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 the 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
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
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
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
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
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
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