Reflections on New Think Tank – 6. Zoe Vickerman

This is a series of posts in which we’ve invited people to give us their reactions to Guerilla Policy (formerly the New Think Tank project). This post: Zoe Vickerman, Director, Centre for Social Justice Alliance and Awards. Thanks to Zoe for contributing the post, and we welcome your comments.

A few weeks ago, I sat conspicuously in the front row of an excellent panel discussion on child poverty, hosted by Policy Exchange. Worthy adversaries, including the Rt Hon Frank Field MP, set out their views on what they felt the measures of child poverty should be in this country. I became increasingly aware of the agitation of the gentleman sitting next to me. His physical twitching turned into muffled bursts of outrage, and it wasn’t long before I could predict exactly which comments were going to elicit what responses. The more a speaker extolled income transfer as the best way to lift a child out of poverty, the more this gentleman leaned forward in his seat, nodding aggressively. But an uncontroversial suggestion from Fraser Nelson that giving an extra £10 to an addict would do little to lift their child out of their impoverished standard of living was met with eye-rolling and headshaking. Concerned that others might confuse my physical proximity to him with any kind of intellectual proximity, I put on my best condescending expression and shuffled to the furthest edge of my seat.

What surprised me was not the Mediterranean nature of his expressions. In fact, I find it rather impressive that he should have retained such a quality in a country that prefers to squash at infancy such displays of passion. Child poverty is an emotive subject, and I believe it should make us all equally hot under the collar. However, I have great objections to the notion that someone representing a prominent and well-regarded organisation (which turned out to be the case) would be so entrenched in their view that they are unable to accept what is plain fact – an undeniable truth. A child growing up in a home with a single parent who is addicted to drugs will not live in any better circumstances if the family has a little extra cash. We all know where the money’s likely to go.

The Centre for Social Justice is a social policy think tank, working on issues that range from education to welfare, debt and addiction. We think, but most importantly we listen. Our team of policy experts become experts thanks to hundreds of professionals, front line charity workers, academics (yes, they are important too) and people who have been affected by the situation that we are researching. For any given report that we publish, say community cohesion, the team leading the research will have taken hundreds of hours of evidence from what we call our CSJ Alliance – a network of over 300 local charities that are changing lives in communities across the UK, and which have been assessed as particularly outstanding and effective.

To the CSJ, these charities are not a take-it-or-leave-it source of sad personal case studies, offering illustrations to make a policy document not quite such a dull read. Rather, we recognise these charities as pioneers of innovation and effectiveness, the best of which are changing lives more successfully and more rapidly than any alternative public or private sector offering. They don’t just highlight problems to us – they give us solutions and prove that these solutions work. We need to listen to them.

For if we don’t, then we end up rolling our eyes in policy discussions, knocking about theoretical arguments where people ‘take sides’ that are determined by their broader political leaning, which may or may not bear any relation to reality. The starting point must surely be evidence. Only evidence from the ground has the power to shake policymakers out of their ivory towers.

The CSJ recently surveyed our 300 Alliance charities, asking what single aspect of early childhood had the greatest bearing on that child’s life outcomes. The near unanimous response was that growing up in a stable and loving family was the primary determining factor. Yes, money is important, but people and relationships are more so. That is the voice of people who face every day the issues that policy makers are trying to fix.

New Think Tank’s principles of engaging with those on the ‘front line’ are right. They are the ones with the answers, so let’s start listening.

Zoe Vickerman, Director, Centre for Social Justice Alliance and Awards

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