Election 2001 features

The family is a key issue for the forthcoming election,
and it has been at the heart of many of the outgoing government’s
high-profile initiatives. Frances Rickford examines whether
families have found themselves better off under New

(see below for an examination of Labour’s record on
tackling social exclusion)

(It is advisable to print these articles as they are

Plaid Cymru’s election manifesto had one very distinctive
feature. It didn’t mention the family. Children, women, working
hours, pay and benefits were all in there. But the Welsh
nationalists decided to stay out of the contest so fiercely fought
by the main English parties to claim the family ground.

For New Labour, the family is much more than a buzzword. From
before the last election it was emerging as a key issue for party
ideologues – the source of either social cohesion or social
dissolution. Heavily influenced by the American Communitarian
movement, New Labour concluded that society was paying a high price
for the pressure it had loaded onto on family relationships. With
poverty, long working hours, dismal housing, unemployment, the
consumer culture and rapidly changing life expectations, families
were struggling on every front and in many cases going under.

Of course the reason families were important to the
Communitarians, and to New Labour, was because children live in
them, and are shaped by them into the adults they become.

One of the conundrums for politicians was what to say about
changes in the way families are formed. With a large and growing
proportion of children living in one-parent families and a growing
number of voters themselves lone parents, it’s a sensitive subject.
Previous Labour administrations had not thought it their business
to tell people what was best for them and their children, but New
Labour felt it had to take a stand.

Taking his cue from right wing social commentators like Charles
Murray (who first coined the term “underclass”) and Patricia Morgan
of the Institute of Economic Affairs, Blair told The Sun
newspaper back in 1995: “Children raised by two parents in a
stable, loving relationship do get a head start. But saying that
‘Blair Backs Two Parent Families’ does not mean that ‘Blair Blasts
Single Parents’.”

The problem is this: if A is better than B, how can B not be
second best? Research has shown that the different outcomes
experienced by children in two-parent and one-parent families are
entirely accounted for by income differences. But when Labour came
to power it backed its own ideological preference for the
traditional family by taking money away from single parents by
cutting the lone parent premium on child benefit. This caused a
backbench rebellion and the government has been more careful

The main thrust of its policy towards lone parents has been to
get more of them into work – ostensibly to pull them out of
poverty. The working families tax credit which replaced family
credit, aimed to enable more parents to work by reducing the
poverty trap. According to the government, it is worth an average
of £30 a week more than family credit and covers 300,000 more
families. It also covers limited child care costs.

Critics point to the fact that because working families tax
credit is paid through the wage earner’s pay packet rather than
directly to the mother, parents (especially fathers) may treat it
as their own money rather than spending it on the children.

But for single parent Paula and her daughter Mia, six, it has
fulfilled its promise. Paula had studied for four years to become a
speech therapist when Mia was a baby, her student grant topped up
with income support. When she qualified she wanted to work
part-time while Mia was young. She found a three day a week speech
therapy job, but she could barely afford to take it because the pay
was not enough to replace the housing benefit, free school meals
and income support she would be losing.

When working families tax credit was introduced she was not only
£140 a month better off but she was also reimbursed for her
child care costs. “I’m as cynical as they come about the government
but if it wasn’t for WFTC, I’d probably be on income support. As it
is I’ve been employed for three years and now earn too much to be
eligible. Which is great.”

The government has also raised child benefit to its highest ever
level in real terms and replaced the married couples’ allowance
with the children’s tax credit – of most benefit to parents on low
and middle incomes, rather than married men on high incomes. There
is also planned expansion of child care places for three-and
four-year-olds, and of after school and holiday child care for
school-aged children.

Critics have questioned the sense of providing so many
incentives to parents of young children to go out to work while
they leave their children with someone else – when the someone else
will have to be paid for by the taxpayer. But whatever the logic,
welfare to work looks set to remain at the heart of Labour’s social
policy. Election campaign rumours that another Labour government
will impose benefit penalties on lone parents who refuse to take a
job have not been denied, suggesting that Labour is determined to
decisively reduce the number of children growing up in workless

Another aspect of Labour’s family policy is its enthusiasm for
adoption, again influenced by the Institute of Economic Affairs’
adoption champion Patricia Morgan. The outgoing government
effectively reversed the emphasis in the Children Act 1989 on
keeping children in their birth families wherever possible by
setting adoption targets for local authorities. Britain already has
the highest rate of adoption in Europe as the adoption review

Families are affected by most of the things governments do in
one way or another, and to co-ordinate policy Labour established
the family policy unit at the Home Office, which in turn set up the
semi-independent National Family and Parenting Institute. The NFPI
has established its independent credentials by publishing a
manifesto for the incoming government.

It calls for non-stigmatised universal family support services
and expanded parent education, more family input into the planning
of other services such as transport, better parental leave,
flexible working for parents of young children, more generous paid
maternity leave, and a whole new government department for
Families, Work and the Community.

And for the two million children without basic
necessities1 Labour has repeated its commitment to halve
child poverty in 10 years. How well it has done so far is largely a
matter of definitions and statistical interpretation. Baby trust
funds may help a generation with their college tuition fees, but no
government can make serious inroads into child poverty while it
denies parents who cannot or will not find jobs adequate means
through the benefits system to care for their children.

As Plaid Cymru might say – in Welsh of course – it’s the
inequality, stupid.

1 David Gordon et al, Poverty and Social
Exclusion in Britain
, Joseph Rowntree Foundation,


New Labour set itself ambitious targets as part of its pledge
to reduce the inequalities in society and put an end to social
exclusion. Here, Rachel Downey examines how successful it has been
so far, while Liberal Democrat and Conservative spokespeople put
forward their solutions.

If success was measured by filtering new expressions into the
nation’s subconscious then New Labour could take the credit for a
great job on social inclusion. Just four years on, it is hard to
remember a time when the phrase “social inclusion” did not exist.
But the success of a government is measured by how it has lived up
to its pledges and one of the party’s main aims was to diminish the
marginalisation of many in society and to reduce the inequalities
in life chances. So how has it done?

A recent report from the social exclusion unit outlined the
government’s programme to date. It is an exhausting list of action,
which ranges from the importance of sport and culture in helping
those vulnerable to social exclusion, to the introduction of the
minimum income guarantee for those relying on the state pension.
From new decency targets for social housing to the development of a
rural service standard setting out what people expect from public
services in rural areas. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 is
included, along with a range of new programmes tackling drugs,
youth offending, and neighbourhood renewal.

The vast majority of the targets to measure success are set for
the future. Despite its theoretical short-term lifespan, the SEU
and government make no secret of the fact that this is a medium- to
long-term project.

However, of the very few targets set for the unit’s first three
years, the results are encouraging. The number of permanent school
exclusions fell by 18 per cent between 1997 and 1999 so half way
into a four-year programme. But the truancy rate has remained
static since 1997. These two statistics clearly reveal the
difficulty of the government’s task. Cutting school exclusions
requires ministers to order school heads to comply; to reduce
truancy requires changing the attitudes of young people and that is
a far more difficult mission.

Another target was to reduce the number of rough sleepers to
“as near to zero as possible” but by at least two thirds by 2002.
By June 2000 the numbers had reduced by a third – a year ahead of

In addition, the number of teenage pregnancies has fallen, and
the number of 16- to 18-year-olds not in education, training or
employment fell by 15 per cent from 185,000 to 157,000 between 1998
and 1999.

On top of these four specific areas outlined in the SEU
overview, swathes of new initiatives are underway. In January there
were 128 Sure Start programmes covering 105,000 under-fours in
deprived areas. By 2003/4 this will have increased to 500
programmes covering 400,000 children. Nearly two million people
relying on the state pension are better off than in 1997 because of
the minimum income guarantee. Working parents with children on low
incomes have gained financially. The New Deal for Communities is
pumping money into deprived areas and action zones abound. However,
nobody knows whether much of this activity is making much
difference on the ground.

The New Commitment to Neighbourhood Renewal National Strategy
Action Plan describes its long-term goals – to have lower
worklessness, less crime; better health; better schools and better
housing and physical environment in all the poorest neighbourhoods;
and to narrow the gap between the most deprived areas and the rest
of the country – as “unashamedly long-term”. It adds that
quantifiable long-term targets for 10 to 20 years would only be set
in the next two to three years.

Perhaps this is the realistic approach. Social inclusion cannot
be a single government term project: it is not just about bricks
and mortar or merely increasing benefits but about changing
attitudes and counteracting the poverty of aspiration.

Lisa Harker, research director of the centre-left think tank,
the Institute for Public Policy Research, welcomes the fact that
the government has been prepared to set targets which are
over-ambitious and which may never be achieved, placing itself
under intense pressure. “These are things which will take a long
time to put right,” she says.

During a recent television debate, Home Office minister Paul
Boateng forecast that tackling social exclusion was a 10-year
project and the government was merely building the structures

Detractors are few, their criticism limited primarily to the
potential confusion and overlap of the many different regeneration
initiatives or failures to reduce poverty. During the same
TVdebate, Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on
environment, transport, the regions and social justice, complained
that there were too many schemes, with the result that regeneration
budgets were massively underspent. The Conservative social security
spokesperson David Willetts issued a vague warning that energy
could be dissipated.

Some successes claimed under the social exclusion banner have,
however, been dismissed. Earlier this year a commons select
committee stated that many of the 270,000 young people helped into
employment under the New Deal for Young People would have found
work themselves. Other critics point out that a young person only
has to stay in a job for 13 weeks to be counted.

Even supporters point to the difficulties faced by the
government. The prime one, according to Harker, was the futile
attempt to address inequality while maintaining the previous
administration’s spending limits. Although the SEU prompted a
rethink on policy and opened up some difficult discussion between
different government departments, it struggles when it comes to
actual implementation. For example, it took a long time to compel
the Department of Health to pick up on its widely welcomed strategy
on teenage pregnancies.

Harker is also critical of the government’s approach. “We need
a real approach to the distribution of wealth. If you are really to
achieve equality in the UK, it’s got to be something that’s at the
top of the political priority list. At the moment, the government
is achieving change by the back door.”

However, Alison West, chief executive of the Community
Development Foundation, disagrees. There is nothing secretive about
the government’s agenda, she claims. Few elements of the programme
are sexy or media-friendly – “building sustainable communities”
does not trip off the tongue easily. When chancellor Gordon Brown
announces a new children’s fund to combat poverty, multiple
headlines follow; when at the same time Hilary Armstrong, minister
for local government and the regions, announces a new duty on local
authorities to ensure co-ordinated planning of local services,
there is a deadly silence.

“They have done quite a clever juggling act,” West enthuses.
“They are continuing with the plans from the Tory policies and
carrying on with this for a couple of years, pouring money into
urban regeneration. The difference is they are combining individual
tax and benefit changes while continuing the area regeneration set
underway by the previous government.”

“Almost invisible to the naked eye” is how she describes the
changes, but this is not a criticism. “I’m extremely impressed at
the very long-term strategic approach they are taking. It’s not
just ‘let’s throw money at it’.”

Despite its success, the government cannot afford to be
complacent. “One of the things that government must achieve is that
it can never again allow poverty to slip off the agenda,” Harker
says. “This is not guaranteed if there is a change of

Another caveat is contained in a study published by the Joseph
Rowntree Foundation at the beginning of the year. Researchers
concluded that “much practice in the planning and delivery of
community care may not just be out of step with core government
policies to promote social justice but may also reinforce
exclusion”. It is clear that the battle against social exclusion
has only just begun.

Views from workers on the frontline

Bhaggie Patel, project leader of the Barnardo’s Phoenix project
in Bolton, which supports Asian women and children experiencing
domestic violence:

If you are looking at making a real difference, you have got to
listen to the people. Far too often we have seen quangos set up
which are not representative of those who are marginalised and
excluded. I want to see those people invited and encouraged to
participate at all levels.

Simon Southworth, senior practitioner, Kent social services
substance misuse team:

The clients I work with continue to be excluded and penalised by
society. All the legislation so far has been about “enforcing
treatment” options. A radical look at the whole debate on drugs is
required. I’d like Labour to show courage and set up a royal
commission to cover all drug-related legislation.

Rita McIntyre, outreach support worker in mental health for the
Richmond Fellowship in Liverpool:

People with mental health problems do feel excluded and are
stigmatised. Social inclusion is all talk and hype. I’d like to see
a more sympathetic approach and safety nets for people – not just
those with mental health problems but also disabilities.

Abdul Sattar, social worker with the Family Service Unit,

The current government has introduced a number of measures to
provide extra financial support to families to reduce poverty. They
have also tried to promote work through the New Deal by giving
parents the incentives to find work. Therefore, it is important for
the next government to maintain and accelerate the momentum of
policy changes so far.

Julia Saunders, rehabilitation officer, RNIB visual impairment
service, Solihull:

Social inclusion is of particular importance to the blind and
partially sighted people with whom I work. The government has done
a lot for people with disabilities of working age – now it needs to
give special attention to the increasing numbers of older people
with sensory and compound disabilities.

All our panel members are speaking in a personal capacity.

On offer from the Lib Dems

The Liberal Democrats believe that social exclusion results from
a wide range of factors, including a lack of access to decent
public services, concerns about personal safety, a poor quality
environment, and often a lack of any sense of community or

We disagree with the government’s top-down approach, which all
too often believes that Whitehall knows best what works for local
communities. Instead, governments need to enable local people to
find local solutions.

We believe all government policy initiatives should be assessed
against a Quality of Life Index. This would set out the
entitlements that a citizen might reasonably expect to enjoy in
order to participate fully in society and have a decent quality of
life. People in different regions and social groups would be asked
to prioritise “basic entitlements”, and since no two communities
have identical needs, separate lists would be constructed for each
area, going down to a very local level. In this way, we would build
up a comprehensive picture of social inclusion across Britain.
Policy makers would be forced to consider the extent to which their
policies met the directly expressed needs of specific communities
far more than they do now.

In addition to this project, the Liberal Democrats would make an
immediate attack on the effects of social exclusion in all areas.
We recently obtained figures revealing that 362,000 people in
1999/2000 were refused a loan from the Social Fund, because they
were seen as too poor to pay it back.

The government’s tightening up of the eligibility rules means
thousands more people are unable to afford essential items of
furniture, clothing and children’s shoes – a shocking and
unnecessary example of social exclusion in the 21st century. We
propose a comprehensive reform of the current system and a gradual
reintroduction of grants to assist the very poorest in society.

We would launch an attack on policies and practices that lead to
people being marginalised. For example, we would prevent utilities
from charging more from people with pre-payment meters, and would
ensure that free school meals were delivered in a way that would
not stigmatise those who claim them. We support community economics
schemes to help people without ready access to financial services
and aim to reform the benefits system to ensure that young people
are treated as equal citizens.

Steve Webb is Liberal Democrat social security

… more views from the frontline

Abdul Sattar, social worker with the Family Service Unit,

The current government has introduced a number of measures to
provide extra financial support to families to reduce poverty. They
have also tried to promote work through the New Deal by giving
parents the incentives to find work. Therefore, it is important for
the next government to maintain and accelerate the momentum of
policy changes so far.

Julia Saunders, rehabilitation officer, RNIB visual impairment
service, Solihull:

Social inclusion is of particular importance to the blind and
partially sighted people with whom I work. The government has done
a lot for people with disabilities of working age – now it needs to
give special attention to the increasing numbers of older people
with sensory and compound disabilities.

All our panel members are speaking in a personal capacity.

On offer from the Conservatives

Labour has made a great deal of its commitment to reduce poverty
and to tackle social exclusion. There has been a stream of
well-meaning – though often ineffective – anti-poverty initiatives.
And although it is a reflection of the government’s timidity in
other areas, the most important structural change in central
government since 1997 has been the establishment of the Social
Exclusion Unit. It is instructive to compare the promises, the
announcements, and the reforms to the latest evidence on the extent
of poverty.

Labour’s most famous pledge is Tony Blair’s ambitious commitment
in 1999 to halve child poverty by 2020. Two years later there is
one thing that is abundantly clear and on which the Department of
Social Security, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Joseph
Rowntree Foundation are all agreed.

There is not a single official statistic which shows that the
number of people living in poverty has reduced since 1997. The most
recent annual report of the government’s record by the Joseph
Rowntree Foundation concluded: “The number of children in low
income households shows no sign of decreasing, and children
continue to be more likely than adults to live in low income

One of the main causes of this failure is the desire of
ministers for newspaper headlines boasting of a new pilot scheme
here or a new action zone there. This has taken the focus away from
what works on the ground. In the words of the government’s own
performance and innovation unit, “there are too many government
initiatives, causing confusion; not enough co-ordination; and too
much time spent on negotiating the system, rather than delivering”.
The House of Commons library has shown that the number of schemes
in a particular area is entirely unrelated to the level of

Another problem is that, even where the schemes work, there is
no guarantee of continued funding. Decent people who are trying to
help deliver high quality public services are forced to spend all
their time bidding for penny packets of money for some special
scheme. There is a good case for old-fashioned core funding aimed
at local people running local schemes.

There are smaller changes that could help too. The benefits
system has been constantly altered throughout this parliament but
the changes have been largely presentational and they have served
to confuse claimants

We recognise that there are no quick-fix solutions. But a
combination of proper core-funding for local programmes and a
simpler benefits system with higher take-up rates would go a long
way to helping those most in need. There is also scope at a
national level to provide increased support to vulnerable groups,
such as those Incapacity Benefit claimants who want to work but who
are effectively barred from doing so because they have not been
offered help with their rehabilitation.

David Willetts is shadow social security

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