Addressing Social Exclusion

The Labour Party Manifesto set a stiff challenge for the Party in Government – “our aim is to make the goal of ending child poverty in Britain a political litmus test for any political party running for office.” For me this challenge is at the heart of the Labour Party’s core values. But our ambitions do not stop with children. We have also set ourselves demanding targets to address pensioner poverty, joblessness and social exclusion. Our task is so urgent and so huge because of the divided society that the Tories left us with. We inherited one of the highest poverty rates in Europe, unemployment rose from just over 1 million to peak at 3 million and when we took office over 1 in 5 children were living in workless households. Since 1997 our policy has been to increase support for children whilst, through tax credits and labour market measures, helping parents into jobs and ensuring work pays. That’s why we have introduced both the New Deal, helping 1 million people into work, and provided record increases in child benefit, up 25% for the first child. It’s also why we introduced the National Minimum Wage, which by ending the scandal of poverty pay, both attacks poverty directly and also helps ensure that it pays to work. From this April the new Working Tax Credit will for the first time mean that all lower-earners aged over 25 – not just parents – will get in-work financial support. Together these measures put into practice Labour’s core values – getting more money, help and support to those who need it most. The average family with children gains £1200 a year, but the poorest gain £2400 a year. We want to go, and we are going, further. Childcare is essential in helping lone parents get back into work and since 1997 we have created over half a million childcare places. By 2006 we will have created a further 250000 places benefiting 1.6 million children. For pensioners we are introducing the Pension Credit in October that will provide a guaranteed level of income below which no pensioner should fall and rewarding those with small levels of saving. This reform of the welfare state together with our investment in public services is starting to yield real results in addressing social exclusion. We have seen a doubling of the rate of teenage mothers in education, employment or training from 16% in 1997 to 33% in 2001. We have also reduced by half a million the number of children in relative income poverty and of 1.8 million in the number in absolute poverty. With Labour we have seen a quarter of a million fewer children living in workless households than in 1997 and a million fewer pensioners living in absolute low income than 1997. We still have much more to do, as too many are still living in poor conditions denied the opportunities that many of the rest of us have. That’s why we have set ourselves tough targets of halving child poverty by 2010 as a step towards its elimination by 2020 and helping 70% of lone parents into jobs by 2010. As we move forward we must remember that poverty is about more than an arbitrary income level – poverty is a multifaceted problem. Addressing low income on its own is not enough and we must also prioritise the health, educational and housing opportunities of poorer people – tackling poverty of opportunity and aspiration, as well as deprivation in basic living standards. In our community in Oxford, the acute need for affordable housing, and meeting the needs of homeless people are pressing priorities. I have seen at first hand the contribution of many students who undertake voluntary work, at the Night Shelter, Simon House, the Bridge and other facilities. They deserve recognition and support, as do the students who provide the KEEN (Kids Enjoy Exercise Now) programme of recreational and social activity for disabled young people. I know how highly this is valued by the young people and their families. These sides of Oxford student life too rarely feature in the media, but they are more representative of the values of our student community than some of the stories which do! So at community and voluntary level, as well as through statutory agencies and Government there is a lot we can be proud of, but there is much more to do so that we bring into effect our values, making Britain a fairer society. Andrew Smith, MP for Oxford East, is Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
ARCHIVE: 4th week TT 2003