Minister accuses councils over poor white communities

Government bodies and councils have been "blind" to the needs of white working class communities, a Cabinet minister said today.

Communities Secretary John Denham called for a new focus on the needs of poor whites affected by mass immigration.

And he said state agencies charged with tackling inequality and disadvantage should no longer focus solely on ethnic minority groups.

Instead they must "re-assess" their priorities to include poor whites as well.

Mr Denham said areas with high immigration levels felt a sense of "insecurity and unfairness" because of the impact of new arrivals on jobs and public services.

Unless councils act, these could lead to tensions and resentment, he said.

He said: "Many local agencies have a clear and good commitment to tackling racism and race inequality and are right to do so. But on its own this is not enough.

"We can only challenge racism and race inequality effectively as part of a strategy that tackles all forms of inequality and disadvantage.

"This must include poorer white working class communities, as well as disadvantaged minority ethnic communities.

"Agencies which have been blind to these issues, or thought their only remit was to address minority issues, must re-assess the way they work."

His comments are the latest attempt by ministers to address fears over immigration in Labour heartlands, and confront the threat from the British National Party.

They follow a speech by Prime Minister Gordon Brown earlier this month in which he said it was "not racist" to talk about immigration.

Addressing the Trades Union Congress today, Mr Denham pointed to similarities between black and white working class groups.

Poor white boys had more in common with their poor black classmates than with middle class whites, he said.

The inequality agenda should focus on "need" and not "outdated ideology or assumptions which may no longer be true", he said. These could lead to white working class boys being "overlooked".

If Government policies are seen to be unfair, he said, they could be exploited by groups seeking to "drive people apart".

"We have to avoid the perception that some groups are singled out for special treatment," he said.

"When we target help at one group, we cannot allow others to be left behind, or to feel disconnected."

"By ensuring that our policies are both fair, and seen to be fair, we reduce the risk that they can be exploited by others who would distort them to drive people apart.

"And we properly address the complexities of the problem: ensuring that the white working class boy struggling in class gets the support that he needs, just as his black and Asian classmates do."

A spokesman for the Local Government Association, which represents councils, said: "Councils are not blind to the needs of the white working class, but are aware that more can be done to ensure that no section of society feels left behind or disconnected.

"It is vital that all public bodies ensure that the work they are doing to tackle poverty and disadvantage does not lead to an unfounded perception that some groups are being treated differently to others."

John Azah, chair of the British Federation of Racial Equality Councils, said the speech was a "cheap shot".

He accused Mr Denham of "belatedly" recognising the needs of white communities and only now playing to core voters ahead of the general election.

"As organisations we have never had that division between minority communities and whites," he said.

"We have tried to help disenfranchised people from all communities."

"I think it's important for the Government and all parties to work with all communities rather than playing to a certain core voter.

"Rather late in the day, now an election is coming they making belated efforts.

"They are blaming other people like Racial Equality Councils - it's a cheap shot."

Sayeeda Warsi, shadow communities spokesman, said: "Finally, after 12 years an admission of failure by this Labour Government.

"For over a decade the Conservatives have made the case for fairness not special treatment.

"The Government cannot get away from its failure to deal with uncontrolled immigration and its failed policy of state multiculturalism.

"The one sure way of addressing the real alienation many communities in Britain are facing is to call a general election."

A spokesman for the Equality and Human Rights Commission said: "The Commission has always acknowledged that socio-economic status remains the biggest driver of continuing disadvantage and inequality for many people in society.

"In many parts of our nation the colour of disadvantage is white as much as it is black or brown; educational attainment and health outcomes are still shaped strongly by socio-economic status and social class."