Ten years of Policy Exchange

Free Schools, elected police chiefs, welfare reform - this is the legacy of my think tank.

Policy Exchange was founded ten years ago. We believed - and still do - that there is a role for the State, albeit a much smaller and more efficient one, to help improve peoples' lives. We also felt that people should have more of a direct say on the decisions that affect themselves and their families.

Decentralisation was one of our key themes and some of our better known policy recommendations such as directly elected police commissioners and Free Schools stem from this initial premise. The first elections for police and crime commissioners will take place this November. We believe that a police chief who is directly accountable to the people he or she serves will improve not only the standard of policing at a local level but also re-establish trust in the police, something that has diminished recently with the recent phone hacking scandal.

We first put forward policy recommendations for the setting up of Free Schools because we believe that every parent should have access to a good, local school which offers their child the best possible education. Teaching is one of the most important jobs in the country. We want schools, especially in the most deprived areas of the UK, to have the means to attract the best possible teachers. That means challenging dated concepts such as national pay bargaining, which defines how much a teacher should earn based on time spent in the job, rather than ability. Head teachers know how good a teacher is and should be allowed to pay that person accordingly. Likewise if someone is not cut out to be a teacher, then he or she should not simply be moved from one school to the next as is currently the case. We need to reform the education system to attract the brightest and the best to help our children achieve their potential.

The pupil premium - an additional cash payment for the most disadvantaged children - is one idea that some people forget was first floated by Policy Exchange. The Liberal Democrats took the idea forward in their 2010 election manifesto and the policy came into being this year.

Our work on re-establishing the contributory principle in the welfare system has been taken forward by both Labour and Conservative politicians. The universal credit, set to be introduced in 2014, is a stepping stone to making it more worthwhile to work rather than remain on benefits. However, there is a huge amount more to be done to create a fairer welfare system. Recently we have proposed tougher sanctions and conditions on jobseekers who are not doing all they can to find work. At the same time, the government has a responsibility to help jobcentre advisers identify those people who are the least likely to be able to hold down a job due to alcohol or drug problems or a history of mental health problems. These people need the most help and we need to create a system where on day one of someone signing on, a Jobcentre adviser has the information to tailor specific help towards people with particular needs.

While a number of our policy recommendations have found their way into Coalition thinking we are not resting on our laurels. There is a huge challenge facing all political parties - how do you improve public services with no money. We will be publishing a number of reports over the coming months which specifically look to provide answers to this question.

How can you improve the effectiveness of the police when they are faced with 20 per cent budget cuts over the next three years? We think the police could deploy existing, fully trained officers more effectively rather than simply hire more staff - deployment is more important than employment. Private companies and civilian staff can play a role in delivering back office functions, such as manning call centres, freeing up time for officers to carry out more visible policing roles which is what the public is crying out for.

Energy bills are the biggest concern to most people around the country if you look at any of the opinion polls. We think the government could help energy companies reduce electricity bills by revising current climate change policy. We believe that global warming is happening and we believe that the UK has a responsibility to reduce its carbon emissions. But, current energy policy throws billions of pounds of taxpayer's money on the deployment of specific, expensive technologies such as offshore wind. Government should spend more of its budget on financing innovation directly, rather than subsidising the mass roll out of expensive technologies.

Opening up public data is something that this government is committed to doing and we fully support this aim. Only this week we published a report calling on a right to open data. All non personal information held by government departments (maps and postcodes for example) should be made available for free. We think that entrepreneurs and civic activists could use this information to create new "Apple-like" services and products. Free, open data could create billions for the economy.

As you can probably tell, there is plenty of work to do. We need to make sure that the modern day Policy Exchange rises to the challenge.

Neil O'Brien is the Director of Policy Exchange

Neil O'Brien is the director of Policy Exchange.

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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity