MANY years ago, my friend Sir Paul Holmes returned to university to take another paper.

Though he'd passed the nine "units", which in those days got you a Bachelor's degree, Victoria University at that time required a pass in a foreign language.

In his first attempt, Paul had enrolled for a half-unit called Italian Reading Knowledge (IRK!) but had difficulty turning up for the early morning lectures.

Many years later, the university abolished the language requirement and Paul finally got his degree.

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Before this happened, Paul took the English paper at Victoria University which he also failed to complete, probably because his Wellington broadcasting career with what was then 2ZB had taken off. At this time, he told me about a fellow student who impressed him greatly and for whom Paul predicted a bright future.

Paul was an excellent judge of character and was not off the mark with this assessment, as the fellow student who impressed him was Bill English.

English is an interesting character. With an Irish Catholic Southland heritage, you'd think he'd be a totally dyed-in-the-wool conservative. What Paul noticed was a very good brain, and this is what makes English's musings noteworthy.

As Colin James (still one of the best political observers) notes, Bill English has been looking at social spending - health, benefits, education, jails, etc - and asking some basic questions.

In the same speech where English described prisons as a "moral and fiscal failure", he said: "It would be good if we could have ... less young people coming into the ... pipeline where they start with a minor offence and end up with a 10-year sentence."

The language around this thinking, as Colin James points out, has changed. Identifying future beneficiaries and offenders was previously called "the forward liability approach"; it is now dubbed "social investment".

This is a step in the right direction. Where the Labour Party and the Greens might find "forward liability" capitalistic and hard to swallow, "social investment" is widely attractive.

This means that policy changes in this direction are likely to survive a change of government and just possibly give John Key's Government the legacy that the recently failed flag referendum denied it.

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A small but clear example of a successful social investment is the unlicensed driver programme run by the Howard League in Hawke's Bay.

Last year more than 100 mainly young offenders were assisted with literacy, some driver training and money for tests, and got drivers' licences. Many also got jobs and went off benefits.

Many of these newly licensed drivers had been on track for a jail sentence at a cost to the taxpayer of $2000 per week.

This approach is so clearly cost-effective for a government chronically strapped for cash that it deserves close examination and expansion.

The Government is currently considering a report by Dame Paula Rebstock, who has led a welfare working group to broadly examine the future of the benefit system.

This report, which reached government ministers early this year, advocates a social investment approach aimed at those heading towards spending long periods on benefits.

Bill English is well-placed to advance this policy. He has the intellectual horsepower (and the chequebook) but he will need to do battle with the "silo" structure of the public service.

If you examine how many prisoners - the most expensive "beneficiaries" we have - began their careers of crime and incarceration, you very often find people who were repeatedly failed by health, education and other systems.

One typical Howard League prisoner literacy graduate had easily treatable deafness, which wasn't picked up.

He managed to leave school illiterate at 10 or 11, began his career of offending with repeated unlicensed driving, got jailed and there was recruited into a gang and learned about the drug trade.

What you see here is a failure in the health system - nobody picked up his deafness. This was followed by failure in the education system - he left school unable to read.

Living away from any public transport, he found it difficult to avoid unlicensed driving and there was no help with any path to a licence. This expensive chain of events could have been broken at several points but that would have required cross-departmental collaboration, which just didn't happen.

English could do worse than take one of the Labour Party's 10 policy ideas. Number seven talks about "reforming the transition between education, training and work - through comprehensive reform of career guidance and creating a school leavers' toolkit to prepare them for the practical requirements of work".

If we were able to catch kids leaving school without the ability to read and write and do something about it, we may see prisoner and beneficiary numbers plummet. That might well be the best "social investment" of all.

-Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.