Privacy

Forgotten fringe

The plethora of social inclusion policies are at risk of
ignoring the most marginalised people, who often need the high-quality support
that can be provided only by social services, writes Anna Coote.

As
Labour settles into its second term in government, its social and economic
policies are assuming a distinctive shape. Blair’s government wants a kind of
welfare capitalism that benefits "the many not the few" and
eliminates social exclusion and child poverty. It aims to stop people depending
on benefits and get them into paid employment, and to put new life into the
poorest neighbourhoods.

An
avalanche of initiatives has been unloaded – driven by performance indicators
and targets. There are targets to increase jobs for disabled people, lone
parents, ethnic minorities and the over-50s, to increase the number of pupils
winning grades above C in their GCSE exams, and to improve social housing.

It
would be churlish to doubt that the government wants to break the cycle of
deprivation and improve the lives of those who are worst off. But how much will
all this really help people who are least able to help themselves – the most
vulnerable members of society? What about people with severe disabilities or
mental illness? Refugees? Children who have been abused by their parents?
Ex-prisoners? Teenage mothers? Those who are homeless or addicted to drugs or
alcohol? For one thing, they tend to be the most difficult to shoehorn into the
labour market. They lack qualifications, or can’t get them, or don’t appeal to
employers, or can’t handle a work environment – often through no fault of their
own and for reasons that cannot easily be overcome. Furthermore, there are many
in these categories who occupy pockets of disadvantage in relatively well-off
neighbourhoods, or who live just beyond the areas that qualify for
regeneration. Not only are they unable to share the fruits of renewal, but
their sense of exclusion may be heightened as they compare their fortunes with
their neighbours.

But
even those who live inside regeneration zones are at risk of losing out. Local
strategic partnerships, which are being set up to oversee the neighbourhood
renewal strategy, are supposed to involve local people. Strenuous efforts have
to be made to involve hard-to-reach groups who will need considerable support
if they are to play a full part in any consultation or planning process. Not
surprisingly, then, they tend to remain on the margins.

The
government’s vision of area-based regeneration is about empowering local
communities to help themselves and cracking down on anti-social behaviour.
Regeneration schemes are supposed to stimulate local economies and promote a
new kind of community leader – the "social entrepreneur". They are
expected to introduce neighbourhood management and street wardens. Vulnerable
individuals may be unable or unwilling to take part in developing new
enterprises, or to put themselves forward as leaders. The danger is that they
will find themselves up against managers and wardens who want to keep things
running smoothly for the majority of residents and prevent a minority of
"misfits" from spoiling the party.

Building
strong communities, especially in poor neighbourhoods, is a respectable
objective for the government. But strong communities can themselves be, or
become, exclusive. People who are disturbed, ill, frail, who don’t speak
English, or misuse drugs or alcohol, or lack social skills, may be unwelcome
among neighbours who are only slightly better off themselves.

Society’s
most vulnerable members need sustained, high-quality social care and support.
Not entrepreneurs or managers or wardens, but social services. In the rush to
realise new ideas about social exclusion, it is hazardous to forget the
importance of tried and tested professional skills. At present, the government
appears to undervalue the social worker as much as it idealises the social
entrepreneur. There have been no dramatic injections of cash for social
workers. Indeed, they are often obliged to abandon all but the urgent cases
because of financial constraints. That means they cannot provide the kind of
lower-level support that prevents people from slipping into crisis. Many
regeneration schemes are put at risk because those who should benefit are inadequately
supported. Social services may need to be modernised but they also need serious
investment – and much more thoughtful integration with the neighbourhood
renewal strategy.

Anna
Coote is director of public health, the King’s Fund.

Comments are closed.