Blair puts parents in firing line over school attendance

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The Independent Online
Cutting truancy and school exclusion rates were made the "top priorities" as the Government launched its Social Exclusion Unit yesterday. The Prime Minister promised a return to "one nation values" but, as Glenda Cooper and Colin Brown report, Tories also accused him of "wealth distribution on the sly".

Parents could be fined up to pounds 1,000 if they fail to make sure that their children are attending school, the Government warned yesterday as its Social Exclusion Unit was launched by the Prime Minister.

At the launch at Stockwell Park School, in Lambeth, south London, Tony Blair described the unit as one of the "most important new initiatives of this government", which he hoped would achieve "Britain rebuilt as one nation".

"Social exclusion is about income, but it is about more," he said "It is about prospects and networks and life chances. It's a very modern problem and one that is more harmful to the individual, more damaging to self esteem, more corrosive for society as a whole, more likely to be passed down from generation to generation than material poverty."

Mr Blair said that truancy and school exclusions were the "top priority" for the unit as Estelle Morris, the schools minister, said yesterday that education welfare officers "should not be afraid to prosecute [parents] wherever ... appropriate".

Maximum multiple prosecutions could mean fines as high as pounds 1,000 for persistent offenders. "Persuasion works with some families but not all," she said.

David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, also unveiled pounds 200m plans for after-school homework clubs, to help children unable to study at home.

Mr Blair gave the clearest signal so far that his government is seeking to redistribute wealth through the unit. Downing Street said the speech was aimed at "nailing the myth" that the Blair government is not making any difference to ordinary lives in Britain. But Mr Blair's speech was immediately attacked by senior Tories as part of an agenda to achieve wealth redistribution "on the sly".

"This isn't just about compassion," said Mr Blair. "It's also about self-interest. If we can shift resources to preventing [problems], there will be dividend for everyone."

The launch of the unit follows a series of initiatives which will redistribute resources from the rich to the poor. These include the establishment of health action zones, where money will be targeted at deprived areas; the introduction of Individual Savings Accounts with cuts in tax relief for owners of PEPs worth more than pounds 50,000; and a review of the welfare state. The cuts in tax relief on PEPs led to criticism that the Government was attacking the middle classes. The criticism was fuelled yesterday with a report that the middle classes will lose out from a review of spending which is considering taxing child benefit and means-testing prescriptions and state pensions.

Appearing to refer to the growing row over benefit cuts to lone parents, Mr Blair said yesterday: "We are accused of breaking promises we never made ... So let me spell it out again. We can't do it all at once. It will take time."

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