Interview: Graham Allen's early intervention panacea

Graham Allen is Labour's MP for Nottingham North
Graham Allen is Labour's MP for Nottingham North

Billions of pounds can be saved, at very little cost to the government: it's no wonder those in power are listening.

By Alex Stevenson

All MPs have their pet subjects. Most are ignored or, worst, patronised. Labour's MP for Nottingham North, Graham Allen, is different.

We're sat in his flat in Westminster. I've just completed an interview based on his plans for the select committee he's now in charge of. And then he mentions his other "hat" - early intervention.

The next half-hour is spent exploring his ideas: Allen may be temporarily laid low hobbling around, but he speaks with enormous passion about an issue at the heart of his political career. "I've been 23 years trying to break this intergenerational cycle and for the first time in my political lifetime there's a real prospect of that happening," he says. Now is his moment.

Allen has been asked to lead a review of the issue for the coalition government, to issue its initial findings in January and its final recommendations later in 2011. The ambition is enormous: saving Britain millions, billions even, by nipping its problems in the bud.

His battle is against "the replication, year after year, generation after generation, of dysfunction and underachievement". He wants to tackle the social mobility problem at its heart by getting to the heart of why those who are born into deprived families often end up exactly where they started - and then having children who suffer exactly the same problems.

Teenage pregnancies just about sums the problem up. Allen has been Nottingham North's MP since 1987: long enough for a 16-year-old walking into his surgery to then be replicated by that child, 16 years later, walking in pregnant too.

Early intervention, Allen believes, is the answer. The goal should be to create an "intergenerational virtuous circle" which helps change the depressing reality.

"Early intervention programmes are those which help every child, baby and young person develop the social and emotional bedrock that they need to achieve as a human being," he explains.

"They're the things that middle class parents give their kids unconsciously.

"If we can help people at the earliest years and reinforce that in subsequent years, if we can give the right sort of basis, values, interactivity so that those kids can listen, learn, resolve arguments without violence, develop themselves as peers... it means kids who listen at school and achieve results and have an aspiration to go and work and above all will raise decent families themselves."

Politicians are intrigued. Who should I go to from the other parties, I ask, to back up his claim that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are listening? "David Cameron and Nick Clegg," Allen replies simply. They've already written flattering forewords to a recent book Allen wrote on the issue. And now they are listening to him and his suggestions.

The cross-party approach is essential. "We're dead if we don't do it." That's putting it bluntly. Allen explains: "An intergenerational thing takes a generation and no one party is going to be in power that long. We need all parties, and we need to change the culture."

This is something that all parties can agree on. It fits with the Big Society and the Lib Dems' localism agenda, just as it does Labour's own social democracy impulses. The commitment to helping strengthen the individual - and doing it at the earliest possible age - simply ticks all the boxes. Making sure that "people are capable of participating in a society" makes good sense on moral grounds, but it does on economic grounds, too. Think of the huge welfare bill alone, a major factor in the deficit, and you get an idea of the scale of Allen's ambition.

The big question, then, quickly focuses on the way in which his ideas can actually work. Fortunately Allen has some experience at this sort of thing: he was instrumental in turning Nottingham into an 'early intervention city'. Looking back on his work, the key was clearly partnership. Getting the leader of the local council and its chief executive, the divisional police commander and the chief executive of the health service onside was no mean feat. "If you get them altogether and put aside the silo mentality, we can get them signed up to this." He wants to do for Britain, in short, what he has already done elsewhere.

The work starts early. Family-nurse partnerships can help the parents of those aged nought to three become good parents. Young mums can be offered intensive visiting programmes - but only if they want. "No one is dragooned into a classroom and lectured." On top of that, specific programmes are embedded to help specific needs.

"The children of prolific and persistent offenders are most doomed to repeat that cycle - unless you get in early," Allen insists.

"If you by all these interventions can help create someone who's going to be a great mother and father [and avoid] all this massive expense of not helping someone become a good father or mother - why would you not do that?"

The process continues as children get older with initiatives like Sure Start and the social and emotional aspects of learning programme (Seal). Projects have to be local, of course, as specific communities' needs are targeted. This is just as well, for there's not much money available from central government.

That's the bottom line, isn't it? Promising sweeping solutions to the country's social ills is all very well, but prising cash from the reluctant fingers of the Treasury is always a tough job. Allen's answer is to set up an organisation which helps bring in funds from all sorts of different sources. Yes, it might need £5 million or £10 million to get up and running. But once it's started the resources can come from elsewhere. Allen wants to attract private money, ethical money, money from the voluntary sector, money from the high street, local government money, philanthropic money... he pauses for breath.

"If I've got all that at the table of an institution trying to drive early intervention it would be insane for government not to take a share. Not 51%, but take a chunk and say 'we'd like to be at your table'. That would be peanuts for the government."

Allen knows there are tough hurdles to overcome. He only has to look abroad to realise that "one of the key problems in our society that has suffocated this sort of thinking has been the overcentralisation of the UK". Devolution in Britain has already triggered major innovation: from Wales' superb foundation course for four- to eight-year-olds to Scotland's white paper on the topic a couple of years ago. Perhaps this is why his best examples come from the US - places like Washington, New Jersey and Colorado. The latter's Centre for the Study and Prevention of Violence spent six years sifting through 7,000 federal projects before picking out just 12 for approval.

"If we're up and running in a year's time and have got six or seven different instruments, choices for investors, some of those choices would be for government," Allen hopes.

"If you're helping babies become decent citizens, you would think government through the police, health service, magistrate courts... would say 'this is a good thing for us to do'."

Social impact bonds are the highest profile option now being talked about; it's an expansion of the 'payment by results' principle which is already being piloted in some prisons. This sees private sector firms getting profits for cutting reoffending rates. That's the sort of scheme which Allen could eventually back.

He's offering politicians enormous savings at very little cost to the government. It's no surprise they're interested. But can it really work? Will he really be able to deliver what he believes is possible?

"It fits because I've yet to see the political party that says 'our philosophy is to spend billions of pounds on the cost of failure'." Allen must spend the next few months coming up with the alternatives that will finally make his vision a reality.


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