Birmingham offers a modern definition of social injustice: Rosie Waterhouse reports on progress in the search for a 'new Beveridge'

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The Independent Online
WHEN they have defined it, the great, the good and the clever from the Social Justice Commission are going to draw a map of social injustice in Britain.

If unemployment and low pay, poverty and homelessness, discrimination and poor education are accepted as being socially unjust, Birmingham will inevitably be on it.

And so on Friday, four members of the Social Justice Commission - set up by the Labour Party but not a front for it, they insist - went in search of social injustice, and solutions to it, in England's second city.

Run under the auspices of the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-of-centre think-tank, the 16-strong commission has set itself a daunting job; to replace Beveridge, to reinvent the welfare state, to 'establish a new vision for Britain'.

Three months after the launch, the commissioners are still asking themselves what the questions are, before they can start on answers. They are focusing on three key areas which have changed dramatically since William Beveridge created his model of a welfare state 50 years ago - the make-up of the family, the world of work and the role of the state, primarily in the system of tax and social security.

In July, the commission will publish its first two consultation papers; one setting out alternative historical views on social justice - from Beveridge to Thatcher; the other attempting to reach a consensus on what aspects of life in Britain are unjust and on which basics should be available to all. Devising policies to achieve this brave new world will come later in the commission's programme and a final report - a manifesto for economic and social change - is due in July next year.

Fact finding on the commission's second meet-the-people visit were Sir Gordon Borrie, its chairman (barrister, former director general of the Office of Fair Trading, former Labour candidate); Patricia Hewitt, his deputy (Neil Kinnock's former policy co-ordinator, now deputy director of IPPR); the Very Rev John Gladwin, Provost of Sheffield and a member of the Church of England's Faith in the City inquiry in 1985; and Steven Webb, an economist from the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

The choice of places to visit reflected most people's ideas of things that are unjust - a community centre on a condemned council estate, an Asian resources centre, an urban regeneration project, a college where single mothers and unemployed men study and train in the hope of jobs, a low pay unit which fights sweat shops, and a hostel for homeless blacks in a ghetto where drugs, unemployment and racism sparked off the Handsworth riots in 1985.

The four commissioners, the commission secretary and a researcher met at the Birmingham Settlement, a community-based help and advice centre in Newtown, a depressing council sprawl with 27 tower blocks, which is a no-go area at night because of muggings and rapes.

Unemployment is 35 per cent, the number of lone parent families is three times the national average - 90 per cent of them headed by women - and two out of three residents have no formal school or college qualification. Most of the units in the shopping centre are boarded up, and since the banks moved out loan sharks prey on the estate, charging extortionate interest rates and using petrol bombs to intimidate defaulters.

And yet the workers and volunteers at the Birmingham Settlement are optimistic and energetic, trying to combat the grinding poverty with practical help - debt counselling, community caring, skills building and job hunting. They run a nursery for 50 children to help working mothers break out of the poverty trap; a community flat provides a food co-operative, victim support and low interest credit.

Despite passing a few GCSEs at school, Simon Harrison, 20, has never had a job. Instead, he put his energies into the community. He helped to set up the Heart of Newtown residents' group, which gets things done.

He says that for himself and others community work is an antidote to unemployment. 'The Government says unemployed people don't want to work but lots of people involved with voluntary groups are unemployed people, trying to do something useful for the community. It would be a shame if the Government forced them into work like planting trees on motorways. It would be detrimental to the community.'

More positive thinking was apparent at Dartmouth High School, commissioner Steven Webb's old school in Wilderness Lane, Great Barr. Despite its address, the school is in a tidy, relatively prosperous-looking suburb.

The sixth form debate was lively. Asked how many thought society was fair, not one hand went up. The chief causes? Class, sex and race discrimination. The reasons? 'The civil servants are all from Eton and Harrow, the politicians from Oxford and Cambridge,' the radical youth with short cropped red hair said. The solutions? 'We are the next generation,' he said. 'We can change it'.

At Heartlands Urban Development Corporation leaders of various community groups assembled to tell the commission how they were revitalising an industrial wasteland, re-building crumbling 1960s housing estates and restoring confidence.

More positive development has been created out of the ruins of the 1985 riots at the Handsworth Single Homeless Housing Association. Based at a recently built hostel at the corner of Lozells Road, where the riots were sparked, the association helps mainly Afro-Caribbeans get homes, benefits and occasionally, work.

Asked by Sir Gordon how more social justice could be achieved, Dave Butchere, a community leader who runs the association, said: 'What is needed is to create something that young blacks and other poor people round here can see is directly beneficial to them and giving them some sort of dignity.'

Another success story was created at nearby Handsworth College, which has grown from 1,200 students after the riots to 12,000 full and part-time 'clients', mostly lone mothers and unemployed men and women from the local area.

'You can invent a national purpose, a sense of mission and identity,' the principal, Chris Webb, said. Repeating the college catchphrase, which may well be adopted by the commission, he added: 'One of our mantras is we serve the top 100 per cent of our community.'

(Photograph omitted)