Let’s get the City on board to propel early intervention

Graham Allen MP, chair of the Early Intervention Commission is hoping to enlist the support of the City and the Treasury in solving the funding problems for services, finds Judy Cooper

Graham Allen MP (pictured), chair of the Early Intervention Commission is hoping to enlist the support of the City and the Treasury in solving the funding problems for services, finds Judy Cooper

Early intervention is acknowledged as perhaps the only way to stem the tide of children entering the care system. Yet funding for early intervention remains a Catch-22 situation – high start-up costs have to be balanced against the reality that results are rarely seen within five years. For politicians this has obvious drawbacks.

Yet one politician is determined to drive early intervention up the agenda and keep it there for the long-term – Graham Allen (right), the Labour MP who is chairing the government’s Early Intervention Commission.

There is no question that he knows his stuff. In 2008 he and Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith, now work and pensions secretary, co-wrote a book Early Intervention, Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens and he has worked closely with the council in his own constituency of Nottingham City to re-style it as the “early intervention city”.

He has already garnered cross-party support to ensure his recommendations survive. But it is the funding of early intervention that children’s services are most worried about – particularly in the current slash and burn financial climate.

In the short-term, Allen accepts that councils will be forced to make unpalatable decisions in order to commit to early intervention, even if it comes from reducing funding to services for children already in care, which some councils are proposing.

“There are difficult decisions to be made and I know we will lose some things that have been hard fought for. But we may well gain something as well and that’s what we need to be focusing on.”

In the long-term he is hopeful that early intervention projects and programmes will become self-sustaining through the use of social impact bonds (see box).

His second report, due in May, will examine how early intervention bonds and any other financial products, might be used to fund programmes. He is confident of success which may seem odd as the clouds gather over public spending.

“When Iain Duncan Smith and I first came up with this idea, while writing our book, we were trying to work with the Treasury and the City on it but there was no interest whatsoever. That’s changed now because we have a government desperate to find new ways of funding services and we have a very guilty bunch of people in the City who are anxious to try and shore up their credibility. The sort of money we’re talking about is small beer to them but it has high political resonance and social credibility value.”

But for it to be successful the products have to be worth purchasing. So his first report, due in January, will identify between 12 and 20 early intervention projects proven to be cost-effective.

The first report will also look at the need for a body, “either an early intervention institution or foundation,” which will act as the arbiter for early intervention – evaluating programmes on outcomes and cost benefit and ranking them. It will also be the “bank”, which connects social investors with programmes.

The final element of the first report, Allen says, will be a list of the places that have been chosen to be the trailblazers for the new types of funding. The call for submissions is still ongoing and he is coy about whether the list is open-ended or whether there will be a cut-off number. He is clear that the selection criteria will be quite stringent.

“Those places hoping to be considered really need to have a vision for what early intervention will achieve in their area. Those who are hoping for a bit of extra funding help to stop a prevention programme being closed down need to think again.

“We have to be very clear about what early intervention is. It’s very easy to confuse it with prevention. There is no doubt that prevention should have a better profile and more money, but better than prevention is early intervention because we are tackling problems at the source. So drug rehabilitation, for example, even if it’s started early on, is prevention. Early intervention is about ensuring the addiction doesn’t happen in the first place.

“Early intervention is about creating that social and emotional bedrock in babies, children and young people that means they grow up not wanting to offend, not wanting to take drugs, keen to get a job and capable of being good parents to their own children.

“We’re talking about the family nurse partnerships, we’re talking about Sure Start children’s centres, we’re talking about social emotional aspects of learning, life skills for children in schools.”

He highlights a programme in Nottingham focused on the children of persistent offenders “because they are the children most likely to grow up with very little of that resilience. We need to work with those children to try and turn around that inter-generational problem”.

The other debate surrounding early intervention is whether it should be focused on the 0-3 years age group because that is when interventions are the most effective.

Allen is taking a wider view. “The 0-3 years are the most important time when it comes to developing the emotional and social skills. The reality is, however, that in those years it’s really only the family nurse partnerships or intensive health visiting that can make a difference.

“The other key agent in this period are the parents. That’s where the 0-18 perspective comes in. It’s about preparing all of those children and young people to be good parents themselves. So we need to know what helps a young person become a good adult? It’s that intergenerational transmission of good parenting that we are missing at the moment.”

He points out that most families are receptive to such help. “I’ve never come across a new mum who doesn’t want to be a good mum. In Nottingham the queue for the family nurse partnership is massive because word gets around that these people can help you stop a baby screaming all night or give tips on how to cope in those early weeks.”

This is what he wants services to be building on. “Ultimately, I can only influence my small corner of the world. But I’m conscious that if it works then it could become an enormous corner of the world. There’s a quote I like that at the moment: ‘we are funding gold-plated ambulances waiting at the bottom of the cliff when, for a fraction of the price, you could go and buy a fence and a sign for the top of the cliff’. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.”

Social impact bonds

On 18 March this year the first social impact bond was agreed between the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and Social Finance. It will fund social organisations working to reduce the re-offending rates of short sentence male prisoners leaving Peterborough Prison. During the pilot, social sector organisations such as St Giles Trust will provide intensive support to 3,000 short term prisoners over a six year period – both inside prison and on release. If the initiative cuts re-offending by 7.5% or more, investors will receive from the MoJ a share of the long-term savings. If it delivers a drop in re-offending beyond the threshold, investors will receive an increasing return, up to a maximum of 13%.

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