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The Policy Ask with Clare Moriarty: “Renters have fewer options for lowering energy bills”

The CEO of Citizens Advice on her time as permanent secretary of Defra, the cost-of-living crisis, and William Beveridge.

By Spotlight

Clare Moriarty is the CEO of Citizens Advice and a former experienced senior civil servant, having served as permanent secretary at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). She was also formerly director general of rail at the Department for Transport (DfT), constitution director at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and head of the NHS Foundation Trust Unit at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

How do you start your working day? 

In my mind, I start it as I did during the long months of working from home: walking our Lakeland terrier in the Ashford Hangers – beautiful beech woods where you can see the seasons change as wildflowers come and go. I still manage that some days, but mostly it’s more prosaically on an early train, going through emails and thinking about the day ahead.

What has been your career high?   

I’ve had many, but leading Defra stands out. The department was hugely affected by Brexit as so much of our work was bound up with the EU. A quarter of all EU legislation relates to agriculture, fisheries and environment so there was a huge amount to unpick and replace. We had to spin up more than 50 projects – to manage negotiations, prepare for a potential no-deal exit and develop policy for the future. Just as importantly, during my time at Defra I put a real focus on inclusion, encouraging people to bring themselves to work (and expect to be valued as individuals) and to make connections with colleagues. My favourite testimonial was from someone who described Defra as “the department where people care about each other”.

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What has been the most challenging moment of your career? 

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At a professional level, managing crises is intensely challenging. I’ve had my share of those, from BSE to volcanic ash to the collapse of the West Coast Mainline franchise competition. Perhaps unsurprisingly, external crises are much easier to deal with than those, such as the latter, which arise from internal mistakes. At a personal level, closing down the Department for Exiting the EU was particularly difficult. I felt a deep sense of responsibility to the people who had worked there, under great pressure and in often unrewarding circumstances, and wanted to make sure that they were properly looked after. I did my best, but with time and the political climate against us – we had just four weeks to close the department before the 31 January exit date – and when I wasn’t myself part of the future, I had to accept that my values wouldn’t prevail.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?  

I’ve learned many things the long way round and try to use my experience to help younger colleagues get there more quickly. One key piece of advice is that we are least likely to do the things we worry about most. Another is “be yourself, and don’t expect others to be like you”. We tend to interpret other people’s actions as if they were our own, which can lead to misunderstanding and distrust. Just asking why someone has done something can be the start of a journey towards trust and respect.

Which political figure inspires you, and why? 

William Beveridge’s 1942 report on Social Insurance and Allied Services, with its focus on the “five giants” of idleness, ignorance, disease, squalor and want, created the blueprint for social policy in post-war Britain. Beveridge clearly had his flaws and his contradictions, but I can’t fail to be inspired by his commitment to social justice and the principle of a minimum standard of living “below which no one should be allowed to fall”.

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right, and why? 

The biggest reason people come to Citizens Advice is problems with benefits. So it’s a bit of a surprise to find myself saying that Universal Credit, after a long and painful development, is now working reasonably well as a delivery system.

Problems do remain. It’s not very good at complexity – people struggle if their circumstances are even a little bit unusual. Benefits are too low and people’s entitlements have been steadily eroded through things like the two-child limit, freeze in Local Housing Allowance and the benefits cap. And having to wait five weeks for benefits can cause huge hardship to people.

But, compared to the clunkiness of legacy benefits, we now have a digital and fairly responsive system for a core welfare benefit that is often easier for people to navigate than what came before. That’s something to celebrate.

And what policy should the UK government ditch, and why? 

I’m a firm believer in levelling up but I don’t think the government’s policy of that name is doing what it says on the tin. Levelling up for me is about addressing the huge inequalities that exist in our society. Geography plays a role in that, and the greater disadvantages seen in some parts of the country certainly needs to be addressed. 

But so too do the needs of groups that were disadvantaged before the pandemic, worst hit by it and are now at the sharp end of the cost-of-living crisis: people on low incomes, people of colour, disabled people. 

Local Citizens Advice offices are at the heart of their communities and our advisers see every day how genuine economic and social regeneration is needed in areas that policymakers have left behind. That’s what levelling up should be about – investing in people and communities, not just flagship infrastructure projects.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to, and why?

The government pledged to end “no-fault” evictions in its 2019 manifesto and the most recent Queen’s Speech set out plans to make this happen. Renters are so often left out of policymakers’ thinking. They couldn’t benefit from a payment holiday during the pandemic, like mortgage holders. They’re now bearing the brunt of the cost-of-living crisis, with fewer options for lowering their energy bills. Rents are spiralling and people live in fear of summary eviction if they challenge their landlords on them. It’s a relief to see that at least they will be protected from unfair evictions.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from? 

We could learn a lot from other countries’ early years policies. There is plenty of research showing that good quality early years education delivered by highly qualified staff improves children’s attainment, with the greatest difference seen for children from more disadvantaged backgrounds. Yet the focus in this country is on quantity over quality, childcare over children’s development, with the paradoxical result that early years provision is both prohibitively expensive for parents and a low-wage profession running on the thinnest of margins. We could look to New Zealand where high-quality early years education is provided by staff qualified to degree level, made affordable for parents through subsidy, and continues to age six or seven so that children are ready when they move into the more formal structure of school education.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be? 

A watchdog on employment rights. This is something that the whole Citizens Advice network has been campaigning on for the past 20 years.

If somebody comes to us with an employment problem, and they’re not in a union, there are some things we can advise on that might help. Yet the reality is that often their employer knows – and we know – that the road to an employment tribunal is long. The waiting time to your first hearing is now almost a year.

The solution is simple: have a watchdog enforce people’s rights directly where it’s possible to do so. The government agreed and was planning to include a new body in its Employment Bill. So it’s incredibly disappointing that they dropped this much-needed legislation – but we’ll continue pushing for the next government to take action on this.

This article originally appeared in an Energy and Climate Change Spotlight supplement published on 30 September 2022. Read the full issue here.