In the 21st Century, opportunity is not just about income, but about power argues Pat McFadden, Parliamentary Secretary in the Cabinet Office, on the day the Government publishes “Reaching Out: An Action Plan on Social Exclusion”. He argues that far from being a sinister “big brother” policy, early intervention in the form of targeted child support is vital to enhance life chances and he sets out dividing lines between Labour and the Conservatives in the debate about the role of the voluntary sector in public services.
In 2006, few areas better illustrate the nature of the challenge facing us than social exclusion. A concern of the Labour Government since it was elected in 1997, the landscape of social exclusion has changed, in good part because of our actions.
Labour came into office determined to reduce unemployment, lift children and pensioners out of poverty and introduce a minimum wage to tackle poverty pay.
Many of us can remember the campaigns for low-paid workers like security guards earning little over £1 an hour and having to work horrendously long hours simply to make ends meet.
Since then, over 2 million more people have found jobs, incomes have risen by 2-3 percent a year in real terms, child poverty has been reduced by 800,000, pensioner poverty by around one million and a minimum wage has been introduced which helps those security guards and other workers like them who used to work for a pittance.
And these are reductions in relative poverty. They are based on a moving — and rising — poverty line of 60 percent of median incomes.
The Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the LSE has said, "The package of support for low income working families with children is now one of the most generous in the world".
So the picture is much improved since 1997. But despite that progress, we all know there is still deep seated exclusion in some communities.
Some children are still born into families with profound problems including alcohol abuse, drug abuse and mental illness. Teenage pregnancy rates have fallen 11 percent to a 20 year low but are still the highest in Europe. Educational outcomes for Looked After Children are better than they were but only 11 percent of Looked After Children get 5 good GCSEs compared to 56 pecent among all children. And our system struggles to treat adults with multiple problems such as mental health problems and alcohol and drug addiction which can lead not only to chaotic lives for them but also have a harmful wider impact on local communities.
"Reaching Out" — today’s Action Plan — is about tackling this remaining entrenched social exclusion.
Last week my colleague Jim Murphy rightly argued that Labour had to remember it was a party not just of delivery but of great causes. The extension of opportunity to those cut off from it in the past is precisely such a cause.
And no longer is this just about resources. It is also about empowerment. It is about extending to the most excluded the kinds of chances, choices and power that the rest of society takes for granted.
That is one reason why issues of contestability and choice have risen up the political agenda. Having an alternative means of provision should things go wrong is not an end in itself. It is about power for the consumer of the service.
The Action Plan focuses on key groups where social exclusion is deep seated — young children born into vulnerable families, Looked After Children, teenage mothers and their children and adults with mental health and other problems sometimes leading to lives in chaos.
People don’t always fit into neat departmental boundaries and the Action Plan is clear that information and work have to be shared across service boundaries in order to make progress.
It draws heavily on UK and international research to expose how disadvantage at birth and in the very early years can lead to multiple problems for young people later in life. The Plan sets out how the children in the most disadvantaged 5 percent of families can be up to 100 times more likely to experience multiple problems at age 15 than the children of the most engaged and advantaged 50 percent of families.
Taking a life cycle approach it places a key emphasis on the importance of the very early years in children’s lives and proposals for greater intervention at an early stage.
It also shows that sometimes those who possibly need help most are the least likely to get it. For example, when it comes to health visitors, the likelihood of seeing one increases in line with income.
Drawing on international evidence about effective programmes the Plan proposes demonstration projects based on the Nurse Family Partnership model where midwives and health visitors would maintain sustained support for vulnerable families from pre-birth right through the first two years of a child’s life. This kind of programme has been evaluated to show positive results such as improved health, safer home environments, fewer cases of child neglect and fewer problems later in life.
Yet it is this kind of targeted and enabling early intervention — designed to ensure support is available so that the misery and pain that deep-seated social exclusion can cause to individuals, families and communities is eroded — which has been caricatured in the run up to the publication of the Plan.
The allegation, mainly from the right but also from some on the left, is that all this is "nanny state", that it implies "foetal ASBOs" and that it is a "Big Brother" form of interference in children’s lives.
It is absolutely right that we should discuss the proper boundaries of the state’s role in this area. After all we could simply abandon the field and leave well alone. But if we are serious about extending opportunity, why wait until the odds are already stacked against a child? Early support of the kind we are talking about could make a major difference to children’s life chances.
The plan is also clear about the need for multi agency working. Although it bases some of its interventions on the skills of public professionals such as midwives and health visitors, it also reaches out to the voluntary sector, to local communities and to those suffering from social exclusion as all having a part to play in tackling social exclusion.
Government can’t do it all alone. It certainly has a job to do in ensuring opportunity is there but people also have a responsibility to make the most of those opportunities.
There is a crucial difference between the parties in the debate about the roles of the state and the voluntary sector in this field. The Conservatives have made much of their view that there should be a greater role for the voluntary sector in this area and less of a role for the state.
Labour, certainly New Labour, is pragmatic about who delivers services. Public service is valued but the emphasis is on outcomes. We know that as well as the many public servants who do a great job, organisations like NCH with family support projects or the Revolving Doors charity with adults leading chaotic lives can also be highly effective in delivering services and we also want to tap in to the energy that exist in local communities.
This emphasis on outcomes can lead to tensions and sometimes conflict with some public providers when services are opened up to new providers. However, what is not at issue for Labour is the state’s overall responsibility for trying to secure the desired result.
The right on the other hand see the voluntary sector as replacing the state in terms of responsibility, not just delivery. Their vision is a means of withdrawal of state responsibility in major areas of public life. Beneath the PR, this is David Cameron’s agenda and the agenda of his Social Justice Commission.
So on this field of opportunity, there is an important difference between the ambition of the left and abdication by the right. On the one hand New Labour seeks to expand opportunity and believes the state has a responsibility to do so, though is open minded about who does some of the service delivery. On the other, the right is seeking to withdraw under a veil of statements of support for the voluntary sector.
The Action Plan published today sets out a renewed focus for Labour on some of the most challenging areas of public policy. It is a statement of commitment to expanding opportunity to those for whom that is often a distant reality. It makes the case for intervention to make a difference when it matters most in the early years of the lives of the most vulnerable. And it does so on the basis of a crucial difference between left and right on the boundaries of what government can usefully do to improve the lives of the least advantaged.
If you want to email me with responses to this article you can do so at mcfaddenp.
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