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Reaching across the divide

Polly Farman looks at the latest in the drive to combat social exclusion in Britain's towns and cities

The UK is a country of increasing affluence. The last ten years have seen record levels of employment;crime rates have reduced by 44%; and 19 out of every 20 people have seen their incomes rise by between two to three percent. In addition, 800,000 children and one million pensioners have been lifted out of poverty.

Though these improvements have benefited some of the least financially secure members of our society, social exclusion and the subsequent waste of human potential that this engenders is still a huge problem.

The country’s reduction of poverty and increased prosperity has served to expose a greater dichotomy between those that are advantaged and those that are not however, as the deep-seated and unrelenting exclusion of a relatively small minority now stands out more starkly.

Social exclusion can be born of a number of problems, the most common being unemployment, poor education and skills, inadequate housing, and family breakdown, and the disadvantages these present to individuals are more often than not apparent early in life and can persist long into adulthood. Equally concerning is the capacity that a combination of these problems has to create a vicious cycle, as is the idea of a ‘cycle of disadvantage’, which shows that deprivation in one generation is likely to pass down to the next.

On the plus side, millions of people who, in the words of Hilary Armstrong MP, minister for the cabinet office and social exclusion, had previously been “written off” have now been able to achieve employment and consequently gain a home. But this is not true of everyone and it seems the government has begun to accept its failure to reach certain groups of people that still need guidance and support to find their way out of poverty. This point was reiterated this month by the Prime Minister at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) during his lecture on socialexclusion, Our Sovereign Value: Fairness, in which he stated:

“About 2.5 per cent of every generation seem to be stuck in a life-time of disadvantage and amongst them are the excluded of the excluded, the deeply excluded. Their poverty is, not just about poverty of income, but poverty of aspiration, of opportunity, of prospects of advancement.”

After the controversy recently courted by Blair regarding his ‘baby ASBO’ comments: the idea that problem teenagers could be identified before they were born and that action had to be taken ‘pre-birth’ if necessary, leading social policy experts and practitioners welcomed his speech which gave new commitment to fighting poverty and social exclusion. The JRF, one of the largest social policy research and development charities in the UK, accepted Blair’s reassurance that he is “not talking about ‘baby ASBOs’, trying to make the state raisechildren, or interfering with family life. I am saying that where it is clear…that children are at risk of being brought up in a dysfunctional home…then instead of waiting for the child to go off the rails, we should act early enough…to prevent it”

Regardless of this sentiment however, the general audience consensus was that extreme sensitivity would be needed in putting any preventative measures in place to avoid stigmatising the people it is trying to help.

The Prime Minister’s speech, given as part of a two-day regional tour on social exclusion, is part of the JRF’s work to influence public policy, including the forthcoming ‘Action Plan’, a government initiative from its Social Exclusion Taskforce to be launched by Hilary Armstrong.

Regarding this Blair commented: “We have defined four groups. They have all proved hard to reach. There has been some progress with each group – but not enough.” Whilst he was keen to identify the four groups to which particular attention will be paid – children in care, families with complex problems, teenage pregnancies and mental health patients – he appeared to overlook the role of housing as a fundamental factor in social exclusion, not just of individuals but of entire communities in some cases.

Adam Sampson, director of Shelter who campaign tirelessly for new laws, policies and solutions to Britain’s housing crisis, said: “The Prime Minister has stressed the importance of early intervention to lift children out of poverty but he has overlooked one of the most effective preventative measures that can be implemented here and now – to make sure every child has a safe and secure home.”

Housing inequality and its principal symptom – overcrowding - is a massive driver of social exclusion and perpetuates the cycle of poverty from one generation to another. Shockingly the current statutory definition of overcrowding remains unchanged since 1935 and is Dickensian in its guidelines. It states that it is perfectly acceptable for children to sleep in living rooms, hallways and kitchens and in addition, that children between the ages of one and ten only count as half a person and those under one do not count at all. As a result of this protocol one in ten children in England live in an overcrowded household which equates to half a million children. Blair’s talk of ‘rights and responsibilities’ as one of the five principles guiding his social exclusion action plan may sound seductive but, with Britain’s housing crisis seemingly low on his agenda anyway, it disregards the fact that with outdated codes of conduct in place those living in overcrowded homes whose choices are governed by these principles already lack the power to exercise rights that most of us take for granted.

Bad housing and cramped conditions affect children’s health and education, which has a significant knock-on effect on their opportunities in later life. Though it would be foolish to suggest that this has been ignored by the government, a clear commitment must be made in the next comprehensive spending review to build more social housing if the next few generations of socially excluded children are to have a chance of a brighter future and if organisations such as Shelter, that strive to better these societal failures, are to make any headway in their quest.

The huge government drive announced in 2000 for all social housing to achieve the Decent Homes Standard by 2010 shows that the housing crisis is being confronted but surely it makes more sense to firstly make sure there are enough homes. What is the point in a decent home if the life for the occupants within it is indecent? At present, as part of its Million Children Campaign launched in 2004, Shelter is calling on the government to tackle the reality of the current housing crisis and commit to building an extra 20,000 new homes per year between 2008-2011, equating to 60,000 extra homes being built above current government plans and additional costs of £1.25 billion per year. Not a huge price to pay to bring approximately 150,000 children out of bad housing and into a more positive future.

Since Blair came to power, signs show that the problem of social exclusion as a whole is a significant concern on the government agenda and, on the face of it, is not getting worse; the number of individuals in absolute poverty has fallen since 1996/97 by 4.8 million and, after housing costs, there are 2.4 million fewer eople living in relative poverty than there were when Labour came to government. The whole is always different from the sum of its parts though and in line with the plan of action for the four problem groups differentiated by Blair, the government reaction to the state of Britain’s housing also needs to reflect a modern understanding of those affected if social exclusion is to be entirely fought and beaten.

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