13 Jan 2007

Social exclusion debate - more "lies", statistics and "earache" for MPs

The Guardian 'Yesterday in Parliament' report included a reference to the debate in the House of Commons on social exclusion on 11th January:

"Inequality - The government and the opposition clashed over levels of inequality with Tories claiming Labour's policy was having "little impact" on the problem. Both parties cited figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies with Tory spokesman Oliver Heald arguing that Labour had not halted the rise in inequality of income. Social exclusion minister Hilary Armstrong said the IFS called Labour's record a "remarkable achievement" although she later conceded it also said inequality had been "largely unchanged" under Labour."

Maybe the IFS thinks it is a "remarkable achievement" that under Labour income inequality has not got worse.

The debate lasted from 12.30 to 6pm. 17 Labour members, 8 Conservatives, 1 Liberal Democrat and 1 Plaid Cymru member spoke or intervened. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab) spoke movingly when he described his constituency:

"Fifty-eight per cent. of youngsters are born out of wedlock. I make no moral judgment about that, but it is a structural phenomenon that needs to be addressed. One in seven young people who go to secondary school cannot read the first lesson that is put in front of them. My constituency sends the lowest number of youngsters to university. These and many other statistics underline why it is vital that social exclusion—as someone said, why don’t we call it social inclusion?—is paramount on the Government’s agenda.

For me, the key thing is that we start to tackle causes rather than merely chase the consequences. That is where the debate has moved on to. We have seen today from the Front Benches—all parties have been responsible—that we chase after the difficulties and try to mitigate them, because that is what gets into the newspapers and what we get earache about. But we should take our political responsibilities even more seriously and work back to find out how we can prevent things from happening in the first place. It is evident now that the Government are addressing the problems in that way."

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab) was in no mood to humour the House when she said:

"I am going to break the sort of consensus we have seen in the House today—I would like to vent my spleen about the report on social justice produced by the Tory party........"

The Member responsible, Iain Duncan Smith, was not present. Maybe he had been warned of Mrs Engel's spleen. Not for her was it a matter of concern that 58% of Mr Allen's youngsters in Nottingham are born out of wedlock.

"..... to suggest that the breakdown of marriages is the reason why we have social exclusion in our society is not only wrong but deeply offensive ........ " she railed, even though Graham Allen was saying:

"........ it is a structural phenomenon that needs to be addressed........ For me, the key thing is that we start to tackle causes rather than merely chase the consequences."

Oliver Heald (Conservative Member of Parliament for Hertfordshire North East, Shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster) provided some clues as to how MPs might "start to tackle causes rather than merely chase the consequences", ending his speech with:

"We also need to trust local government, and to accept that civil servants and Ministers in Whitehall might not have all the answers. We need to move away from thinking that everything is the responsibility of the state, and towards a new spirit of social responsibility in which we work together to empower local people and local communities. We should not be so arrogant as to believe that politicians have all the answers. Our approach should not be solely about what the Government can do. It should be about what people can do, and what society can do, because we are all in this together."

Did he mention how "to empower local people and local communities", possibly by persuading the ONS to publish local figures and an index about social and domestic cohesion? I am afraid not. It seems the Conservative leadership can't or won't make this connection.

In response to such a suggestion from Andrew Selous MP in the debate on the Statistics and Registration Bill [8th January], John Healey said:

"I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will wish to elaborate on that point in the debate on social exclusion that will take place on Thursday........ I am sure that the point that the hon. Gentleman has made—and which he might develop in Thursday's debate—will be taken into account by the statistics board when it comes to discharge its functions."

Sadly, no Conservative MP - let alone a member of the shadow cabinet - was willing to do this. But as T.S. Eliot wrote in both the Four Quartets and in Murder in the Cathedral, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality".

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