Curing costs: early action could save billions

By Guest contributor 20 September 2013

Will Horwitz is a researcher for the Early Action Task Force based at east London charity Community Links. The Task Force is a cross-sector group of leaders making the case for acting earlier in social policy.  

Where the charity sector leads, politicians often follow and so it is today with the Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) launch of their important Early Action Landscape Review, which says ‘A concerted increase in effective early action could help to deal with the root causes of…problems, benefiting individuals and society and saving the taxpayer billions of pounds each year, but governments have consistently failed to deliver’.

Charities, more than most, understand the costs of waiting until problems have developed before trying to pick up the pieces. They’ve expressed frustration about the lack of recognition of this, particularly within public service provision, while in the meantime costs and unnecessary suffering only racks up.

NPC’s Prevention and early intervention report, published last year, laid out the case—as has the Early Action Task Force of which NPC is a member. Figures released by the Task Force today reinforce what charities are experiencing at a local level: a rapid withdrawal of public funding for early action as dwindling resources are ever-more focused on the most acute cases. Research from Head and Heart economics shows a 9% fall, in cash terms, in local authority spending on prevention in 2011/12.

What makes today’s PAC report extremely significant is that the PAC—very influential within government—not only strongly supports our case for early action but clearly explains what needs to change. They identify the barriers to early action: short term thinking and a lack of leadership within government, the prevalence of perverse incentives on decision makers, the public sector’s ongoing struggle to join up its disparate services, and a lack of evidence for successful interventions which NPC are leading the charge to address.

It recommends the Treasury should step up—as the department responsible for ensuring money is well spent they currently devote remarkably little resource to ensuring it’s spent at the right time. There is no common definition of early action across government and no way of knowing how much is spent on it, issues which the Task Force has raised in the past and which the PAC demand the Treasury address. The Committee also exposes the short-sightedness of a spending review process that asks departments nothing about the long term consequences of their spending decisions, and recommends ten year impact assessments be mandatory for every department in the next spending review.

All these and more are excellent recommendations—I definitely recommend reading the report, it’s short, punchy and powerful. What it does, above all else, is confirm and add weight to what many of us have long believed—that late, reactive spending is not an inevitable part of public service but a wasteful burden which, if we could ever afford, we certainly can’t now.