Social justice for all must start with the most excluded

July 07, 2017

For many people experiencing multiple needs, moving towards work is an important ambition. Our policy manager Sam Thomas (@iamsamthomas) spoke at an event this week and argued that achieving social justice requires a focus on those with the furthest to travel. In this blog he explores some of the issues that came up in the debate.

I was glad to join an excellent panel at this week’s IntoWork convention, which brings together policymakers, providers and commissioners interested in employment support. The session asked “what does social justice for all look like?”: as Tony Wilson from the Learning and Work Institute pointed out in his introduction, the question is one that recent governments have engaged with, but struggled to translate into policy.

I began my contribution to the debate by arguing that if we really want to address social justice, we need to start with the most excluded. As shown by research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – represented on the panel by Katie Schmuecker – 1.25 million people in the UK are destitute, unable to afford the most basic necessities. A third of that number have particularly complex needs, and within that a small group of about 60,000 find themselves moving between homelessness services, substance misuse treatment, mental health care and the criminal justice system. Nearly all are unemployed, and most are some distance from the job market.

When these issues come together, it places people in impossible positions: imagine trying to deal with a serious drug or alcohol problem when you don’t have the stability of somewhere to live. The response of services is vital here, and much of MEAM’s work focuses on the way that local areas can work together more effectively. But it’s equally important to remember that each individual experiencing the challenges I describe has aspirations and goals – often including work. At the moment, much of the support provided by JobCentre Plus and schemes like the Work Programme isn’t able to bridge the gap between where people are in their lives, and where they want to get to.

To a great extent that’s because the structure of that support and the policies behind it don’t give employment support staff – who want to help – the freedom to work in a way that meets individual needs. Matthew Oakley from WPI Economics, who led the DWP’s review of sanctions in 2014, also made this point, highlighting out the lack of attention in government to whether welfare conditionality is effective. What’s more, I suggested (drawing on the work of my colleagues at Mind) that harsh conditionality introduces fear and uncertainty that does little to motivate people facing multiple needs.

So what needs to change? From my point of view, three things.

Firstly, we need to recognise the structural factors – including racial and gender inequalities – which mean that some people are overwhelmingly more likely to find themselves experiencing multiple needs. Dr Wanda Wyporska from the Equality Trust made this case persuasively, and I also cited research published this week by academics from Heriot-Watt University which points to the deep disparities in risk that people from different backgrounds have of experiencing homelessness. The picture can be complicated – for instance, women are underrepresented in data on multiple needs but experience very serious harms, while black, Asian and minority ethnic communities are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. We need to understand that complexity in order to respond effectively.

Secondly, we need to take seriously the stigma that writes off people’s chances of work. Both employers and, at times, support staff can make assumptions on people’s behalf about whether work is a realistic or desirable ambition for them. We need to challenge ourselves and our colleagues to let people make their own decisions about whether and how they want to move towards work.

Finally, we need to make sure that people with lived experience of multiple needs – who best know what needs to change – are involved not only in understanding the challenges of moving towards independence and employment, but also in designing the solutions. This includes shaping the kind of policies that we adopt, and helping to implement them on the ground. I was pleased to hear this point echoed by others in the Q&A session and in other discussions over the two days.

I left the discussion with a sense that the biggest challenge for policymakers and providers addressing the journey towards work is to give both local areas and individual practitioners the scope to work effectively and freely, while remaining ambitious about what can be achieved. There are ways we can achieve this, particularly through the renewed focus on devolution provided by elected mayors, and drawing on proven approaches like Independent Placement and Support.

We’re living through uncertain political times and it’s still unclear what opportunities they will bring. But by paying attention to structural inequality, challenging stigma and listening to lived experience, we can make the most of them – and move closer to securing real social justice for all.

Photo: Rick Cameron, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0