidence-based. The announcements around lengthening prison sentences have no evidence base and we know from research done in the United States that longer sentences and more punitive sentences do not deter criminals. 

Longer sentencing is actually a phenomenally costly way of approaching the question and far from public perception that we have gotten soft on crime, sentence length has increased dramatically in the last 10 years. 

The announcement of 20,000 more police is the same. We want to see smart investment including more neighbourhood policing but also looking at where is the service most stretched. In a world where modern crime is increasingly online the police need expertise, skills and capacity to tackle the changing nature of crime. That will require digital forensic experts and analysts in the back office and without those the frontline officers cannot do their jobs effectively. 

As Reform’s new director, which public policy debate are you looking to contribute to? 

We are going to be starting a new programme of work looking at left behind communities. These are communities that have most been impacted by globalisation and have too often, I think, been forgotten by both national and local government. 

It will be looking at the problems these areas are facing be that: a lack of jobs driving out young people, creating older populations or maybe lower education and skills attainment levels. 

But actually, the one thing these areas all have are public services so there is ready-made infrastructure to help transform the lives of the people who are living in these communities, and perhaps we haven’t made the most of these.

I think that is compounded by the fact that access to and quality of public services are very variable and often those that need them most have the poorest access to and poorest quality of public services. We want to look at those disparities to understand the regional aspect and the inequalities in public services. 

Another area we are looking at is the use of land. An awful lot of the talk about the housing crisis is about how we build more homes and capital investment, but actually one of the biggest barriers is availability of land.

So we will be asking how to make sure that land is available for development but also should we be thinking about things like taxation that would incentivise land being available and developed in a timely way, to avoid land banking. 

What are your thoughts on the one-year Spending Review?

I think it’s difficult not to be disappointed, short-termism is one of the biggest problems when it comes to taking decisions around public spending priorities. The reason Spending Reviews are a better idea is because they cover multiple years – so clearly we are losing that benefit.

Obviously we are living through unusual times and so I can understand why the government has taken the decision to only go with a single year – though it is interesting they have called it a Spending Review rather than having some sort of rollover of current budgets.

How optimistic are you that the new government has the capacity and drive to reform public services?

I do feel a bit optimistic simply because domestic policy is once again being talked about. The oxygen has been sucked out of so many important public policy challenges as the entire government has been focused on Brexit in recent years. 

For example, I may disagree with some of the proposals that the government has put forward around sentencing, prisons and policing but I am delighted that they are talking about it. My optimism is tempered somewhat as there is a lack of evidence-based policy. 

I do think there is capacity – whatever the Brexit outcome – for there to be a parallel set of reforms around public services and actually possibly more importantly, if we do go into a no-deal Brexit scenario, we are going to need domestic reforms in place in order to ensure that Britain is still globally competitive and that we are developing the right skills, we have the right digital strategy and have a healthy nation. 

These things are not going to get less important – they are going to get, if possible, more important.

What is top of your list of services that needs reform?

The big one is social care, because successive governments have shied away from dealing with it. 

There are noises at the moment that we will soon see a green paper or a white paper and there are rumours Matt Hancock favours some form of insurance model (whereby individuals pay a small portion of their earnings into a pooled fund), which is what Reform recommended back in 2017. 

But whatever form it takes it must be addressed as a matter of urgency. 

Elsewhere, we do still have too big a gap in educational outcomes of people from more disadvantaged backgrounds so we need to seek a broader spread of people attending university and we must sort out the other side of education in areas like further education, apprenticeship and T levels. 

To what extent do you believe this government is committed to devolution? 

We have got to somehow spread prosperity beyond London and the southeast and that leads to questions around fiscal devolution. 

So, is the new government going to priorities devolution? I hope so, but often devolution sounds good when you’re in opposition and less attractive when you’re in government. 

I think Brexit provides a burning platform for more devolution because the referendum showed that many people feel disconnected form decision-making in politics. One of the core principles of democracy is taking decisions at a level that is as close to the citizens as possible and obviously devolving powers helps achieve that. 

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