Leading Article: Social inequalities that impoverish the entire nation

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THE EASING of poverty has always been a central concern of Labour governments, and in this sense Tony Blair's administration marks less of a break with the past than all the hoo-ha about the Third Way suggests. What is striking about the charge of betrayal from the left is how wrong it is. The egalitarian Lord Hattersley last year complained that Labour had removed the cause of greater equality from its treasury of core beliefs, and that the new Government, in hock to the bourgeois interests of Middle England, was ignoring the poor. But the fact that the Government asked Sir Donald Acheson to report on inequalities in health, knowing that his findings would be as grim as those reported in The Independent yesterday, is a testament to a fundamental change in priorities. In 1979, the new Conservative government dismissed the Black report on the same subject, saying its recommendations were too expensive. And it was true that it was a flawed document, calling for increased state benefits for the poor and failing to acknowledge the role of the National Health Service in making us more equal in sickness, if not in wealth. The causes of inequality in health are complex, and largely caused by economic inequality, itself a complicated phenomenon. And, rather than sweeping such difficult issues aside, this Government is at least facing them in a serious and open-minded way.

Mr Blair does not use the language of equality much. It has an old-fashioned flavour which many voters interpret as a request for them to dig into their pockets to pay for someone else's failure to provide for themselves. But Lord Hattersley should keep a cutting from our Sunday sister newspaper a year before the election in which Mr Blair said: "I see huge inequalities in wealth and opportunity and believe they should be corrected."

And it is true that the disparity of wealth disfigures our nation. Sir Donald's forceful description of the misery of life in the urban deserts of shop-less estates where family breakdown and lack of mobility means a poor diet is in the moral tradition of social reformers such as Rowntree and Beveridge. Most of us live in woeful ignorance of the depth of poverty in our midst.

Under the last government, the statistics, too, fell into disuse, the property of a marginalised group of social scientists. They are abstract, but they are important, and by coincidence a whole batch of them were published this week. Yesterday's figures suggested that the gap between rich and poor has closed slightly during the last few years, but that the poorest tenth of the population are still worse off in real terms than in 1979, and inequality has increased greatly since then. What is significant is that Mr Blair quoted last year's figures and said something should be done to change them.

These are not easy trends to reverse, and the danger is that if the economy turns down and unemployment starts to rise (we had the first hint of that this week), inequalities will increase even further. And employment is the best anti-poverty policy, which is why the thrust of the so-called New Deal is right. Of course, Lord Hattersley is justified in criticising the Government for doing nothing to help existing poor pensioners and for cutting - temporarily, as it turned out - benefits for new lone parents. But the electoral reasons for these are understandable and the attempt to deal with poverty simply by increasing state benefits is, rightly, a thing of the past.

The Government's attempt to tackle the multiple causes of people's unequal life chances through the Social Exclusion Unit is more promising. An unflinching look at the blight of poverty should not prompt sentimentality, but a rigorous look at root causes, which lie in the labour market, family breakdown and local geography, rather than the meanness of state handouts.