Minister Phil Hope on government plans to tackle social exclusion

“I’m absolutely passionate about this agenda. It’s what gets Labour politicians up in the morning.”

Thus speaks Phil Hope about the government’s social exclusion agenda, for which he has had responsibility since February.

The Cabinet Office minister, who also oversees the third sector, has the sort of pre-parliamentary career that gives this rhetorical flourish a solid credibility.

He was a teacher, youth policy adviser to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and head of the youth volunteers resources unit at the National Youth Bureau (now National Youth Agency), before working as a consultant for various third sector bodies.

Hope’s social exclusion responsibilities can be divided into two parts: the delivery of the public service agreement on social exclusion for 2008-11, and pilot programmes emanating from 2006 social exclusion action plan.

Unpopular and low-profile

In an interview with Community Care last autumn, task force director Naomi Eisenstadt warned the PSA targets may be seen as “unpopular and low-profile” by councils and local strategic partnerships.

The eight targets cover improving access to housing and employment, education and training for care leavers, offenders under supervision, mental health service users and people with learning disabilities.

Hope reveals that half of local strategic partnerships have adopted at least one of the targets in their local area agreements – although he admits that the mental health and learning disabilities indicators have proved more popular than those for offenders or care leavers.

He suggests this may have something to do with the far greater numbers of people with mental health problems or learning disabilities, but admits it may also be because offenders and care leavers are “less popular”.

He says: “I’d have always liked [greater take-up]. But we have sufficient coverage both with these indicators and related indicators to ensure that the local government performance framework will provide a very valuable mechanism to drive improvements.”

Hope says he does not underestimate the scale of the challenge of the PSA. For instance, the latest estimate of the proportion of people with moderate to severe learning disabilities in employment is 10%. [For more on the PSA see the end of the article.]

Learning disabilities
Hope says government and the public sector must ensure greater employment opportunities for this group. 

“I hope the Department of Health might take a look at seeing whether people with learning disabilities could be employed in health services at various levels. I’m hoping to employ someone with a learning disability in the social exclusion task force.”

The PSA requires cultural shifts among service users, in terms of greater aspirations; service providers, in terms of personalising provision; and society at large, including employers, in terms of more progressive attitudes, Hope says.

“We need to say to employers ‘you can employ people with learning disabilities and they can make a genuine contribution to your organisation’.”

Social exclusion pilot programmes
The PSA is complemented by programmes, currently at pilot stage, designed to test new ways of tackling social exclusion:

  • The family nurse partnership programme, which is now being piloted in 30 areas and will receive £30m from 2008-11. This involves providing intensive support for first-time teenage mothers from pregnancy to their child’s second birthday, to improve antenatal health and parenting skills.
  • The adults facing chronic exclusion programme, worth £6m over three years and being tested in 12 areas and led by both charities and public bodies. This concerns adults with long histories of exclusion, including homelessness and offending, who have failed to engage with services. The pilots are testing improved ways to help adults navigate services, negotiate transitions and to offer them co-orindated support.
  • The £17.65m multi-systemic therapy programme to support children with mental health problems at risk of ending up in care or the criminal justice system, which is being piloted in 12 areas. Multi-systemic therapists work intensively with young people and their families to improve resilience.
  • The £16m family pathfinders programme to support the most excluded families through a “think family” model in which children’s and adult services work in close co-operation.

Hope says it is too early to say how well the programmes are going. But of the family nurse partnership, he says: “So far you can see people with better mental and physical health. Often it’s as much about behavioural change as it is about medical treatment. The early responses we are getting is that it is going down well.” An evaluation or the programme is due to report next year.

Tough messages
Hope’s brief borders that of other ministers whose tough messages of late have not necessarily been to the taste of some in social care. In February, housing minister Caroline Flint was widely criticised for suggesting that unemployed social housing tenants should take steps to seek work or face losing their tenancies. Later that month, the government’s drugs strategy proposed that substance misusers who failed to comply with treatment or seek work should have their benefits docked. That was after work and pensions secretary James Purnell was accused of reviving the workhouse by proposing that the long-term jobless go on work experience in exchange for benefits.

One common criticism has been that making benefits conditional on attending appointments and complying with services does not take account of the chaotic lives faced by socially excluded adults and families.

Hope says: “I know there are some very strong views in these areas. It’s good that we hare having that debate. We need to understand what it is that genuinely moves things forward for people whose lives have been dysfunctional and chaotic.”

Joined-up government
He insists that the government is suitably joined-up in its efforts to tackle social exclusion, adding: “We have very good inter-departmental working relationships.”

He points to a cabinet committee with responsibility for social exclusion, on which he sits, that is “identifying barriers to the kind of progress we want to make”.

As I leave, he promises to get back to Community Care on progress in six months time in breaking down these barriers and demonstrating some success in reversing social exclusion. For a government as beleagured as this one such signs of progress cannot come a moment too soon.

Guide to public service agreement on social exclusion

The PSA is one of the government’s top 30 priorities for the coming three years. It is focused on increasing access to settled accommodation and employment, education and training (EET) for four excluded groups: 19-year-old care leavers, offenders under supervision, people with moderate to severe learning disabilities and users of secondary mental health care.

Whitehall sets PSAs but their delivery depends largely on town halls and their partners in local strategic partnerships (LSPs). The PSA contains eight targets – two for each client group, on increasing the proportions of people in settled accommodation or employment (or EET in the case of care leavers). 

The eight form part of the 198 annual indicators on which all councils will be assessed by the Audit Commission each year; but since last year the Cabinet Office’s social exclusion task force has been looking for councils and their partners to make them a particular priority.

Each LSP is currently concluding negotiations with regional government offices over its local area agreement, under which partnerships are given greater freedom over government funding in exchange for improved performance in 35 of the 198 indicators, designed to reflect local priorities.

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