Time for Armstrong to deliver

Social exclusion minister and former social worker Hilary Armstrong (pictured) tells Maria Ahmed about her plans to transform the lives of vulnerable people

In the week Tony Blair found himself in the eye of a political storm, he revived one of New Labour’s cornerstone promises: to help the socially excluded.

Driving forward this agenda, amid a leadership crisis, is Hilary Armstrong, the first minister for social exclusion and a former social worker.

Armstrong, a staunch Blairite, is standing by the prime minister – she says he should stay for as long as possible – and publishes her action plan this week.

The political importance of the social exclusion agenda set out by Blair and Armstrong is clear. Armstrong’s appointment in
May came as the “compassionate” Conservatism of David Cameron showed signs of encroaching on Labour territory.

When environment secretary David Miliband was minister for communities and local government last year, he described the creation of the social exclusion unit in 1997 as a “policy departure that aimed to address the moral vacuum at the heart of Conservative policy”.

Now that Cameron is trying to fill the vacuum, Armstrong’s role is undoubtedly important to Blair’s domestic legacy as he prepares to leave Downing Street.

Blair’s brief to his former chief whip includes improving the early identification of the most at-risk households, reforming services for children in care, reducing teenage pregnancies and improving services for mentally ill people.

Since Armstrong began her new cabinet role, she has been gathering evidence about “what works” and she is keen to convey a message of appreciation for the work already being done:“People’s lives are being transformed, not just because of benefits and tax credits but by encounters with remarkable people in public services who help them get on.”

That said, Armstrong adds: “All evidence suggests that mainstream services are not getting better. Too many people have had a bad experience of the state and we must find a way of tapping into their aspirations.

Essentially, this is about the relationship that can be developed with these people, by health professionals or other agencies.”

Blair’s speech on social exclusion last week, trailing Armstrong’s plans, raised the ire of social work leaders over his omission of the words “social work” throughout. Armstrong insists that social workers will have a role to play.

She says: “Early in my career, I worked with groups of people whose problems were so bad the only option was to remove their children. I can see that social workers have become more involved in child protection, but they really want to work with
families before it reaches crisis point. That is what we are trying to do.”

Key to Armstrong’s plan is a scheme where health visitors or children’s centre workers will visit “dysfunctional” families from before their babies are born until they are aged two.

The idea comes from the US where the scheme known as the Nurse-Family Partnership has been up and running since the 1970s.

Armstrong was “very angry” to read of “parodies” in the press last week that claimed the government was going to issue “foetal Asbos”. She says: “Evidence shows that children are healthier at birth and have improved nutrition. Help is offered
with relationship problems, including domestic violence. Longitudinal studies have shown children whose families benefited from the scheme have fewer problems at 15.”

A US study of 116 families on the Nurse-Family Partnership scheme between 1977 and 1994 found that child abuse and neglect were halved when children reached 15. Arrests were reduced by nearly two-thirds and there was a 90 per cent reduction in poor behaviour.

The scheme will be “translated to fit existing professional practice” in 10 pilot projects by April 2007.

Social workers will be involved in sharing information about children. This will be, in part, through the government’s planned child database, although its development continues to be slowed by arguments about confidentiality. “We need to
make sure information-sharing gets better,” Armstrong says.

Health visitors and midwives will receive additional training in identifying and engaging high-risk families as part of the £7m visiting scheme pilots.

Reform of services for children in care will be outlined in a green paper expected next month, and Armstrong’s action plan also promises an expansion of budget-holding lead professionals for this group. The teenage pregnancy strategy will also
be updated: “I want to ask how we can actually change the experiences of young people so they see they have other choices.”

Armstrong also wants organisations to bid for a pilot to be the lead agencies for “chaotic” people with mental health problems, who may also be homeless or misuse substances.

“I want to target the kind of people who turn up at every agency looking for help, and are shunted between services,” she says.

Just which agencies could end up running the pilots – or indeed, the services Armstrong envisages in the long-term – is open to question.

However, Blair’s brief to Armstrong indicated how much her role would straddle the government’s third sector agenda.

He asked her to “help secure the best possible outcomes”, unequivocally adding: “In many areas of public service delivery the third sector has the potential for better user focus, better reach and better outcomes than the state, both in terms of service quality and value for money for the taxpayer.”

As part of discussions on social exclusion over the past fortnight, government proposals to transfer provision of failing residential children’s homes from councils to the voluntary sector caused concern.

Armstrong says: “There are some voluntary organisations that would be able to run children’s homes but are not doing so at the moment. We are not saying the whole of the service will be taken over, but councils are spending more money on children
in residential care, and they are not achieving outcomes.”

Blair said last week that tackling “poor performance” of public services would form part of the government’s strategy on social exclusion.

Armstrong indicates that targets will be set: “Local area agreements must be used efficiently in relation to the most excluded people. For example, while councils have been meeting targets on educational achievement, when you look at the most socially excluded group nothing has changed for them.”

Is she implying that councils are failing despite recent children’s services reforms, with the ink still wet on the Children Act 2004 and Every Child Matters?

“The problems are out there now,” she answers. “If I say let’s wait a few years, we will miss another generation. I would love the world to stand still, but it won’t.”

The world is certainly not standing still for Armstrong’s boss Tony Blair, as he seeks to secure a lasting legacy in the shape of a better society.

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