By Winnie Agbonlahor

30 Jul 2014

Graham Allen, chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, tells Winnie Agbonlahor why government must increase its focus on the long term

The first thing people associate with Nottingham is Robin Hood. And in parts of the city, there are still plenty who sympathise with the legendary outlaw’s mission to steal from the rich and give to the poor. Many of them live in Nottingham North, a former mining area that’s now one of the UK’s 10 most deprived constituencies.

It is also a long-time Labour stronghold; its MP Graham Allen, who’s represented the constituency through five general elections since 1987, acknowledges that it’s a “fairly safe” seat. For him, this security provides an opportunity to pursue his interest in looking way beyond the next election: an interest manifested both in his chairmanship of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee (PCRC), and in his campaign for more early intervention work – whose results are seen over generational cycles, not political ones. “If you want to do something seriously, you’ve got to do it long term,” he says.

During his own “chequered” school career in Nottingham North, Allen saw many troubled families who, he believes, could have been transformed by early intervention. He wants to give “every baby and young person social and emotional capability,” because, he argues, “if you haven’t got that, you’re not going to get anything out of literacy and numeracy, achieve well at exams, or raise a good family”. 
Allen’s interest in the approach began in 2001. He’d asked Tony Blair for a “more interesting” job than his role as a whip, been knocked back and withdrawn from government – and then, he recalls, “the people in the locality asked me to help. I had a go at it, and it came to something.” Nottingham became “the first city to really do early intervention.” And “it’s still going strong: they are in the middle of a 20-year early intervention programme, and it’s starting to feed through in the results for eight-year-olds.”

So how did he do it? Extra government funding? No: most of the money available for local services, he recalls, “was spoken for”. But MPs have “the power to convene; to bring people together”; in short, they have the ability to “bluff”, he explains. “People think you’re important, when you’re actually not. So you can say to them: ‘Look, I need you guys to work together on this, will you come and help me?’” In this way he persuaded agencies such as the police, health and voluntary sector organisations to work together and share resources. Often, he’d attract funds by “starting off a project” then asking someone else to take it on. “So by hook or by crook and by effort and personal commitment, I was able to get these programmes going.”

In 2008, Allen’s personal investment in the cause led him to co-author a book on early intervention – Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens – with former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith. Was it easy to put their political differences aside? “Iain and I would not agree on anything other than early intervention, so we don’t talk about other stuff,” Allen replies. “I make a point of not talking about defence, immigration and Europe with Iain. But we do talk about early intervention – and his support has been fantastic.”

Two years later, when the coalition came to power, Allen was asked by the prime minister to chair an independent review of early intervention. Allen produced one report in January 2011 containing 33 recommendations, and another in July of the same year with 19 proposals on how to roll out early intervention across the country. 

Key to his proposals was the establishment of a dedicated charity: he says he told the PM at the time that the only way his recommendations would work is “by having an early intervention foundation. He agreed to help me, and they found some start-up money.” The Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) was launched in April 2013 as an independent charity, and operates as one of the six ‘evidence centres’ in the government’s social research-oriented What Works Network. With Allen as its chair, the EIF assesses evidence on early intervention; provides advice to local authorities, charities and potential investors; and champions the approach.

Whilst the EIF has been getting established, however, the coalition has removed the ring-fencing from funding for Sure Start – Labour’s early intervention programme – and slashed council budgets. Since then, many Sure Start centres have closed. Does this government do enough on early intervention? “No government is doing enough,” he replies, adding that one of the challenges is to persuade the Treasury that up-front investment can create savings in the long run.

In the case of early intervention, this should be obvious: troubled families place huge burdens on public services, whilst if people are supported to lead productive lives “they are going to be taxpayers, and not sucking money out through criminal and antisocial behaviour, a lifetime on benefits, remedial teaching, drink and drug abuse programmes, or teenage pregnancy programmes”. However, government’s annual budgetary cycle, the absence of any system for recognising averted costs, and the current pressures on public spending mitigate against such investments. And unfortunately, early intervention requires spending over many years in order to break the cycle of damaged children growing up to produce more generations of damaged children. “If you want to change people’s lives ‘inter-generationally’, you have to be around for at least one generation – otherwise you can’t use that expression,” Allen comments.

One solution, he says, is to create endowments: “Setting up a little pocket of money in the bank, which will keep an institution like the EIF going.” With the EIF’s costs standing at about £1m a year, he says, a £20m fund could ensure that the charity will “be there forever” whilst enabling it to “wholly focus” on its core purpose.

Another topic Allen feels strongly about is the question of whether Britain should have a written constitution. Unlike most other democratic countries, Britain has no single legal document setting out how the state works. Instead, we have an accumulation of statutes, conventions and treaties, knitted together with centuries of legal precedents. The PCRC is currently holding an inquiry into the question of whether a constitution should be produced, and so has not yet published its official stance on the topic. But Allen does not hesitate to give his personal view: “I think we should have a written constitution, and feel strongly about this. I think every kid at school should be able to lay their hands on their copy of how our society works. They are members of our society; they should be citizens rather than subjects.”

So why fix something that has worked for years? “But has it worked?” he responds. “I think that we don’t understand how our democracy works, and I think that can lead us to find our democracy threatened.” There are questions to be answered, he says, such as: “Should we still have a second chamber that’s not elected? Is that a modern democracy?” 

To kick-start a debate, his committee will draft a constitution for “people to talk about” – it launched a consultation last week. He does not appear overly optimistic that it will be adopted, but says that his committee will at least have “left a policy legacy”. In years to come, he says, “someone will pick up [the draft] and say: ‘Yes, it looks a bit dated, but they obviously thought about it, and they cared about it’.”

Allen is a big fan of another recent constitutional reform: the introduction of fixed-term parliaments. A fixed, five-year term was introduced by this government in 2011, replacing a system whereby the prime minister could call a general election when he saw fit. Allen says the previous system was “wrong in a democracy”, adding that handing such power to one person would be unimaginable in most other Western nations. “Can you imagine the American Congress giving President Obama the power to call an election? Absolute rubbish!” Having a fixed-term parliament, he says, is “fantastic, and helps stability in government”.

In Allen’s view, the new system has two major benefits: taking power away from the PM, and enabling the government to “do four years of legislation and one year of thinking – preparing for the next five years.” In other words, he thinks that it should enable governments to think for the long-term. Asked why, in that case, the coalition has just announced a new legislative programme for its fifth year, Allen replies that the media, has “in a sense pushed the government to do another legislative year [by saying] ‘You’re weak, you don’t have legislation, you’ve run out of steam!’”

Anyway, in the first five-year term, Allen isn’t expecting to see much of an impact on the level of long-term planning: all new systems need time to embed, he says. “I don’t think you can expect it to happen immediately the first time around, but I think it is in the process. There is an evolution taking place, and I think the next five years will be very interesting and that people will be a little more careful and considered.”

The important thing now, he says, is to make sure “we stick with [fixed-term parliaments]”. Allen has been going round the departments, meeting every permanent secretary on behalf of his committee to talk about how they’d like to take advantage of the extra certainty the new system provides: “How they’re getting on with it, and what they’d like to do.” It’s important to make use of the benefits of terms, he says, because “parliament so lacks confidence at the moment, they would give the power back to the PM to call an election.” The whole political class, he adds, “has totally lost confidence, given the hammering they’ve had after the expenses scandals: they’re frightened of their own shadow”.

Due to this lack of confidence, Allen says, there is an instinct among MPs to hand powers to their leaders. And he’s seen this tendency impact on his own party, which “used to be able to elect its own cabinet – its own top people”. Now this power rests with the party leader. Allen is not a fan of this new development – which, he says, is “just one example of our massively over-centralised society, which puts an incredible emphasis on the leader to decide everything”. 

Our focus on the centre, he says, is “very unhealthy”, and prevents governments from following through on their pledges to devolve powers down to local authorities. “I understand the reluctance, because no one likes giving power away, and no one likes change,” he says, but the failure to hand powers down perpetuates what he calls England’s “unitary system”, a relic of the “old class system, the [era] of running an empire”.

In Allen’s view, the country has a “post-imperial set-up” in which “we ask civil servants to solve all the problems.” This, he adds, means that the centre is overloaded, government is “hamstringing itself by not having the right structure”, and “none of our key political institutions are fit for purpose.” Our structural problems must be “sorted out quite quickly” to ensure decisions are being taken “at the appropriate level”. Defence, Europe, pollution and international affairs should remain responsibilities of the centre, he argues, but most other issues should be handled locally.

Allen draws comparisons to other Western democracies, and concludes that in most of them a system within which “the man in Whitehall can tell you how often you should empty your litter bins” and central government can cut local authority funding in half would be “seen as ridiculous”. Sweden, for example, “raises two thirds of its money locally and regionally for everything, including the health service.” Thanks to this centralisation, he says, England is not the pluralistic democracy it could be: “We are the weirdo in the democratic family. We are the embarrassing, smelly uncle in the corner, whereas everyone else is in pretty good shape.”

The vehicle for devolution in England has to be local government, Allen says, adding that this government doesn’t even need to look beyond the UK’s borders to find inspiration: he points to the Scottish model, in which Holyrood retains a measure of income tax. England, he says, should “take a lead from the Celtic friends in the family” and start treating local authorities “as a partner, rather than an agency of central government.” 

The Scots, he ruefully notes, may well vote to leave the UK this September. But Allen argues that the separatist movement would have less traction with Scottish voters if England, “the biggest nation of the union, was committed to devolution and union as twin principles.” 

As it stands, Allen asks: “Why should rational devolvers in Scotland believe Whitehall and Westminster when we say: ‘We believe in devolution,’ if we don’t practice it in England?” He calls for all three party leaders to sign a “one-line document soon, before the referendum, that says: ‘All the union parties believe that union and devolution go together for all the nations of the United Kingdom’.” England would then be “bound to do proper devolution for England as well,” meaning that “everyone could relax about being in the union.”

As we draw the interview to a close, the sound of bagpipes drifts across from Westminster Bridge: an icon of UK culture that may soon be the signature sound of a foreign country. The sunny Parliament Terrace offers some stunning backdrops for our photographer, who asks Allen to adopt a series of poses and positions. But as Allen shifts around and faces different directions, a common theme emerges. No matter how he’s standing, he always appears to be looking the same way: far ahead, off towards the horizon. 

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