Campaign on poverty condemned as `vague'

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT admitted yesterday that poverty was still a "scar" on Tony Blair's "New Britain" and promised the most sustained attack on the problem for 50 years.

But ministers provoked controversy by saying poverty was not simply about income, and their 32 targets to combat social exclusion were criticised as too vague. Anti-poverty groups claimed the targets were announced to deflect attention from the findings of the first annual "poverty audit" by the Department of Social Security.

This revealed that 2.7 million children and 5 million adults live in persistent poverty, with more than one in three children and one in five adults in households with below half average earnings of pounds 264 a week. Nearly one in five working age households has no one in employment. The proportion of children living in low income households has risen threefold since 1979.

"Too many [children] suffer from the linked problems of poor health, poor housing and unsafe environments," said the 168-page report. "Too often, deprivation affects children's long-term prospects."

The document, "Opportunity for All", appeared to contradict Andrew Smith, the Employment Minister, who last week said the North-South jobs divide was a myth. It said: "The distribution of employment opportunities has not been shared equally either between households or geographically."

Alistair Darling, the Social Security Secretary, later said the targets were tough but realistic. "We have a mountain to climb but we are determined to climb it."

Mr Darling denied the 32 measures were an attempt to divert attention away from the traditional income benchmark. "Poverty is not just about income," he said. "It is also about poverty of opportunity and expectations, poor housing and poor health."

Many figures in the report compare poverty in 1979 and 1997, the period of Tory rule. Mr Darling said there would soon be statistics for the period since Labour came to power

In a speech in Tower Hamlets, London, Mr Darling said the report marked the most far-reaching campaign against poverty since the war. "For the first time a government is standing up to be counted, setting specific standards against which we will be judged, tackling poverty and its causes, confronting the legacy we inherited," he said.

Frank Field, the former minister for welfare reform, said the Government was being "brave" but called for more specific targets to cut measures of poverty by a certain percentage over a certain timescale. He said Labour's progress should be assessed by the independent National Audit Office.

David Willetts, the Conservative social security spokesman, said: "In setting out so many indicators the Government will be tempted to try to tackle them all at once without solving any of them. Too many indicators, too many conflicting initiatives, too much welfare spending - Labour is failing to tackle poverty and social exclusion."

Leading article, David Aaronovitch, Review, page 3

Steps To Reduce Deprivation

Children And Young People

Education is one of the key ways the Government hopes to take children out of poverty. It aims to reduce the number excluded from school and stop young people playing truant in order to break the link between truancy, crime and poverty.

The report sets targets for improving children's academic qualifications at primary, secondary school and sixth form.

However many teachers believe that forcing schools to teach badly behaved pupils will just make life more difficult for everyone, and placing too much emphasis on exam results will exacerbate the "long tail of under- achievement" and not help those already at the bottom.

Other priorities include: promoting physical, social and emotional development of pre-school children so that they are ready to thrive when they go to school; reducing teenage pregnancy; and targeting housing and workless households to combat family poverty.

TARGETS

To reduce school exclusions and truancy by one third in England by 2002. Some 1 million play truant at least once a year and 12,300 are permanently excluded annually.

To reduce the proportion of children who are born under 2,500 grams, by 5 per cent by the year 2001/2002. Some 47,742 babies are born each year under 2,500 grams, 7.4 per cent of all births.

To half the rate of conception among those under 18 by 2010. Latest figures show that there were 45.7 conceptions per 1,000 women under 18.

To reduce the number of children who live in poor housing. Some 13 per cent of children were reported to be living in houses that were unfit or in substantial need of disrepair.

PEOPLE OF WORKING AGE

Encouraging parents to go out to work is another Government aim to help eradicate child poverty.

Huge economic and social changes over the last 50 years have reduced the need for unskilled labour and the changing nature of employment has left many unable to work.

The government is seeking to get more people back to work, by making work pay, launching employment zones to improve opportunities and encouraging life-long learning.

For people with disabilities, lone parents, ethnic minorities and those over 50, the Government has launched initiatives to combat the barriers these people experience. One key priority is to reduce the number of people on low incomes.

But low pay specialists said the report was disappointing because there were no improvement targets or a new definition for `low income'. Robert Bullard, director of the West Midlands Low Pay Unit, said the minimum wage of pounds 3.60 was not enough to reduce the number of those on a low income.

To reduce the proportion of people on low incomes. Latest figures show 21 per cent of adults had a low income.

To reduce the total number of lone parents on income support by 10 per cent by 2002 and the number on income support for more than five years by 7 per cent.

To increase employment rates of disadvantaged groups. In 1997, only 31 per cent of sick and disabled people, 45 per cent of lone parents, 57 per cent of ethnic minorities and 64 per cent of over 50s were employed.

To reduce the proportion of adults over 16 who smoke by 26 per cent in 2005 and 24 per cent in 2010.

OLDER PEOPLE

The Government aims to ensure that more of tomorrow's pensioners can retire on a decent income by introducing new stakeholder pension schemes. They are intended to offer a better deal for middle-income earners by providing a safe and flexible way to save. A new state second pension is designed to improve retirement for low earners, carers and the disabled.

Age Concern said that it was disappointed by pensioners income relying on means tested benefits. Experts also believe that the Government has failed to include a measure to improve older people's access to health care. A recent survey showed that over 2m people over the age of 65 have been refused treatment by the NHS.

TARGETS

To increase the number of pensioners who retire on a decent income. In 1995/96, 41 per cent lived on 60 per cent of the national average income.

To reduce the number of older people who cannot afford to heat their homes. In 1996, 36 per cent of single pensioner households and 13 per cent of couple pensioner households in England experienced fuel poverty.

To improve opportunities for older people to live secure, and active lives. 10 per cent of people aged 60 or over say their lives are greatly affected by the fear of crime.

To reduce the proportion of households with a least one person aged 75 or over living in poor housing. In 1996, 20 per cent of households with an adult aged over 75 lived in poor housing.

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