Social Exclusion Unit

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 20th October 2005.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Woolas.]

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister 2:30 pm, 20th October 2005

Thank you, Mr. Bercow, for presiding over this debate. This is the first occasion on which I have had the privilege and honour of serving under your chairmanship, and I wish you good luck in your role.

I am delighted to have secured this debate on social exclusion and the social exclusion unit. I was fortunate to see in the Box one night a letter from the Government Chief Whip asking Ministers whether they would like to put forward subjects for debate. I thought that no subject was more important than the work of the SEU. For the benefit of Opposition parties and the whole House, I want to set out on the record the work of the SEU and our goals.

The obvious place to start is to define social exclusion and why we are involved in that. Social exclusion and its abolition are at the heart of the Government's philosophy and programme. Delivering social justice through sustainable communities throughout the United Kingdom is one of the Government's central goals.

What is social exclusion? We all know what it means, but we have gone further and have defined it. Social exclusion is life below the minimum acceptable level in a decent society. It is when people do not have the things that most of us take for granted—for example, a decent home, a job and the ability to read and write. These are simple things perhaps, but hugely important. Social inclusion means that opportunity is open to all and that no one lives below an acceptable level.

We intend to maintain and increase our current successful policies for tackling poverty and social exclusion. We have set ourselves a hard task, but we have good reasons for making it more difficult. The number of people who are defined as being socially excluded—I could go into measurements if hon. Members want to tease them out—is based on a multi-deprivation index. The figures are interesting and show that in 1991, 8.9 per cent. of the adult population was defined as being socially excluded. By 1996, that had fallen to 5.7 per cent., which was good steady progress in the early 1990s. I acknowledge that and we all welcome it. By 2003, the percentage had fallen to 3.7 per cent. We have made steady progress, but the statistics show that the problem becomes more difficult the lower the percentage is. That is the point that we are at, which is why I want to address the future priorities of the SEU.

I have three messages today. First, the abolition of social exclusion is of fundamental importance to this Government. The cost of failure to individuals, families, neighbours, the community, the economy as a whole and, indeed, our status as a civilised society demand that we attack social exclusion. Secondly, as my figures illustrate, real progress has been made as a result of our actions. We have changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, some of them being the most vulnerable in our society. Thirdly, there is a much more to do. Despite the progress to which I referred, many, many people still suffer severe and enduring problems, and I shall repeat some of them: poor housing, low basic skills, poor mental health and discrimination based on where they live. They are people who are not in a job or training but have been living for three, four, five or more years on incomes and in circumstances that most of us would find difficult for four or five weeks. Some of them live on what are called run-down estates—unfortunately, we all know what I mean by that. Some live in deprived inner-city areas. However, it is by no means the case that socially excluded people live exclusively in those areas. Exclusion can also exist in more prosperous neighbourhoods. It can and does exist in rural areas, where isolation can be extremely punishing. It affects our cities, our rural areas and all our regions.

Addressing the needs of these people is an even greater challenge than making the progress that we have made so far. We need to up the ante. We need to re-examine and refocus as we move forward. The SEU has made the first steps with important work in looking at how to improve service delivery to the most disadvantaged. Part of our goal is to say that just because somebody lives in a state of social exclusion does not mean that they are not entitled to high-quality public service delivery. Indeed, the report that I launched last week, "Improving Services, Improving Lives", links the issue of public service reform and delivery to the issue of social exclusion. We must find ways, such as those contained in the report, to come up with sustainable answers to eliminate persistent poverty once and for all.

Let me emphasise more why this issue matters. I hope that what I am going to say does not sound too philosophical. In Westminster Hall on 30 June, I instigated a debate on the neighbourhood renewal strategy. There were some thoughtful speeches and I was grateful to Opposition spokespersons and to Back Benchers for taking the debate in the spirit in which it was intended. I wanted it to be an honest exchange in which I admitted some of the Government's failures and in which the Opposition and other Members could propose solutions and challenge some ideas. I want to do the same today. However, what I will not do—I am not implying that hon. Members would want me to do this; I know that you would not, Mr. Bercow, and neither would the hon. Members who are present—is say that the issue does not matter. It does matter and it is a huge priority.

Our goal is to build a society that is based on social justice and opportunity for all. The very first speech that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made as Prime Minister in 1997 was during a visit to one of our deprived estates, when he said that he wanted to tackle

"the dead weight of low expectations, the crushing belief that things cannot get better."

Social exclusion matters now as much as it did then. It matters, for example, to the one in 10 children who grow up experiencing poverty. Without help, they are likely to stay poor and disadvantaged. Social exclusion matters to the taxpayer. It is estimated that £100 million a year would be saved if just one in 10 young offenders received effective help early enough. It matters to economic prosperity. Our estimate is that £31 billion a year is lost due to early withdrawal from the labour market—much of it as a result of inactivity and age discrimination.

Social exclusion matters to the whole of society. It matters to the 7 per cent. of pensioners who still live in severe isolation. About 12,000 a year will die alone and, unfortunately, unnoticed. That is 32 people every day. It matters to all of us who experience a lack of social cohesion, increased crime, fear and a lack of respect. We will benefit from success in this area.

I will review the progress that has been made. I have tried to paint a picture that shows that things are getting better, to coin a phrase, but there is much more to do. When the Government came to power, the situation looked dire. The sick, the jobless and the uneducated looked to be on a one-way road to poverty and destitution. It was a vicious cycle of poverty and deprivation. Public services were worn down and often impotent in some of those areas, and it seemed that things would become worse. However, there have been some huge achievements. There are now 2 million more people in work, 700,000 fewer children in poverty—as defined by independent measurements, not by us—700,000 fewer pensioners in poverty and improvements in educational attainment at all key stages. There are now 1 million fewer non-decent social homes. In ordinary language, that means council houses fit to live in, not damp and awful as many of them were, and as some still are.

There have been real achievements and one of the flagships of that agenda is the Sure Start programme, from which 400,000 children and families in the most disadvantaged areas are benefiting. We have changed the lives of millions of people and I am proud of that achievement.

There are some really significant battles where we have attacked some of the underpinning problems of our society. There are now 400,000 fewer children living in a workless household. What an achievement! I am sure that hon. Members will agree with the following point, and join me in trying to find policies that address it. If a child grows up in a household where no family member works, the routine of life—getting up in the morning, self-esteem, self-discipline and respect for oneself and others—is often not there because of the damage that can be done. Growing up poor and disadvantaged is extremely damaging for children and their chances in life. We are now well on the way to ensuring that they do not carry the burden of their parents' problems through their own lives for every job that is created.

Attacking social exclusion is a win-win activity. Children and families win and the taxpayer wins because it is far cheaper to prevent exclusion as opposed to helping people out of it. As I have acknowledged, the war has not been won yet. Persistent poverty is experienced by 7 per cent. of working age people. More than 3 million children still live in non-decent homes, more than 10 million working-age adults have low skills and qualifications and about 2 million pensioners still live in relative poverty.

We are attempting to tackle the final remains of a pernicious legacy that we inherited. I do not want to say that the problems were all the fault of the previous Government—far from it. There were serious structural post-war problems that all Governments inherited, and those problems had taken decades to create; we now have to turn them around.

Why is social exclusion in those remaining areas so entrenched, intractable and difficult to tackle? We all know that it does not follow departmental remits. It does not fit into nice organised boxes for politicians and civil servants to put into nice rows and deal with one bit at a time. It affects all areas of life: health, welfare, employment, education, crime and so on. We have to have a cross-cutting approach to it.

Social exclusion results from a set of problems that are constantly changing. We are not dealing with a fixed target. No sooner do we tackle one problem, than a new one arises caused by new pressures. We need to stay on top of that situation to understand what we are trying to tackle. Despite that, I do not want to lose sight of the progress that we have made so far.

The SEU was established in 1997, in large part by the Minister of Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend Mr. Miliband. It was originally part of a unit at No. 10. It was then moved to the Cabinet Office, and arrived at its rightful home when it came to what was then the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Department dealing with communities and the agencies on the ground where this problem can be tackled. It was set up in response to some of the most ingrained and intractable social issues that faced us. I have described what some of them are. They are issues such as teenage pregnancy and people sleeping rough. That is what led to the creation of the SEU. That goal—that focus—still underpins the unit's objectives. Its task was set out in the 2004 spending review, when the Government asked the unit to tackle

"deprivation by working with departments to narrow the gap in outcomes between deprived groups and the national average."

A beautiful new Labour piece of prose.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

As a point of clarification, will the Minister enlighten me about how "beautiful" and new Labour phraseology fit together?

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I asked for that.

We set ourselves a difficult target, as I explained in this Chamber on 30 June in our debate about neighbourhood renewal and the work of the neighbourhood renewal unit. We have said that we want not only to reduce the number of people who suffer from social exclusion and lift them out of that situation, but to narrow the gap—the inequalities—between those people and the rest of society, whether it is measured by educational achievement, longevity or the other targets that we set ourselves.

If one's goal is not only to lift the bottom, but to narrow the gap, there are two ways to do it. One can chop the top off, so we solve the problem of the inequality gap in longevity by adopting a policy of euthanasia—[Interruption.] It is in Hansard, and I shall regret saying it. Nevertheless, the serious point that I am trying to make is that the target is challenging, and success in other areas of policy can lead to statistical presentations that may prompt less opportunistic Members than those present to accuse us of failure.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I welcome the Minister's statement that there are two ways to tackle the problem of the gap between the better-off and the less well-off. What remains in my mind is the question of quantification. To what extent are the Government aiming to close the gap, and over what period? Will they be more specific about narrowing the gap? They can narrow the gap by a very small amount and claim that they have succeeded.

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

That is an important point, and I shall answer it in my remarks. The reason that I place so much emphasis on the policy is that it is a deliberate policy and choice not only to lift up the least well-off and bring in the socially excluded, but to narrow the gap. It is a commitment to equality. We recognise that it makes, first, our task harder, and secondly, our critics louder from all points on the political spectrum.

When statistics are rightly set out in the public domain and highlighted, the policy leads to headlines, speeches and policy pamphlets saying that the strategy is failing because the gap is sometimes getting bigger. I shall provide the figures for longevity, and all boats are rising with the tide. Sometimes, however, the inequalities mask the success.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Will the Minister be fair enough to admit that one of the reasons why he may be challenged on the equality gap and whether it is widening is that for many years that was the measure that his party used to challenge the Conservative Government? It was not a question of all the boats rising at the same time; it was about the gap. If the gap widened, the then Government were accused of displaying a lack of care to those at the poorer end. Now that the hon. Gentleman understands the situation more clearly, perhaps he appreciates that the approach in the past was wrong and that he is offering a more realistic approach. In return, our response may, equally, be more measured.

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I have no hesitation in acknowledging the point, and the policy change that was brought about. I highlighted the methodology that we use for measurement, and the target of narrowing the gap as well as raising the bottom, precisely to draw attention to the point that the hon. Gentleman made. Some argue that community cohesion can be damaged by a widening of the gap. That might be a valid point in certain circumstances. Our goal is to ensure that everyone is better off and, while doing so, to narrow the gap. I acknowledge the importance of the hon. Gentleman's point; the discussion about equality of opportunity and egalitarianism that lies behind it is a fundamental point in post-war British politics.

The SEU is well resourced and bucks the trend of the stereotype of the civil service culture. It is buzzing with ideas and draws in support from across the voluntary and private sectors, academia and elsewhere. It is focused on turning words into action. It reports across Government and recommends cross-Government action.

Let us examine some of the successes. There has been a 75 per cent. reduction in rough sleeping, which, in significant part, has been brought about because of the pointers given to us by the SEU. There has been a radical overhaul of benefits for young people, and a fall of nearly 10 per cent. in teenage pregnancies. There has been a new duty on local authorities to promote educational attainment of children in care. We all understand that point.

Over the time that it has been in existence, more than 50 reports have examined the severe problems experienced by a wide range of groups: children in care; ex-prisoners; and young people who are not in education, employment or training—I think we called them NEETs.

All of the reports led to practical steps forward. The mental health and social exclusion project led directly to a national anti-stigma and discrimination programme, helping more people with mental health problems into work. The report on jobs and enterprise in deprived areas in 2004 enabled those delivering services to identify areas of worklessness right down to individual streets. As a result of modern statistical methodology, that was the first time that we were able to do that.

The SEU provides groundbreaking solutions to complex problems. It examines all the available facts objectively, tests them and then proposes actions. It has made joining up more than just a slogan; 18 policy action teams were set up in 1998 to cover wide-ranging issues. Uniquely, they included local residents alongside officials from right across Government and other outside experts. The resulting recommendations were outward focused; nearly 600 were made and 86 were accepted. One led to the establishment of the neighbourhood renewal unit, which we debated in this Chamber on 30 June.

As I draw to a conclusion, I will detail what remains to be done. Before I do so, I will answer the question raised by David Howarth. He asked about the time frame. The national strategy for neighbourhood renewal, of which social exclusion is a part, says that in 10 to 20 years' time no one should be seriously disadvantaged by where they live, as measured by specific floor targets on educational attainment, health and so on. We narrow that down further. For example, the goal for health is that mortality rates from heart disease, stroke and related diseases in deprived areas should substantially decrease so that the absolute gap between the national rate and the average rate for deprived areas is reduced by 40 per cent. by 2010. There are specific goals. Anyone who considers our strategy of local area agreements, which try to bring together public service deliverers in local areas, and our neighbourhood agenda for neighbourhood empowerment and service delivery will understand the importance that we place on such issues.

So what remains to be done? In 2004, we asked the SEU to review progress, and it reported that we had yet to reach some of the groups with multiple problems. Five per cent. of adults still fall into the category of most disadvantaged, which means five or more problems. The figure is lower than in 1997 but still too high. Such people are most at risk of social exclusion.

We chose five priority areas: economic inactivity and pockets of worklessness, poor educational attainment, inequalities in health, homelessness and concentration of crime. Overall, progress has been made in each area, but it is obvious that the problems that remain are the most difficult. Despite record employment levels, the number of people who are economically inactive has stuck at about 22 per cent. since 1997, and worklessness has become more concentrated in the same areas and the same households. Again, despite improvements in educational attainment, about 25 per cent.—one quarter of all 16-year-olds—fail to achieve one D grade at GCSE. Five per cent. receive no educational qualification at all, and 9 to 10 per cent. of young people are not in education, employment or training.

There are other issues. For example, despite the fact that there are fewer deaths from key killers such as heart disease and stroke, a boy born into the professional class can still expect to live seven and a half years longer than his school mate whose father is a labourer. I highlight the problems but remind the House that there has been steady progress. Despite achievements in tackling rough sleeping, more than 3 million children and 3 million pensioners still live in non-decent housing. Despite the fact that the risk of being a victim of crime declined by 16 per cent. in the past 10 years, people living in the most deprived areas are still the most likely victims of crime or antisocial behaviour. That is unacceptable to the Government, and that is why our challenge is to reach those people who are in the most difficult situations.

One consequence of our progress so far is that we have had to dig deeper, think more radically and re-examine what we are doing when we consider how we can tackle the more difficult areas. That is why we are publishing a series of reports that recommend different actions. The areas that my Department is reviewing include housing and planning policy, fire—it is still the case that 50 per cent. of deaths by fire occur in deprived areas—and local and regional government. We build our policies alongside local and regional government, and we have new tools at our disposal.

As I mentioned, a key to success is the local area agreement. By April 2007, every area in England will have a local area agreement whereby public sector partners will work with the voluntary sector and, crucially, the private sector to co-ordinate the approach in a meaningful way. If the money is joined up, power and decision-making tend to be joined up as well.

Success also requires people to take responsibility for themselves. At the end of the day, respect works two ways. That is why it is crucial that we work to empower people, and our neighbourhood empowerment agenda is central to that. That is an important part of the debate that we are having with the Local Government Association about the proposals that we will put forward in the spring, and about the potential funding and financing consequences that follow from that.

The SEU is taking steps to prepare us for these challenges; the "Improving Services, Improving Lives" document looked hard at improving service delivery to disadvantaged people, and that was just the first in a series of projects. However, if we are to eradicate exclusion, we need to look further by examining the root causes of persistent poverty and exclusion. To achieve real social inclusion, we will need to go beyond what we have done so far. I invite Members to join me in debating this issue.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister 3:00 pm, 20th October 2005

I thank the Minister for initiating this debate and for clearly explaining the Government's priorities and goals in this area. I am also glad that he began by defining social exclusion, although it struck me that it was not really a definition of social exclusion: he defined social exclusion as life below the minimum acceptable level, but I have always taken that to be a definition of poverty. I and my party colleagues would distinguish more clearly between inequality and social exclusion. We think that the Government have a duty to tackle both; they can both be considered problems that require political solutions. However, they are not quite the same thing—although one might lead to the other.

For me and most Liberals, social exclusion is essentially a political concept. It means that some people cannot fully participate as citizens and in political life because of the material and other conditions of their lives. Democracy cannot function unless people have more than just formal rights to participate in politics and government. They must have what the philosopher John Rawls called "the fair value" of their rights. That means that where people are unable to function as citizens because of poverty, ill health, lack of education or skills, fear of crime or discrimination, the Government have a duty to take corrective action.

Of course, one of those corrective actions could be redistribution of wealth and income. That is one way of tackling exclusion, although it is not the only one; there are other policy prescriptions. There might also be separate reasons for following redistributive policies, such as fairness. For example, my party is committed to the idea of a local income tax, which would have a powerful redistributive effect, but we are committed to it largely because it is fair rather than because it would help to tackle social exclusion in the sense that I have defined it, although it would have some effect in that regard. For us, ultimately, social exclusion means political exclusion. It is a form of political exclusion, and it needs to be tackled in and of itself.

That means that, from our point of view, there is a great deal to praise and celebrate in the work of the social exclusion unit. Under a Liberal Democrat Government, it might have a somewhat different focus, concentrating more on the political aspects of exclusion and perhaps not being quite so influenced by the underlying view, which I think I heard in the Minister's speech, that the best way to tackle almost any aspect of poverty is to get people into work. That is probably more the view of the Chancellor than it is of any other Member.

It seems to us that that is often the best way to approach such individuals' problems, but not always. The Government ought to remember that there is more to life than work, especially in the case of single parents. Forcing people into work could have adverse effects when it is not the best course of action from their point of view or from the social point of view.

In the past, the Conservative party has called for the abolition of the social exclusion unit. We do not share that view, nor is it our policy that the unit should be abolished. It is reasonable for the Government to spend public money on developing policies that are in line with their current political objectives. The social exclusion unit has produced a good range of projects and ideas that further the Government's objectives, but we have some doubt about whether the Government are fully committed to implementing its ideas. That is the fault not of the unit, but of the Government. Are they as committed to tackling social exclusion as the policy prescriptions of the SEU suggest?

Let us consider transport. The unit's website states:

"Good transport links can help people to break out of social exclusion.

The key to success is helping connect people to jobs, schools, training, health care and healthy, affordable food. But making such key places truly accessible means more than improving trains and bus links; it also means improving local and national planning decisions, providing specialist support to help people get to work and improving design."

I agree. That is an excellent place at which to start transport policy, but to what extent does that objective influence the Government's transport policy as a whole? There is a section in "Opportunity for All" about transport, but it is pathetically brief and says in the main that local authorities should talk to other local agencies. But where will the resources come from to fulfil the goal as laid out in the social exclusion unit's documentation?

In my constituency, for example, central Government do very little to help local transport and improve local transport planning in the form to which the SEU refers. We are not a rural area, so the rural transport grant does not help us much. We are not a major urban centre either, so we do not always receive the help with major projects for which we might have hoped. Instead, Government policy concentrates on major road-building projects, such as the creation of a 10-lane A14 at the cost of £490 million, the main objective of which is to help the road haulage industry rather than to help the socially excluded to get around. The balance between road building and public transport, especially local public transport, does not seem to have been sufficiently influenced by the concept of social exclusion, as it should have been.

I come now to prisoners and reoffending. About three years ago, the unit produced an excellent practical and humane document on reducing reoffending by ex-prisoners. The paper "Opportunity for All" announced some pilot projects on reducing reoffending and giving help to prisoners' families to try to stop the cycle of criminality that the report observed. That is good news, although it has taken a rather long time to come.

To what extent does the SEU's approach affect the core values of the Home Office? Since 1996, 18,500 new prison places have been created, including 13 new prisons, yet still the prisons are full to bursting. Previous Home Secretaries seem to have been proud of the fact that they presided over record prison populations, but the question is whether that is compatible with the approach of the SEU. I think there is a serious tension.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Perhaps I might draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to another area of potential contradiction and doubt, where it would be helpful if the Government as a whole spoke with a clear voice. Are families in difficulties considered problem families to be affected by antisocial behaviour orders and grouped together in units under a degree of firm control or problem families who need help and assistance, as is indicated by some studies done by the unit? It is not always easy to be clear about what Government policy might be. A clearer voice might be helpful where there is a contradiction.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which has provided another puzzling example. The SEU's work on antisocial behaviour is impressive. At some point, it talks about early intervention, but I doubt whether, in the SEU's terms, that would include ASBOs for under-10s.

I also want draw attention to the SEU document "Improving Services, Improving Lives", which is excellent and which provides good analysis and a starting point for action in considering the whole range of public services and how they can be arranged to help the socially excluded. The starting point for the analysis is the obvious but important point that socially excluded people are often more heavily dependent on public services than others.

In yesterday's debate on local government finance, I invited the Government to answer a question that relates to "Improving Services, Improving Lives", where there might be another tension. If public services are important—I think they are—in improving the lives of the socially excluded, what explanation do the Government have for what appears to be a financial settlement for local government that will provide, outside the education field, an increase of only 1.5 per cent.?

Surely that will put severe strain on a range of services, which "Improving Services, Improving Lives" considers important to the condition of many people's lives, including housing, youth services and services in relation to antisocial behaviour problems, which we have just been discussing. A below-inflation increase for local government, especially for district councils, will put pressure on the public services that need to be examined from the point of view of social exclusion.

That is a short-term point. I want to return to longer-term aspects of the document. I approve of its emphasis on building communities, which is a concept familiar to many of us who were brought up in the Liberal party's community politics tradition. That was ridiculed at the time as pavement politics, but is now becoming mainstream. I am glad that the SEU is part of the mainstreaming of those ideas.

The issue involves not just whether what has come to be called "clean, green and safe" is at the top of the list for many local communities, but creating a sense of achievement for local people so that they feel that their political priorities and campaigning can bring about change. The document takes that up. That is important because political exclusion is about not only voting, although we will have a long discussion about that next week in relation to the Electoral Administration Bill, but the extent to which people take part in protests and campaigns for change and the barriers they face in taking part in politics. They are not just resource barriers.

There is a psychological barrier that is related to discouragement. The key concept is efficacy. People will take part if their experience is that previous campaigns and protests in which they were involved have worked and changed their lives. I could give examples of protests that did not change Government policy and which led to a good deal of disillusionment, although I suppose that this is not the time to mention the protests against the Iraq war. When people are consulted and when their views are taken on board as part of the process that the document describes, it is important that those carrying out the consultation bear it in mind that consulting and then ignoring—or appearing to ignore—what people say can have an adverse long-term effect.

A key point about community politics—perhaps it has not quite become mainstream in the same way as other concepts, but there are hints of it in "Improving Services, Improving Lives"—is that building a community should entail consideration of what sort of community is to be built. What sort of political values should a community use and embody? I am pleased that a key theme in the document is respect—not respect in the terms in which the Prime Minister has been talking about it, but a different sort of respect to which the key is the extent to which public officials respect all citizens in their everyday interactions. The key message in the document—I urge the Government to take this on board as much as possible—is that respect, above all, means treating everyone as a rational being and as a person capable of making their own decisions. In a sense, that is what political freedom is about.

That brings me back to the theme of the tension between what the unit proposes and other aspects of Government policy. The document quotes an NHS patient as saying that their doctor puts them "on an egg timer". That is their experience of meeting their family practitioner and it is the experience that many people have had when using many aspects of the public service. The question is, why do people have that experience with public services? One obvious answer is the culture of targets and the Government treating public service workers and professionals as assets to be sweated, as opposed to workers and professionals in their own right.

The document also talks quite rightly about the principle that public agencies should not be seen to manipulate their clients or public opinion. It is important that someone is treated as a rational person with regard to the choices they are asked to make. However, there is a clear tension with other aspects of Government policy. The obvious example is the fourth option for council housing. Providing people with only three choices, none of which is acceptable to them, is an example of manipulation and the sort of thing that the principle of non-manipulation would rule out. In fact, when councils approach such ballots by simply giving information to tenants and asking them to make up their own minds, they often find themselves criticised because the Government policy is not being pushed more. Again, that demonstrates that there is a serious tension between things that the unit proposes and other aspects of Government policy.

It is not enough to consult people on how their services are to be delivered. One must also consult on which services should be delivered. In my own city, many years ago, the then Labour council piloted some of those ideas and had something called the neighbourhood community plan. People in one area of the city said that they wanted a better bus service for their neighbourhood, but the council told them they could not have a better bus service as part of the neighbourhood community plan for the simple reason that supporting public transport was against the policy of the ruling group, which thought it was somebody else's responsibility. That is precisely the approach that breeds disillusionment and disengagement, and precisely the type of political exclusion that should be the focus of the SEU's work.

My point about improving services and lives relates to something the Minister said. I remember making this point in Westminster Hall before the summer break, but it bears some repetition: there is a danger in over-targeting public services. Redistribution can happen most effectively and transparently through the tax and benefits system, and we as a party have no problem doing that. However, there is a temptation for politicians who believe in redistribution and equality, as the Minister clearly does, not to want to be caught talking too much and too directly in public about that most direct form of redistribution, but to try to do redistributive politics indirectly by stealth through the differential delivery of public services.

I have no problem with the SEU's approach, which ensures fair and universal access to public services. I take it that that is what "Improving Services, Improving Lives" is about, and it is welcomed, but I counsel against going too far down a different route. I accept that targeting is the Chancellor's favourite device, but it must not be allowed to undermine the concept of the universality of public services. Public services need consent throughout society. If they are not considered available to all, there is a danger that they will lose that consent.

It is important for public services to remain popular with the whole population, and for them not to become associated with helping particular groups alone. The national health service, for example, will not survive if it is perceived merely as a social safety net. The same applies in education, including higher education, and in transport.

There is still some tension in Government policy, which the Government need to recognise. They must recognise also that often the tension leads to pressure for more spending. That tension is between a desire to focus the assistance of public services on those who need them most and the desire to widen the consent for and participation in public services by maintaining levels of use in the entire population.

I repeat that we as a party find much of the SEU's work to be praiseworthy, and beyond that to be excellent and inspiring. The question for us is the extent to which the Government are committed throughout government to that view.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 3:23 pm, 20th October 2005

"I don't usually go out with my friends . . . If they arrange to do things and I haven't got the money I say no I can't do it, I ain't got enough money. Some of my friends are, 'Oh I will pay for you', but I don't like to take their money either, so I say no don't worry I just won't come."

I thought that as we have all commenced with a sense of what social exclusion is, Laura, a 15-year-old young lady who gave her comments to the Child Poverty Action Group, might in her own words encapsulate what we all feel. She feels a sense of exclusion, and she puts it very well in her own words.

Mr. Bercow, good afternoon, and welcome to the second in a series of social policy seminars, so ably conducted by my colleagues the Minister and David Howarth, who have both made typically refreshing speeches. This atmosphere and topic seem to suit a particular approach, which the Minister ably demonstrated. He showed a refreshing non-partisan sense and an ability to look at past commitments and current achievements and problems in a very honest and straightforward way, which I shall do my best to reflect. David Howarth made a thoughtful contribution. There is so much to talk about in relation to this subject that picking out areas for discussion is important, and I shall comment on one or two aspects.

I appreciate the Minister's highlighting of previous Conservative policy, but in the current atmosphere of "leadership lite" in my party, which may only have about two hours to go, and while the eyes of the Daily Telegraph are firmly fixed on Room 14, I would like to say that the hands of the centre-left are firmly gripping the reins of this part of policy and I shall give it full welly in order to stake my claim to this area for a period of time to come.

I welcome the work of the social exclusion unit. I am pleased to see it. Its breadth, which both the Minister and the hon. Member for Cambridge have mentioned, has been enormously useful in modern-day politics and gives a strong sense of what the new politics is about, which is an understanding that beyond economics and the built environment, what people experience and feel in their everyday lives is of huge importance and of more importance in traditional politics than it used to be. Although social exclusion is a relatively new concept in UK politics, as the Minister and the hon. Gentleman have indicated, we all know what it is, and it has been around for a depressingly long time.

The poverty map of the United Kingdom since industrialisation shows little change and although definitions and categories of exclusion may change from time to time, a little bit like 15-year-old Laura, we know it when we see it—or at least we think that we do. One of the benefits of reading the work of others who are experts in the field, as those who produce papers for the unit are, is that we occasionally find something that we missed. Social exclusion is about much more than income poverty. The definition used by the unit on its website is:

"Social exclusion happens when people or places suffer from a series of problems such as unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, high crime, poor health and family breakdown."

When such problems combine, they can create a vicious cycle. It is that sense of the complex nature of problems that affect those who are socially excluded and the multi-layering of difficulties that makes it so difficult to crack the problem. That is why we have to have long-term goals and proceed piece by piece to deal with the problems.

Social exclusion is a twin tragedy. It is a tragedy for the individuals who are caught up in it, who find their own lives blighted through a lack of aspiration and achievement. They may live in workless households and their talents and futures go to waste. As the Minister said, ill health and early mortality are closely associated with such experiences. The Child Poverty Action Group reports that, according to 2004 figures, those not receiving free school meals perform twice as well as those who do. Children from poorer backgrounds are five times more likely to die in an accident and, grotesquely, 15 times more likely to die in a fire.

The second tragedy affects all of us. Those unfulfilled hopes and dreams affect everyone in society. They are a loss of talent to the nation in bored and unfulfilled lives and in the economic cost of repair to fractured lives. Let us be clear in all the parties that we all have an interest in the issues relating to social exclusion and in alleviating symptoms and causes. Conservatives want to see the talent in our people released, the barriers to fulfilment overcome and the best possible public services available to all.

Despite the efforts of the Government, the problem of social exclusion does not go away. The existence of the unit cannot banish it, and it must be concerned that on some crucial issues such as social mobility and access to higher education for those from the poorest backgrounds we are making so little progress that in some places we are in danger of going backwards.

So what is not working? My own commitment in this area goes back to my work on low incomes, benefits and poverty as a Minister in John Major's Government and my time as sponsor Minister for the cities of Manchester and Salford in the mid-1990s when pioneering work on city challenge schemes brought together physical and social regeneration in some of the most disadvantaged parts of the country—work that has been ably built on by local councils, the independent and voluntary sectors and this Government.

As the Minister was honest enough to admit how his party viewed the income and equality gap in the years before it came to government, let me also make an admission. In about 1992, when I became a Minister, I submitted a paper to Downing street—not through the departmental network but through the political network—about whether we should adopt an anti-poverty strategy, of which many were in existence at local authority level. To my great regret, we decided not to do that, partly because results were difficult to measure, and partly because the initiative would have been a hostage to fortune. If we could not have measured results and shown that we had definitely succeeded, the outcome was bound to be failure, and the Government were understandably nervous about setting themselves up for that. I am sorry that we did not adopt the strategy. In many ways, the social exclusion unit and the focus on exclusion and poverty are answers to the concerns that I raised with my colleagues at that time. It is nice to be able to look back on the past, be honest about it and move on in a different way in the future.

Although the Minister and I agree on the issues, it is not unnatural that we may disagree on other matters such as underlying causes, the emphasis to be placed on individual aspects, where research might be targeted and where policy might drift in order to counter the worst problems. Our approach to the respective merits of state or independent provision may differ—that is all right and proper. No one should mistake our concern for those left behind in an otherwise wealthy community simply because we differ on our approach.

The Minister described the problems that he believed his Government inherited when they came into office, and they were pretty fierce. That was the only time when he was somewhat partisan. Again, if I concede that the perception of Conservative Governments was that they did not understand the social problems that their economic policies were causing, perhaps he might agree that the necessary economic changes that we made in the teeth of a great deal of opposition laid the base for the growing wealth of the country that was evident from 1993 onwards. Those changes enabled his Government to address some of the issues that they are tackling. The improvement in the employment situation, which began before the Conservatives left office in 1997, has continued. There is no doubt that more work in society and at home is, despite the reservations of the hon. Member for Cambridge—I understand his point—a key indicator of how people can escape poverty in the normal course of events.

Having stated that, let us continue with the social exclusion unit and discuss what we agree on before I apply a sharper sword in an effort to help the Minister. If I am on his tail in the way that I want to be, it may enable him to say to his colleagues, "We need to do a bit more." The hon. Member for Cambridge and I will be chasing him, not because we do not like the SEU but because we think that it could do more.

"Improving Services, Improving Lives" is helpful as a pathfinder for change. There is not much in it that is of surprise to those who have experience of public services. We are told that the unit can identify various disadvantaged groups—those with low levels of literacy, disabled people and people with long-term health conditions, people from certain ethnic minority groups, young adults with complex needs, excluded older people and disadvantaged people who move frequently. Such groups have difficulty accessing services for a variety of reasons including poor communication skills, problems with front-line staff and worries over self-esteem and capacity. The document sets out the issues in more detail, looks helpfully at localised examples of how some agencies are tackling the problems, and promises to return with action plans to assist better delivery. It is in those action plans that the rubber will hit the road.

The problems identified in the document should be well known to Departments, which should have strategies in place to cope and will have spent significant amounts of money already. The concerns are not new. When I had responsibility for the Benefits Agency, we spent a lot of time listening to customers and trying to make access easier. The hon. Member for Cambridge rightly pointed out one of the regular frustrations that still exist, which is the attitude of staff on some occasions to those who come before them and the perception of a lack of respect. It is very difficult for those in busy, front-line occupations to show respect when the pressure on them is huge. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the addition of targets and quotas and the feeling that they are accountable not to those who are standing in front of the counter there and then but to people who will be auditing and checking their work may be significant.

I would like the social exclusion unit, as well as offering helpful suggestions as to how the problem could be tackled, to be clear and sharp enough to offer a critique on what is already happening. It needs to be a bit fierce and to have some independence to be able to do so. The unit could begin to think of itself as a think-tank and a campaigner—a rapier on behalf of the public—instead of simply an arm of Government. I shall develop the idea later, but I shall be interested to see the action points that are about to come out of that very good paper.

I really liked "Transitions", which was published in March. The document came from the unit that is looking at problems affecting young adults. For all of us who have contact and work with young adults who have difficulties there is much in it that is familiar, especially the multi-layered nature of the difficulties that many face and the problems of trying to connect people across different agencies. I was particularly taken with a comment on a questionnaire response that:

"Many of the young people we support have extremely poor social capital. In particular they suffer from a lack of a supportive adult. This is particularly noticeable in over 19s."

The paper was very useful. It was an example of how the reach of the unit across such a broad range of Government and local agencies could really make a contribution. As I said earlier, I want to encourage the unit to consider being a bit sharper with the Government.

Could the Minister tell me when he winds up—if that is not appropriate, perhaps he could drop me a line—how he measures the unit's success, in terms not of individual successes but of whether observation of bad practice in other Departments is resulting in significant changes and understanding of why things went wrong in the first place. Does he feel that the unit wields a scalpel?

The Minister quoted the Prime Minister in his initial speech about setting up the unit. Has he lived up to his promise to attend summits? At the outset of the work he said that he would steer the work of the unit personally and chair regular meetings with Ministers to review the initiative. Has he done that, and how many such meetings has he attended during the past year or two years?

There is no doubt that there are good initiatives and many plans, but what about a really keen analysis of the original objectives? I make no bones about this. The objectives are difficult and all too often, but not in this Chamber, the Government spray statistics around about what has worked and pay less attention to things that have gone poorly. Today, the Minister has not done that. I wrote down several phrases, but I will not read them out because I do not need to. I appreciate that. However, some key targets that were set for the unit have not been fulfilled and I hope that it will revisit them as time goes on. The track record on rough sleeping has been good, but the homelessness record has not been quite so good and the number of homeless people has risen sharply.

When Peter Mandelson first commented on the work of the unit, he talked about the problems of bad schools, truancy and low educational standards. Again, targets on those problems have not quite been met. Can the social exclusion unit reach into the Department for Education and Skills and remind it of those early targets to drive up performance still further? I suggest that a degree of independence on the part of the unit would be helpful. I wonder what autonomy the head of the unit has to initiate her own inquiries and inquiries by the unit.

Let us consider a bureaucratic mess that has had a direct impact on those experiencing poverty and exclusion: the family tax credit scandal, which has been of immense harm and damage to families who have been waiting for help. All MPs deal with cases of those who have given their details to the authorities and expected something to come back, argued with the authorities about how much was offered, received money, been told that the amount was wrong, and then been asked to repay it for their pains. It has been a real mess. What damage is done to recipients when bureaucracy goes that badly wrong?

Does the unit get an opportunity to tell the Minister, "We'd like to do a study into that," or are things more top-down, with the unit doing what the Minister and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister ask it to do? Could the unit, for example, take an interest in the impact of problems such as the family tax credit scandal on those who receive public services?

Does the social exclusion unit have a role to play in looking into the stubborn problem of why people who should be in receipt of income support do not get it? That is a persistent problem; it was a problem during my time in the Department, and still is.

Will the social exclusion unit take a look at Sure Start? We are on tricky ground here, but I will be straightforward. The Minister brought Sure Start forward as a flagship, and it is a flagship, but there is a question mark above it. The Minister will be as aware as I am of the recent report by Birkbeck college, which casts some doubt on the scheme's achievements and evaluation. I am not denigrating the scheme—its aims and motives are good—but we have to move away from the idea that when a critical report appears and the Opposition latch on to it, it is an opportunity to knock back the Opposition and say that they do not care. We do care. However, a lot of money—some £3.1 billion—has been spent on the scheme since its launch in 2001.

An article on the study by Birkbeck college said that

"Sure Start as a whole failed to boost youngsters' development, language and behaviour. It also showed children of teenage mothers did worse in Sure Start areas than elsewhere."

The head of the study, Edward Melhuish, said:

"To some extent we are reporting these results now because of the political pressure to do so. The government wants evidence to inform the new policy of children's centres and so they are trying to squeeze anybody with information."

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Rare and unusual though that would be, as the Minister rightly acknowledges, that was the feeling of the head researcher.

The impact of Sure Start in some of our most disadvantaged areas should be, and ought to be, extremely good. If it is not, even though a lot of money is being spent, has the social exclusion unit any view as to how the money may be better directed? Of course, it is early days for Sure Start and there will be further reports, but I would be interested and reassured to hear that the unit was paying attention to the subject in the effort to connect up government, and not letting it go by.

There are three further areas of study that I would like the Minister and the unit to consider. As the unit has such a wide, overarching remit, could it examine the role of the independent, faith and voluntary sectors, and the effectiveness of small-scale projects in tackling key social challenges? In every area of its remit, the unit will have come across these very small organisations. Indeed, it has written positively about their contribution in a number of its publications. However, too often, those sectors feel that the overwhelming presence of the state crowds them out. A comprehensive review of their role in combating social exclusion would give them a boost and enable the country to see how much is provided by those individuals whose often voluntary effort is truly the glue of an effective society.

Secondly, we remain sceptical that the economic answer to the problems of urban deprivation is to demolish parts of the north and concrete over the south of England. Local urban revival is the key to sustainable growth and localised jobs. Would the unit consider setting up a project to examine the barriers to such localised growth and the impact of the Government's policy on urban disadvantage outside south-east England?

Finally, let me deal with the toughest nut of all. The Minister talked about digging deeper and thinking more radically, so let me ask him this question. What role does the unit believe family and relationship breakdown in the UK plays in long-term deprivation and social exclusion? The Minister and the unit must now realise, after so many of its projects and researches, that such breakdown has had a catastrophic effect, that it is getting worse, and that there are no substantial policy initiatives to address it. There are initiatives to ameliorate the symptoms and to compensate for the losses incurred, but that is not enough.

Will the unit examine what role, unwitting or otherwise, the tax and benefit system is playing in making it hard for couples to stay together? Spending a fortune on relationship breakdown is no good if we spend so little on efforts to ensure couples with children stay together—provided that there are no issues of abuse or violence—thereby significantly improving the life chances of the children. What are we really doing to address the social disaster of fewer male role models in the homes of adolescent boys?

Years of study have now made it clear just how damaging relationship and family breakdown is. The Government, and politicians in general, have no right to tell people how to live their private lives; as a member of my party, I make that absolutely clear. However, when we have evidence of harm being done to the vulnerable, we have an obligation to do more than merely apply a plaster over a gaping wound.

The Government, the Opposition and Parliament cannot tiptoe around this matter for much longer. I would welcome the unit taking a look at it. If it were to make clear the urgency with which it should be examined because of its impact on other social exclusion issues, it would be doing itself, the Government and all of the rest of us a favour.

There is now a new climate in which to discuss this subject, and we should take advantage of that. I refer the Minister to a debate we had in this place in the summer and another last December, in which Ministers and the spokesmen for the Liberal Democrats and my party looked at family issues slightly differently from previously. The new climate provides us with an opportunity. This matter needs to be looked at, and I would like to feel that we could start to do so.

I am glad that the SEU exists, and I wish it well. I look forward to its being bold and effective, and also to its making my life uncomfortable when it reports to me.

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister 3:48 pm, 20th October 2005

I thank Alistair Burt for taking part in this debate in such a constructive fashion. Our discussion has brought out some underlying philosophical differences of approach, but also a shared goal. I welcome that, and I will respond to the points raised either now or later in a similarly constructive spirit.

However, I wish to add a rider. I read John Rawls when I was a young man. I was not convinced then, and I am not convinced now, mainly because of what I see as a misunderstanding over the nature of positive and negative freedom, although this is perhaps not a good time to enter into such a philosophical argument.

The central point made by David Howarth is about the importance of political exclusion. I do not deny its importance in the broad sense—not just in terms of participating in voting and traditional politics, as he acknowledged—and neither does the Government policy deny that. However, I think both he and I would use the term "engagement in civic society," but that he would put more emphasis on it, which reflects a difference in philosophical approach.

One thing that drives our work is the research that shows the growing equality gap between the well-off—whose participation in civic life is increasing through new technology and the internet; they also tend to be more articulate and aware—and the socially excluded. Voter turnout in that bottom decile is the most worrying, particularly among the young. I disagree with some of the Electoral Commission report that was published this week, but on that point I strongly agree with it.

The hon. Gentleman made constructive criticisms of a 10-lane road in his area. I am sure that there are pockets of social exclusion in his constituency and that he goes to them and knocks on people's doors to ask them to stick diamond-shaped yellow posters in their window. Then again, perhaps he does not; perhaps he thinks that would lose him votes. That is an interesting one.

On the serious point, the 10-year transport plan does not emphasise roads at the expense of public transport; it emphasises integration. Road developments are taking place to relieve pinch points, rather than create new capacity. That lesson comes from the M25. One example, which admittedly is not in the report—I should have read the draft more closely—is the announcement of the concessionary fares scheme. There are many examples of handy ride schemes and so on, although I admit that the situation is not perfect.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point in asking whether the work of the social exclusion unit affects the core values of the Home Office. That is a very intelligent question and I acknowledge his point. I genuinely think that it does. None of my colleagues in the Government are proud of the record number of prisoners; we are proud of the record fall in crime. Sometimes the hon. Gentleman's party does not see a connection between the two statistics, but there is one. In part because of policy and in part because of the efficiency and financial savings for the country resulting from the social exclusion agenda, Home Office policies work. Drug treatment programmes in the Prison Service are among the best examples of that and they are comprehensive, I understand, in respect of the compulsion of drug treatments. That is just one example, although I acknowledge the point that the hon. Gentleman made. Perhaps he was making a point about the institutional culture of the Home Office.

Let me address the important issue of targets, to which both hon. Gentlemen referred. There are too many targets and there is too much of a regulatory burden on the people right across the sector whom we ask to help us on social exclusion. However, we need to be clear about what a target is, and both hon. Gentlemen gave examples. It would be easy not to have targets. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire made a confession, or told a story, about the dangers of having a set-out, targeted anti-poverty strategy. There are dangers in having targets, and the political animal in me—the Whip in me—would say, "Don't have any. If targets are meaningful, we will not get them 100 per cent. right. If they are easy to reach, why bother having them? Aren't we setting ourselves up as a patsy? Aren't we inevitably going to get a headline that says, 'Government Fails to Reach Target'? Yes, we are."

As the Prime Minister said in his speech last Saturday, we seek respect, not affection. That is how we wish to be judged in the round—on whether the system is working. However, in admitting that there are too many targets, we must also understand their value: they focus public sector management and provide useful public information.

The hon. Member for Cambridge also accused the Government of redistribution by stealth. I heard that interesting phrase at my own party's conference. One delegate said, "If you are not going to redistribute in public, couldn't you at least do it by stealth?" Our point is not to redistribute by stealth; we want everybody to be better off. We want social justice and economic efficiency. We do not have a policy that is pursuing envy, but we do have one that is pursuing prosperity and involvement for all.

Y

Poverty also breeds racisim. This makes it difficult for non white people to be active in civic and political life as they face an additional barrier.

From personal experience, I have found the current law, the Commission for Racial Equality and Race Equality Councils perfectly useless.

Is there anything in the Equality Bill that could give me hope?

Submitted by Yasmin Zalzala

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

May I interrupt the Minister before he leaves targets? Perhaps I am speaking through him to the unit as it continues its work on improving services. One thing that has become clear is the importance attached to a particular Government target—for example, two days to see one's general practitioner. There is a difference in perception between what Ministers would like and what receptionists and people in surgeries believe. That is one example, but the culture exists elsewhere.

To achieve the objectives that the Minister and the Government want to achieve, that perception must change so that people do not feel that if they are responsive to a patient or someone looking for a service, they are hurting themselves, their unit or their organisation because they will be unable to put a tick in the right box. That culture has seeped into the relationship between front-line-staff and the public, and if that is not the intention, it needs to be cleared up. We talked to people in the public services at front-line level and in different parts of the administration, and that is what they sense. It would be helpful if the unit addressed that.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Order. Members must exercise a self-denying ordinance and ensure that their interventions are brief.

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

Thank you, Mr. Bercow.

I have two points to develop. Another charge against targets, which I have heard the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire make before, is that they distort other things. It is said that if we target waiting time in accident and emergency, we make unintentional management changes elsewhere down the line.

Another charge is that targets can be naive about human behaviour. The other day, it was put to me that a target of dealing with a planning matter in eight weeks would mean that all a planning officer had to do was send everything back before he started looking at it, with awkward questions for the applicant. The target date would then not trigger for three weeks. That belief exists, although I have never known planning officers to do that.

That is why the advantage of targets, which I have tried to explain, must be balanced by a pragmatic consideration. A target owned just by one individual, group or sector in the public sector—one silo or accountable funding line—is not good enough. The target must be shared across the piece and that must be meaningful—money must follow it. That is the key point about a local area agreement.

The hon. Gentleman highlighted some targets and questioned progress. I invited him to do so, so I cannot criticise him for that. Progress on the targets on homelessness—those relating to rough sleeping and the bed and breakfasts—has been good. Increases in the broader definition of homelessness that have taken place in some parts of the country are not, in that context, a consequence of the target. The success on the targets I mentioned came about because we were able to share them across different agencies.

Similarly, total absences for truancy have decreased for four years, to a record low of 6.45 per cent., but people would not know that from the press coverage, which highlighted a statistical rather than a policy debate. That target in reducing truancy in part comes about because it is shared by the police, schools, local education authorities, the health service and other local authority services.

Educational attainment has improved. We all know that that is not just a function of teaching; it is a function of lifestyle, of preparedness and of family stability. I will address that important point. We believe that getting the balance right in terms of targets is the right approach. A Lancashire colloquial way of putting that is, "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water." I use that expression because it makes it more difficult for the hon. Gentleman to disagree with me.

I like the point about the think-tank and the campaigning group. I like to think of the SEU as being, certainly not arm's length, but alongside, although within, government. It is not, and should not, be seen in the same way that a traditional section of a Department is seen. It has to be open with its partners in respect of gathering research and sharing information. It has to be free to come up with ideas. It has to be able to publish reports that are critical, and if the Government are not strong enough or do not have broad enough shoulders to accept the consequences of that, we should not be paying taxpayers' money for it. Therefore, I like the concept put forward by the hon. Gentleman.

There was a delicious irony in me being passed a note to answer the question whether the unit is autonomous. It is autonomous in this sense: it has put proposals to Ministers and, interestingly, its work programme has to be signed off by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister. That is not something we keep within the Department; it is cleared at the highest level of government.

Work that has been done on issues such as mental health and excluded older people has come from work done within the unit—from the evidence it has collected on other projects. That is a great strength of the unit, but the Government must ensure that it meets the challenge the hon. Gentleman has set: do its recommendations genuinely get taken up? I will be straightforward—as ever, I hope—by saying that part of my purpose in initiating this debate is to put on the record the strategies of the SEU, because I want its recommendations to be taken seriously.

I could mention many examples in that regard. I will not labour the point, but I want to highlight some recent comments by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills on the drivers of social mobility and educational attainment:

"Our ambition must be to reduce the negative impact that a disadvantaged social background may have on educational attainment at all stages, particularly the early years and school years."

That is a core part of the policy of the Department for Education and Skills, and it is driven and informed by the work of the unit.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Prime Minister is personally involved. As I have said, the SEU work programme is signed off by the Prime Minister. Indeed, he is heavily involved in shaping our plans for the roll-out of the current work programme. In September 2004, he chaired the "poverty breakfast" with the stakeholders—am I allowed to use that word, Mr. Bercow?

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I am very grateful. These words sneak into the language, do they not?

The Prime Minister personally launched the "Breaking the Cycle" report, and the SEU's current work programme was conducted like a seminar or summit, with the Prime Minister's involvement. Therefore, I am delighted to be able to answer the hon. Gentleman's question in the affirmative.

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

It seems that we cannot win in that regard.

The hon. Gentleman concluded his thoughtful speech by making some suggestions for the future. I shall certainly respond to his requests. I am particularly interested in his third point, because he said something important. It is clear to us all, and from the evidence and analysis provided by the social exclusion unit, that stability in a child's life is a key driver. I wish to share with hon. Members the early findings of the asset inequality report. The most important point is the understanding that the accumulation of an asset—whether financial or personal, or an examination—is a key driver in establishing acceptable and stabilising behaviour. I do not wish to sound patronising, but every parent and schoolteacher knows that.

Let us examine the hon. Gentleman's point about the importance of the male role model in particular. Government policy is, of course, not intended to discriminate against marriage or family. Sometimes, I have to acknowledge that, unintentionally, it may seem to do so and, on occasion, probably does. The policy is for a stable and normal environment for children and young people with difficult lives.

I thank you, Mr. Bercow, for your chairmanship, as well as hon. Gentlemen for taking part in the debate and taking the work of the social exclusion unit so seriously. I give a commitment to do my best to promote its work and recommendations across government and the public services.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Four o'clock.