When the Social Exclusion Unit was set up in 1997, the year New Labour came to power, the government promised “joined up” solutions to the problems facing the most disadvantaged.
The SEU was based in the Cabinet Office before being shifted to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2002.
The new taskforce – now back in the Cabinet Office – will produce an action plan, expected this autumn, focusing on improving early identification of the most at-risk households and children, raising outcomes for children in care, reducing teenage pregnancies, improving services for people with mental health problems and working with antisocial families.
While the government is keen to trumpet the SEU’s achievements so far, including a fall in the number of people sleeping rough by three-quarters, more people in work and lower levels of teenage pregnancy, it admits there is more to be done.
The SEU’s own analysis of its progress in reaching vulnerable groups in 2004 found that some continued to face poor outcomes and experienced multiple disadvantages.
It revealed the needs of people with physical or mental health issues, the unskilled or unqualified, asylum seekers and refugees were still being missed.
More recent evidence also shows that government initiatives to tackle social exclusion have failed to make adequate progress.
In March 2006, the number of children living in relative poverty fell from 4.1 million in 1998-99 to 3.4 million in 2004-5 – about 300,000 short of the government’s target to cut child poverty by a quarter.
And last year, the national evaluation of Sure Start found it had failed to reach the most disadvantaged.
Campaigners are keen to see the work of the new social exclusion taskforce push ahead with progress, and warn that the impetus must not be lost.
“There has been quite a bit of progress across a range of indicators but this is very slow and gaps in outcomes remain huge,” Paul Dornan, head of policy and research at charity Child Poverty Action Group says.
Social exclusion taskforce
There are hopes that the creation of the new social exclusion taskforce in the Cabinet Office will give the agenda more leverage with other government departments.
David Chater, head of policy at young people’s charity Rainer, says: “The SEU didn’t get enough support and buy-in from other government departments when it was based in the ODPM.
“With some SEU reports, there was very little follow-up and no action plans because of a lack of support from the departments that should have delivered them. The Cabinet taskforce will hopefully address this and give the agenda more clout.”
Jim Bennett, acting head of social policy at Institute for Public Policy Research, says taking the social exclusion agenda forward will require action from a range of departments on areas which may not be “politically attractive” but will have a significant impact on wider society.
Bennett is confident that Hilary Armstrong’s background as former chief whip will set the right tone.
“She is no stranger to twisting people’s arms to get things sorted out,” he says.
Dornan at the Child Poverty Action Group hopes that Armstrong will use her clout to drive forward the anti-poverty agenda in every government department.
“She could play an important role in ensuring the Government gets back on track towards meetings its ambitious child poverty targets,” he says.
The new taskforce should also focus more on older people, according to charity Counsel and Care. A 2006 SEU report, a Sure Start to Later Life, found that one in five older people experienced multiple exclusion.
Chief executive at Counsel and Care Stephen Burke says: “The new taskforce has so far made no mention of older people. With our ageing population, social inclusion must apply to all generations.
“We need new and better ways of reaching the many older people living lonely, isolated lives in Britain today. We do not need ageism at the heart of government.”
Dornan adds: “We’d like to see a more positive approach, driving the agenda to tackle the structural drivers of exclusions, including family income, the structure of the labour market and access to it. Alongside this, we would like to see it examining ways in which public services deliver for disadvantaged groups – both in terms of tackling geographic patterning of the quality of services and ensuring services are truly accessible to all.”