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Oliver Heald: Social exclusion

Let me start by welcoming the Government's renewed emphasis on social exclusion. We share their concerns and welcome further efforts to help those on the edge of society. Although I promise not to refer to Polly Toynbee, it is only right to say that I agree that we should not let people fall too far behind the caravan of society.

We clearly have problems of social exclusion; the proportion of children in workless households is the highest in Europe, more than half the children in inner London are still living below the poverty line, more than 1.2 million young people are not in work or full-time education despite a growing economy, and2.7 million people of working age are claiming incapacity benefits—three times more than the number who claim jobseeker's allowance.

The Minister for Social Exclusion knows from her background in social work, as I do from helping many disadvantaged people as a lawyer. She laughs, but if she has ever been to a law surgery, she will know what I mean. The statistics do not convey the full misery and hopelessness in which some people find themselves. Family breakdown, financial problems, addictions, poor educational achievement and worklessness are key matters at the heart of social exclusion that lead to people being trapped in pockets of permanent poverty.

As the Minister said, approximately 2.5 per cent. of every generation appears to be caught in a lifetime of disadvantage and harm. We argue that far more people are affected to some extent by the factors that I have mentioned. It is important to maintain a vision that is broad enough to help all those who are affected by social exclusion and does not simply concentrate on a tiny group that has particular problems. The Minister said that one of the core principles of the Government's action is better identification and earlier intervention—I am happy to agree with that.

The groups at the highest risk of social exclusion are those affected by the issues that I mentioned. The Leader of the Opposition has asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)—He is in Birmingham. He had a prior commitment to do with the subject that we are discussing. He had hoped to be here today. It is important to bear in mind that his social justice policy group has just published "Breakdown Britain", which examines family breakdown in great detail. My right hon. Friend treats family in his report in its wider, less restricted sense and breakdown as meaning dissolution and dysfunction. He also considers homes without fathers and single parenthood.

Most people learn the fundamental skills for life in the family—physically, emotionally and socially—and the findings in the report are evidence based. I believe that they are important. The rate of marriage has declined but divorce rates are now stable. The continuing rise in family breakdown is driven by the dissolution of cohabiting partnerships. As the Minister said, there seems to be an intergenerational transmission of family breakdown, with high rates of teenage pregnancy. My right hon. Friend has been given the task of first producing a detailed analysis. He has published a detailed document. It runs to approximately 500 pages but it is very good.

The process of making recommendations has not yet happened—my right hon. Friend will do that in the summer. The shadow Cabinet will then consider them.

Survey evidence from YouGov based on a large sample showed a worrying correlation between those who experience family breakdown and other problems. It showed that those who are not brought up by both parents are more likely to experience educational problems, drug addiction, alcohol problems, serious debt or unemployment. On dysfunction, my right hon. Friend's policy group identified a breakdown of nurture in many families that are unable to provide for core needs, such as secure attachment, protection, realistic limits to behaviour, freedom to express valid emotions, autonomy, competence and a sense of identity, which are gained from a nurturing family.

The report also worryingly points out the link between family breakdown and youth crime. The reduction in committed relationships has also affected the amount of family care that is available to the elderly. The Local Government Association recently said that that is an expensive problem for the country.

It seems harsh to mention public spending but there is a high cost in benefits—more than £20 billion on lone parent benefits. We all know about the increasing housing needs that family breakdown generates, and the extra care costs for councils due to changed demography are estimated to be £146 million. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green will report on his conclusions in the summer. At that point, we will consider our policy response.

Recently published research shows that the poorest households in Britain are paying a higher share of tax and getting a lower share of benefits than they did before 1997. The figures show that if the poorest fifth of households were paid the same share of total taxes and got the same share of total benefits as in 1996-97, they would have £531 a year more; and the second poorest fifth of households would have £427 a year more. To add insult to injury, the poorest fifth of households pay a higher proportion of their income in taxes than any other group.

The claim in the action plan mentioned by the Minister—that the steady rise in income inequality has been halted—is simply not the case. The fact is that levels of income inequality are now slightly higher than they were in the 1980s or 1990s. The Minister ended up saying that there has not been an increase, while acknowledging that the position has not improved. However, what the Institute for Fiscal Studies said in its report was that inequality was slightly higher. The Government wonder in the action plan why those on the very lowest incomes have seen the lowest rates of income growth, which I think is a valid question.

"those on the very lowest incomes have seen the lowest rates of income growth",

comes from page 17 of "Reaching Out: An Action Plan on Social Exclusion", published in September 2006. The Institute for Fiscal Studies said that there has been

"little impact upon the slight upward trend in inequality that has been experienced over Labour's term in government."

That is a straightforward quotation.

Social mobility, which is so important, has been reduced since 1997. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who is well respected in the House, said in a speech to the Social Market Foundation on13 September:

"It is actually getting harder for people to escape poverty and leave the income group, professional banding or social circle of their parents. In fact, it's currently harder to escape the shackles of a poor upbringing in Britain than anywhere else in Europe".

If your parents are poor, you are likely to be poor—and that is after 10 years of a Labour Government.

It is not just that the rise in incomes—once one takes account of tax—has not been the success story one would hope for, as the cost of living for families is rising fast. The Leader of the Opposition recently highlighted the true levels of inflation on items affecting people on low incomes. He pointed particularly to energy prices, which are up 71 per cent. since 2003. Mortgage payments, which are also important to many, are up 78 per cent. and taxes are up 81 per cent. He has asked the Office of Fair Trading to investigate the rises in energy prices.

The Minister and I would agree about the importance of education—she mentioned it—to reducing social exclusion. Unfortunately, success has proved elusive. Three quarters of 16-year-olds from low-income families in England and Wales failed to get five good GCSE passes at grades A to C. That is double the rate that applies to other students. The Public Accounts Committee recently highlighted the failure of 1,500 schools and only today we have learned—it is in the news—that 500 schools have failed to meet the 25 per cent. target for five good GCSE grades. If we look into some of the most excluded groups, such as children in care. About 89 per cent. of children in care failed to get five good GCSE passes—a poor record of dealing with the low achievement of children in care.

The Government admit it. The Minister for Children and Families has said that despite the Government's efforts—no one is denying that the Government are trying—the gap between the outcomes of looked-after children and others is "extremely wide" and "completely unacceptable". The future for many children in care is very depressing. Almost half of young women in care become mothers within 18 to 24 months of leaving care; and between a quarter and a third of rough sleepers have been in care. I think that tackling the present level of under-achievement has to be a major priority.

Schools can play an important role in the overall strategy to halve teenage pregnancy by 2010. If teenage parents are encouraged to increase their participation in education and training or employment, they may reduce their chances of long-term social exclusion. The likelihood of teenage pregnancies is far higher among those with low educational achievements, even after adjusting for the effects of deprivation. Nearly 40 per cent. of teenage mothers leave school with no qualifications at all. We need to give young people access to consistent help from professionals who understand them and can advise them—with proper assurances of anonymity, where appropriate. It is concerning that, despite the work of the teenage pregnancy unit, set up by the Government, pregnancies among under-14s are actually rising and the overall target for reduction has been missed.

In terms of health, despite the Government target to reduce infant mortality by 10 per cent., the relative gap in the infant mortality rate between the general population and the poorest social classes has increased by 46 per cent. since 1997. Despite the clear link between mental health and social exclusion, the Government have had to reduce the percentage of funding for mental health in many parts of the country. Children are often the worst affected with 15 per cent. of those with mental health needs having to wait more than 26 weeks to see a specialist. Well, those are all Government figures.

Aside from treatment, we need to provide people with mental health problems with better access to training and employment. Just 20 per cent. of those with severe mental health problems have jobs. Four out of 10 employers have said that they would not consider employing someone with a history of mental illness. If we are to move forward, we must tackle that stigma and discrimination.

Concern is being expressed in the voluntary and not-for-profit sector that the Government are asking it to deliver a Government agenda, rather than allowing it to develop innovative services based on its knowledge and expertise. I hope that the Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden) will give the House an assurance when he responds to the debate that the kind of measures that the Minister for Social Exclusion was describing—monitoring, ensuring standards and so on—will not involve cutting back on the innovation that some social enterprise voluntary bodies have been able to give us to tackle these deep-seated problems.

There is a considerable body of evidence that good public health—particularly the encouragement of good practice and healthy living—can really improve health outcomes. This is an area in which the Government certainly took their eye off the ball during their first few years. For example, there was an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, particularly in London, before they took action. They also took a very long time to take action on the issue of tuberculosis, particularly among the Asian community. In public health terms, there are real concerns about how slow the Government have been to react to these major problems.

It is well established that some of the cheapest and most successful health systems in the world are those that place a strong emphasis on public health, so that fewer people require treatment for the more expensive conditions. One of the problems with the Labour Government is that they have never really got down to implementing any solid reform in the public service sector in order to deliver on their intentions. Those intentions have often been very good, but the delivery has often been a bit of a shambles.

I have visited many projects that help the socially excluded, and one lesson that I have learnt is that it is not possible to make sweeping decisions from on high. The socially excluded are, by their very nature, individuals with complex needs. Solutions to social exclusion must come from the bottom, from the people who know the individuals and their problems. This is not about abdicating responsibility; it is about giving the power to those who should have it. There is a role for national initiatives, but they only work if those delivering them on the front line accept them.

We wish the new social exclusion taskforce well, and we hope that it will be more effective than previous attempts. We are concerned, however, that the new body does not appear to have the same direct backing of the Prime Minister as the original social exclusion unit, which was based at No. 10. We accept that tackling social exclusion is an enormous challenge that will involve efforts across many Government Departments, but this will require the full and energetic support of No. 10, simply because it crosses so many portfolios.

Rather than relying on traditional thinking, and on the ideas that underpinned the last nine initiatives on social exclusion, is it not time to look for a new direction based on trusting people and on social responsibility? We need to trust the professionals, the social enterprises and the voluntary sector to tackle multiple deprivation through a combination of long-term funding, increased scope to innovate and a level playing field. We also need to trust local government, and to accept that civil servants and Ministers in Whitehall might not have all the answers. We need to move away from thinking that everything is the responsibility of the state, and towards a new spirit of social responsibility in which we work together to empower local people and local communities. We should not be so arrogant as to believe that politicians have all the answers. Our approach should not be solely about what the Government can do. It should be about what people can do, and what society can do, because we are all in this together.

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