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24 Jul 2002 : Column 290WH

Social Exclusion

12.30 pm

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly): Last week, in this Chamber, there was an excellent Government debate on poverty. The Government set out clearly and without complacency the progress that they have made over the past few years in their concerted fight against poverty. We heard how pensioner poverty was being successfully addressed, about the advances in the struggle against child poverty, what was being done with regard to ethnic minorities, and how job creation was a central part of the Government's policy to tackle social exclusion.

Important contributions were made; several hon. Members cited their experiences in their constituencies. The thrust of the comments reinforced, supported and extended what the Government are doing. However, one issue that was not touched upon is the relationship between poverty, participation and power, and that is what I will focus on today.

At the end of 2000, a 63-page report entitled "Listen hear; the right to be heard" was published. It was the result of the work of 12 commissioners, who put their heads together, debated, argued and took evidence from around the country. They addressed the causes of social exclusion and poverty, and they examined what had been done to address them in the past; but they also mapped out some things that might be considered in the future.

The commissioners were drawn from various aspects of public life, and, more importantly, several of them had had direct experience of poverty. It was my privilege to be one of those public life commissioners, and I found the work enlightening and rewarding. I like to think that it has had some influence on what I am now doing as a Member of Parliament.

The inspiration and support for the project came from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the membership organisations of the UK Coalition against Poverty. The report is hard hitting; it does not mince its words. It is clear about what it sees, and it is forceful in its recommendations. When I and the other commissioners were thinking about how to prepare the report, we took as our starting point the principle that genuine participation is a basic human right. We all held the view that poverty is compounded by powerlessness and exclusion, and we strongly believed that if we were going to get policies that address poverty and social exclusion, the people who actually experience those things should be properly consulted.

Many people who experience poverty do not vote or participate in consultation processes: many such people are cynical about politicians and decision-making processes, and they deliberately absent themselves from engaging in democratic structures that could, in theory, make an improvement to their lives. One question that the commission asked is: why is that the case? It examined the many complex issues that contribute to the situation. It found that frequently people who experience poverty are not respected. They are often looked down upon and are patronised by others in society, particularly decision makers. Those who have power all too often dismiss people who are experiencing poverty. We have all heard the names—scroungers, hangers-on, lazy and so forth. That has a profound and

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negative effect on those in poverty—those at the sharp end. That is shown clearly in a quote included in the report. It was made by a speaker at a conference in Glasgow organised by Voices for Change:

It came across clearly in our work that participation is often far from genuine. There is a great deal of tokenism. People often go through the motions of encouraging participation without taking the time to think about what it means and what it could lead to. From the same document, I cite one of the grass-roots commissioners:

Another graphic statement was made by a commissioner in a conference in south-west England organised by Voices for Change:

That, again, illustrates clearly what people think about the tokenism that is sometimes shown on the notion of participation, empowerment, engagement and so on. It is all very well to use buzzwords and in-phrases, but unless they mean something in practice, people quickly become cynical.

As the previous quote suggests, tokenism is not confined to one tier of government or one kind of organisation. In the Benefits Agency, for example, the commission found that people were frequently treated with condescension and lack of understanding about the problems that they face. Someone told the commission:

People in poverty face such experiences day in, day out. For others in society, such a situation—where the solution is apparently easy and straightforward—would not arise. However, for many people, for whom we need to ensure full participation in our democracy, such problems are monumental.

Privatised utilities can also show a lack of sympathy and sometimes pursue policies that penalise the poor. In local government, there is frequently evidence of top-downism. The jargon of empowerment is often used to justify decisions that have already been taken in order to pursue certain policies.

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It is not always non-Labour authorities that pursue such insensitivity and top-downism. In many traditional Labour areas, such as the south Wales valleys, there is much of the "I know best" approach to the local community. Although a councillor might be elected on only a very low turnout, the councillor—usually an elderly man who is, of course, white—considers that he always knows best what people want on whatever issue because he has the support of the electorate. Sadly, that is not the case.

The problem sometimes continues even after a change in the political control of local authorities. I cite the example of Rhondda Cynon Taff in south Wales. The Labour party lost control of that authority to Plaid Cymru. However, exactly the same policies, attitudes and prejudices exist in the authority as when it was under Labour control. That applies not only to elected councillors, but to professional staff in local authorities. That raises the question of how local officers are trained and what contact they have with the communities that they are supposed to serve.

The commission also found that poverty is not always geographically confined. Many people, such as the elderly, disabled people, young people, women and asylum seekers, do not feel part of traditionally defined communities. Nevertheless, they experience exclusion and poverty in different ways. Also, the loudest voices in communities are not always the most representative. Often those who suffer in silence should be those who are most keenly listened to. However, the situation is not all bad—positive examples can be given, and I shall talk about some of those in a moment.

The commission also discovered that people face personal and practical barriers to empowerment. There is a lack of basic skills in many areas. There is a notion that people could speak up for themselves if they had the willpower to do so—but that is unfair, because they are a product of their circumstances. Women experience the problem that a lack of child care frequently prevents their participation. There is a lack of so-called tools of the trade because people in poverty seldom have faxes, computers and in some cases, even telephones. They have a lack of money, which impairs real participation.

Some aspects of our social security regulations dampen enthusiasm for volunteering. The commission examined positive examples from countries such as Australia and the Netherlands in which volunteering and community work is recognised as legitimate engagement with the community for which remuneration can be received from the state.

I do not intend to sound negative. Real problems prevent the popular participation that many of us want, but we can cite positive examples of good practice. Several members of the commission visited Caia park estate in Wrexham and we saw an excellent community project based on recycling. Another project provided fruit, vegetables and other healthy food for people who did not have a large income. Members of the commission visited the Pembroke street estate management board in Plymouth and we were extremely heartened to see the tremendous enthusiasm there. We noted that a modest residents' group had developed so that residents were in a genuine partnership with the local authority to help to run their estate.

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We learned that, in Hull, the Preston road residents committee was deeply involved in putting together a "new deal for communities" scheme, supported with finance from central government. In Wales, we learned how the communities first project was beginning to breathe new life into communities that have experienced deprivation for generations. One of the most positive meetings that we had was with Edwina Hart, the Assembly Member and Welsh Government member with responsibility for finance. She explained to us how the communities first project would transform some of the communities in Wales. That is now happening. I shall give an example from my constituency. A small estate called Graig y Rhacca was renowned for its high level of unemployment and its deprivation, but the community is now coming together. Through partnership, the initiative is beginning to create a new kind of ethos and optimism.

Another thing that the commission found to be true is that central government are making significant strides on that agenda. Much has been done with regard to consultation with children and young people. The neighbourhood renewal unit has set up a community forum and provides advisors on community regeneration schemes and brings together people who have experienced poverty in their communities. Several commission meetings have been held with people who have been active with voluntary organisations and with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Treasury civil servants, the Secretary of State for Wales, and Home Office civil servants.

The all-party poverty group is very active. The Cabinet Office has prepared a so-called tool kit to advise on best practice and how to bring about inclusive consultation. The social exclusion unit continues to examine the issue, and is making powerful recommendations on best practice in myriad subject areas. There is, however, room for improvement. The Department for Work and Pensions received some criticism from the European Commission on the action plan that it put forward last year, but lessons are being learned.

Poverty and social exclusion are the crucial social issues of our time, but so too is ensuring that people who experience them are involved in our decision-making processes. The report points the way forward in many respects. I know full well that the Government have given it active consideration. I hope that they continue to do so, and I hope that they give real consideration to its central recommendation, which is that a series of task forces be established, both for devolved Administrations and central government, to consider how the agenda could be purposefully pursued.

12.47 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): I shall be brief, because I know that the Minister needs time to reply. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) on securing the debate, because the issues of poverty and exclusion are very important. I am glad that he has highlighted the issue of getting people to participate.

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In particular, it is important that children and young people participate in decision making that will affect their lives and help to lift them out of poverty. In Wales, there are some outstanding examples of how children and young people have participated in a culture that I believe is beginning to grow throughout the United Kingdom. I should like to mention the information centre in Swansea, which the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs visited yesterday. Young people decided what they wanted from it and where it should be. They designed the place and appointed the staff. The result is an information centre that is completely geared to young people's needs. Similar examples are to be found throughout Wales.

The other example that I should like to use is that of the Children's Commissioner for Wales. That is a unique appointment, in which young people were involved. Those are examples of how we can tackle poverty and exclusion by involving people from the beginning of their lives in the decision-making. I add that to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly.

12.49 pm

The Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women (Mrs. Barbara Roche) : Thank you, Mr. Amess. I am delighted to reply to this extremely important debate under your chairmanship.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) on securing the debate. It may be the last day on which the House meets before the summer recess, but my hon. Friend could not have picked a more important subject for us to consider. He is an expert in this area; he was a commissioner of the "Listen hear" report by the UK Coalition against Poverty, about which he spoke so eloquently. The report is an extremely useful contribution to the debate on poverty and social exclusion and to our consultation.

The social exclusion unit was set up in 1997 to provide joined-up solutions to the problems of social exclusion. We all agree that we cannot place social exclusion in any one category. We must confront problems of income, employment, health, disability, education and skills, housing and access. I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words about the unit. The key to its success is listening to people. We cannot understand the problems faced by people sleeping rough on our streets, or the problems that looked-after children and children in care have with educational attainment, unless we talk to them. We cannot produce a report on ex-offenders unless we talk to prison governors, prison officers and prisoners. All that is central to the way in which the unit works. Moira Wallace, the first director of the unit, gave evidence to the commission and is quoted in the "Listen Hear" report.

The National Assembly for Wales has launched communities first—a long-term programme to tackle poverty and social disadvantage locally, which I welcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly rightly talked about wards in his constituency that are extremely deprived. However, there are also growing

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examples in his constituency of good community projects. He referred to a successful sure start health outreach team that has new shop-front premises. It has become clear that projects such as sure start have huge name recognition. Sure start has become successful because people have a sense of ownership and are consulted about what they want. Local parents have a say, which is important.

On the subject of participation, the "Listen hear" report makes a point about the need for serious commitment to reaching out to diverse or hard-to-reach groups. It also makes the point that that should be part of a continuing dialogue, not a one-off exercise. We should not just dip in and then leave, but should keep the dialogue going, which we are committed to doing. The unit understands that there is a need to do more than consult the same people—the usual suspects—time and again. I am not sure if my hon. Friend used that phrase, but he was being too kind.

In 1998, we formed the 18 policy action groups to develop policy for the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal. That led to important initiatives such as the neighbourhood renewal unit, to which my hon. Friend referred. Of the 596 recommendations that emerged from the policy action team reports, 86 per cent. were adopted as Government policy, which is significant.

My hon. Friend was right to talk about the Cabinet Office strategy unit's public involvement framework to help policy makers at all levels to involve the public more in decision making and thus improve policy design. As he and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) said, that is in a sense a new innovation for Government. If consultation is to be purposeful and meaningful, it is quite difficult to carry out and we have to work quite hard at it, but we have some good examples.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North that involving children and young people is essential, but that is difficult to do, which is why the children and young people's unit launched "Learning to Listen". That document sets out the core principles that will apply across Government for the involvement of young people in policy making. It commits Departments to developing plans to provide more opportunities for children and young people to get involved in the planning, delivery and evaluation of Government policies and services.

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In 1998, we launched an initiative on better government for older people, building a unique partnership with similar objectives. From September, all secondary schools will teach citizenship as part of the national curriculum, another important recommendation in the "Listen hear" report.

One major recommendation in the report is the one outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly, which is that the Government and the devolved Administrations should set up a taskforce of people with direct experience of poverty to draw up recommendations. That would ensure that such people could participate in the decision-making processes that affect their lives. I understand why the recommendation was made, but I am not convinced that such a standing committee would be the best solution at UK level, partly because we are talking about a wide range of issues that affect practically every Department. That might make a single consultative structure a little unwieldy, but there are ways in which a more tailored approach could benefit us. I am certainly committed to working with my hon. Friends and other hon. Members to see how we can take the matter forward.

As part of the European Union's support for tackling poverty and social exclusion, we shall shortly begin work on our 2003 national action plan for social inclusion. Participation at all levels will be essential to ensure that the plan reflects the full range of effective action that is needed to tackle the problem throughout the UK, so we shall consult widely. We also want to use that opportunity as a focus for a national campaign against social exclusion, a campaign that we want to be as participative as possible. It is important that we go out and talk about the issue, and that we are responsive. A flexible, tailored approach will produce the best results for all concerned.

I agree with my hon. Friend that although a lot has been done, there is a lot to do. We can improve our practices, and I will always be interested in seeing how we can do that. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is also engaged in issues of participation. Hon. Members will remember that he met the all-party parliamentary group on poverty earlier this year, when these issues were discussed in detail.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly has raised a vital subject. We need to take forward the important issues and find new and creative ways to work on innovation. I am committed to doing so and thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate.

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