A Future Without Poverty – Breaking Barriers: How do we tackle social exclusion?
Seema Malhotra MP, shadow minister for preventing violence against women and girls
Hannah Pearce, head of public affairs, Age UK
Cllr Harry Phibbs, Hammersmith and Fulham council
Chair: Daisy-Rose Srblin, research fellow, Fabian Society
Taking up one of the themes of the morning, this session looked at the relational aspects of poverty, exclusion and the shortage of opportunity. Among the questions to explore Daisy-Rose Srblin are how can tackling social exclusion help create a good society? Is loneliness associated with poverty? If so, how? What are the barriers to engagement with public services for the excluded and how can they be overcome?
The risk of social exclusion increases with age, said Hannah Pearce, and is higher for those from black and minority ethnic communities. Among these, particularly at-risk groups were the over 80s, the recently bereaved, those in unfit housing and those with impaired ability to make decisions. Poverty was often a key factor in this exclusion, but it wasn’t the only one. Two people on similar incomes but in different circumstances could well have very different experiences. If you were fit, had family close by and didn’t depend on public transport, you were less likely to be excluded than someone who had a disabling health condition, who had no family close by and did not have ready access to shops and services. Digital connectivity and transport were both important to social inclusion and both problematic for old people.
Exclusion usually operates in more than one way, in the experience of Seema Malhotra. Family, school and workplace were all important arenas and problems that occurred in one might well affect another. Abuse at home often affects both the cerebral and emotional development of children. They do not develop the skills to be sensitive and affectionate parents and the problem can be perpetuated, with their children getting into trouble in the school system. The key, in this case, is to work with children in difficulties at school and, through that, reach the families and enable the parents to talk about their problems. A joined-up approach was therefore required to tackle exclusion whose real causes were not always immediately apparent.
One of the main culprits of social exclusion, believed Harry Phibbs. Residents were often isolated and fearful. He saw tower blocks as a particular culprit (contrary to popular belief, he said, the number of these was rising slightly, not falling). A new approach to social housing was needed, with more affordable accommodation made available and tower blocks replaced by individual, street-level houses which would create a greater sense of security and greater social interaction. He would also like to see the troubled families programme expanded and a huge increase in the number of credit unions, with incentives to invest in them in the form of tax breaks.
Aloofness of public services
In the discussion that followed, the theme of disengagement once more arose. Local authorities often seemed inaccessible and uncaring. One of the audience mentioned a ‘deprivation industry’ which had a vested interest in not solving the problem. Harry Phibbs and Seema Malhotra both agreed that the bureaucracy of public services could be a problem. Harry Phibbs talked about an ‘aristocracy of stakeholders before whom bureaucrats bowed down’ while the rest were ignored. Seema Malhotra saw the role of politicians as being to intervene to ensure that decisions were not made purely on the basis of group interest – not because of any ill intent, she stressed, but simply because it is ‘easier to value what you know than what you don’t.’ Harry Phibbs also called on local authorities to ‘do no harm.’ Corner shops and local pubs often faced high business rates and were forced to close, yet they often acted as centres of community life.
One of the things that local authorities could do was to build more ‘lifetime’ homes, said Hannah Pearce, homes which would be readily adaptable to people’s changing circumstances and needs – with, for instance, doorways that were wide enough to admit a wheelchair – so that people could stay in them and in their neighbourhoods longer. Similarly, they could help create age-friendly neighbourhoods with things like accessible toilets and amenities so that old people wouldn’t worry about going out.
There was general agreement that the voluntary and community sector, too, could and should play a bigger role in running local services. Why shouldn’t resources for some services be delegated to local community level and people trusted to make their own arrangements with what was their own money? There were untapped skills at local level. One of the audience, from a community food project in Lewisham, cited the project as a model of an asset-based project for poor and deprived local people. Most of the volunteers are or have been users of the amenity. There were many ideas, but these still needed resources to put them into practice. It wasn’t just a matter of neighbourhood resources but of resourcing the neighbourhood.
There remained the problem, noted one participant of reaching the severely excluded. Almost by definition, they are unlikely to approach others, individuals or agencies. The only way for service providers to be proactive, to go round knocking on doors. Harry Phibbs said he would like to see officers of local authority and voluntary providers looking on this as part of their job, especially when they were new in post. Seema Malhotra noted the importance of SureStart in reaching the hard-to-reach. In the end, she concluded, people are our biggest asset so you had ‘to work where people are.’