Sunday, 11 June 2006

Social Exclusion and Poverty: Britain Sending Mixed Signals

At first glance, the agenda of Britain's social exclusion minister, Hilary Armstrong, sounds impressive. It gives the impression that the British government has a genuine interest in enabling the poor to lift themselves out of poverty.

Armstrong has a cabinet-level responsibility for early identification of at-risk children and families, improving the outcomes of children in care, tackling teenage pregnancies, partnership work with other agencies and taskforces in dealing with problem families and for finding routes into employment for those with mental health problems. All of this is in an effort to reduce poverty as well as the social exclusion these groups experience.

Sue Stirling, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) North, welcomed the creation of the social exclusion cabinet post and Armstrong's appointment as minister responsible for leading cross-departmental work on tackling social exclusion. She said that the IPPR anticipated the most challenging issues Armstrong will face would be to improve the life chances of looked after children and those with mental health problems, and to expand action for people who live in the very poorest areas and who are furthest removed from decent jobs.

"Increasing accountability and developing the right incentives across all departments will be the key, instead of looking for new interventions or eye catching initiatives," she said.

She emphasised that there was need to find policy solutions that work at a local and regional level.

"On the ground, it is not just a matter of delivering ministerial priorities but reconfiguring services to meet local need. We should be brave enough to support radical local solutions to entrenched problems. Otherwise the casualties will keep coming," Sue Stirling said.

In the United Kingdom, groups that are particularly vulnerable to social exclusion include children and young people, families in no-work households, children and young people who no longer attend school, those who may be additionally disadvantaged by racism and other forms of discrimination, as well as asylum seekers, refugees and illegal/irregular immigrants.

The Open University publication, "Care and Communities" (2003), observes that current efforts to reverse the effects of social exclusion on communities are currently being driven by government through its Social Exclusion Unit and other related national, community-based campaigns like Sure Start and Barnados as well as by communities themselves through grassroots initiatives like the St Matthew Project and the Longberton Lads.

In its 2004 report, "Breaking the Cycle: Taking stock of progress and priorities for the future," the Social Exclusion Unit says since 1997 major initiatives have been implemented to: tackle key economic causes of social exclusion such as unemployment and poverty, particularly child and pensioner poverty; promote equal opportunities for all; support communities, particularly in deprived areas; reintegrate some of those who have experienced more extreme forms of social exclusion, like rough sleeping; and to improve access to advice and services.

It maintains that these policies have resulted in significant progress particularly in tackling poverty and it lists the following as some of the achievements that have come out of the policies: a reduction in child poverty; large-scale expansion of nursery education and childcare services; there are now 1.85 million more people in work than in 1997 and there have been faster than average increases in employment among disadvantaged groups; educational attainment has risen in all key stages; the number of homeless people sleeping rough has fallen by 70 percent; there has been a reduction in crime and the fear of crime, including among older people; and there are early signs that the gap between the most deprived local authority areas and the rest of the country is narrowing on some indicators such as rates of unemployment, educational attainment, and teenage conceptions.

However, in an article that appeared in The Guardian in 2002, researcher Peter Kenway says research by the New Policy Institute think tank and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests that in the UK employment alone does not guarantee an escape from poverty and that while the breadth of poverty was declining, there was no reduction in the depth of poverty.

Kenway analysed 1996/7 and 2001/2 household incomes and said: "The government's anti-poverty strategy rests on the idea that employment should be the way out of poverty for all those who can work.

"These figures show that, for millions, work is not yet providing an escape from poverty."

In 2005, researchers Guy Palmer, Jane Carr and Peter Kenway found that despite the importance of employment in bringing poverty down, employment, even with the help of tax credits, does not guarantee an income above the poverty line and they pointed out that 50 percent of children in poverty are living in households where someone is doing paid work, most of them in two adult rather than one adult families.

They argue that other policies will be needed that will ensure higher wages and higher out of work benefits. They also suggest that the government could also exercise more control over the level of council tax and rents in the social housing sector.

Another major shortcoming of the government's current efforts to combat social exclusion can be found in its treatment of asylum seekers. In passing laws that prohibit asylum seekers from working, accessing legal representation, education and primary health care, the British government is in effect legislating for the social exclusion of asylum seekers and the perpetuation of prejudice and discrimination against them.

The Social Exclusion Unit in its 2004 report, for example, identifies asylum seekers and refugees as falling in one of three broad and overlapping groups of people for whom policies consistently seem less effective.

"Poverty and Asylum in the UK," a joint study by Oxfam and the Refugee Council (2002) showed how the asylum system is institutionalising poverty among asylum seekers. The report revealed that 85 percent of the asylum seekers in the UK experience hunger, 95 percent cannot afford to buy clothes or shoes and 80 percent are not able to maintain good health.

Asylum seekers receive benefits below the poverty line. A single adult receives 37.77 pounds per week in addition to accommodation and utilities -- this is around 30 percent below the basic level of income support for a UK citizen, which is generally considered as the minimum level of income necessary to maintain an acceptable standard of living (Oxfam, 2005). Those with additional needs (such as pregnant women, families with young children, people with disabilities, victims of torture and the elderly) are also not entitled to additional special needs provision or "passported" benefits on the same level as UK citizens.

In addition to this, Section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act of 2004 removes or significantly restricts the welfare entitlements of families who have reached the end of the asylum process and who have "failed to take reasonable steps" to leave the UK.

In "The End of The Road: The impact on families of Section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act 2004," Nancy Kelley and Lise Meldgaard (2005) reveal that a recent investigation by Barnado's and the Refugee Children's Consortium found that the removal of basic support from families who have reached the end of the asylum process and have had their applications turned down is leaving refugee families destitute.

"Refugee children often come to this country traumatised by what they have seen. Unfortunately arrival in the UK rarely marks the beginning of a safe and comfortable life; indeed they are likely to experience continued stress, hunger, poor health and extreme poverty. Whatever the intention of Section 9, it is being implemented in a way that runs the risk of causing life long damage to children and families who are already some of the most vulnerable people in society," Kelley and Melgaard said.

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu and other church leaders, in a letter published in The Times (December 3 2005) argue that it is inhumane and unacceptable that asylum seekers are being made destitute by government policies.

They maintain: "All those within our borders -- including people seeking asylum -- should have the opportunity to help themselves and society through paid employment. Where this is not possible, people seeking asylum, whatever their status, should be given the necessary rights to food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services."

The British government's public announcements on its commitment to tackle poverty and social exclusion are impressive but they are being contradicted by legislation such as the Asylum and Immigration Act of 2004 which has the effect of targeting asylum seekers and condemning them to a life of social exclusion, destitution and poverty.

This article was first published on OhmyNews international.

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