A poster girl for the socially excluded

We all know she is not clever. But at the same time, the tendency is to punish people for their bovine idiocy
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Courtney Cassidy has been creating quite a stir. The pretty young blonde has had the press queuing up for interviews in the past week, and she has made most of the popular papers. She stares winsomely from double page spreads, and her various words of wisdom are chewed over at length.

Courtney Cassidy has been creating quite a stir. The pretty young blonde has had the press queuing up for interviews in the past week, and she has made most of the popular papers. She stares winsomely from double page spreads, and her various words of wisdom are chewed over at length.

She has achieved this media saturation without an agent, a public relations company, a record deal, a film deal or a television deal. She has no rich, famous or well-connected parent or friend or lover. Courtney has negotiated her moment in the limelight without help from anyone. Unless, of course, you count the three boys with whom, at 18, she's already had three children.

Courtney, unfortunately, has become a bit of a poster girl for all the tribulations of the "socially excluded" nation. Her lifestyle has been scrutinised by a plethora of journalists and has been found to be wanting. Seriously wanting. Courtney is, as the phrase of my youth went, "the lowest of the low".

Courtney first became pregnant at 14 and she is now in dispute with the father of her first child. He wants to see the child and contribute to her upbringing. She says she hates him, and that, anyway, if he gives her money she'll lose benefits.

Courtney never knew the full name of the father of her second child, who presumably has no idea that 17-month-old Lennon exists. She presently lives with the unemployed father of her third baby, Layton, in a "sparsely furnished" and "chaotically untidy" council flat. She too is unemployed. The five of them live on benefits of £620 a month, and none of the children are in day care.

Oddly enough, though, grim as her daily grind, her environment and her future may be, the underlying message behind much analysis of Courtney's situation is that she's the victim primarily of over-sympathetic state help. No one comes right out and says it. But it is implicit in much that has been written about her.

Courtney herself, it is reported, is of the same opinion. "You're taught how to put on a condom," Courtney told the Daily Mail in response to questions about the Government's teenage pregnancy strategy, "but that just encourages you to have sex." It is also pointed out, with emphasis, that Courtney gets milk tokens and is not in favour of breastfeeding.

The income that this family of five live on, with benefits and rent approximate to a before-tax salary of maybe £12,000 a year, is described as "enough money to get by comfortably enough". Now that would be a feature worth reading - the one where Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, plus a partner and three dependent children, spend a year getting by "comfortably enough" on £12,000.

Except, of course, that a tired old jibe like that one has no place any more in the rough and tumble of political debate. Yvette Cooper, the Social Exclusion minister, claimed yesterday that the social exclusion unit, launched by the Labour Government in 1997, had "fundamentally changed the terms of the debate".

"Remember when Sir George Young - then a Conservative Cabinet minister - described the homeless as 'the sort of people that you step over on the way to the opera'?" she asked. "Or when Peter Lilley vilified lone parents while presiding over a steady upward march of child poverty? Such statements would be politically unacceptable today, even from front bench Tories." Up to a point, Ms Cooper. The truth is that whoever changed the terms of the debate - and the people who switched to Labour in the 1997 election are chief among them - the old battlelines are gradually beginning to become apparent again.

The Government seems aware of this, even though it as yet is not sure how to combat it. In its latest discussion document, published yesterday, the social exclusion unit spends a lot of time reminding us that the ravages of the Thatcherite era went deep and will be hard to fix, but that despite this marvellous progress has been made.

All this is right and true, although obvious and much repeated. But the document also confesses that some of the work of the unit is already hitting a brick wall, and that it is having trouble working out what particular factors are contributing most to the intractability of many social problems.

The problem of "low participation rates" is summed up in the document thus: "The most in need appear less likely to enter these programmes." Despite her flat and her benefit money, her milk tokens and her smattering of sex education (and according to the Mail, her "television, video and DVD player and ... subscriptions to both satellite and digital TV channels"), Courtney Cassidy is a good example not of somebody who is getting too much help from the state, but someone who is not getting enough.

Ms Cooper, committed and decent social democrat as she is, realises that the problems of social exclusion are passed down through the generations. So it seems significant that Ms Cassidy is herself the daughter of a woman who had four children by four fathers. But only up to a point. This is not, straightforwardly, why Courtney seldom takes her children to a sure start nursery, where they would benefit from a plethora of directions. It is not why she doesn't take advantage of all the courses that would increase her skills and make her employable. She doesn't do these things because she is, unbelievably, content with her appalling lot.

While the right sees this contentment as the consequence of material cosseting, it is not. Instead, it is the consequence of - if you will - spiritual starvation. Ms Cassidy probably thinks she is clever. Various things she says suggest that she considers herself to be pretty sussed. We all know that she's not. We marvel at how she and so many others like her can think such a thing. But at the same time, the tendency once again is to punish people for their bovine idiocy.

This is not happening only on the right. It is again acceptable to talk of "pikey" areas in a disparaging way. This may not be in the same league as Peter Lilley's pronouncements, but it is a shift in a society that 1997 was sympathetic enough to the poor to reject the cruelty of the Tories.

A lot of the problem is still environmental. For those without much in the way of skills, the inducement of a salary is not financially powerful. Growing inequality is a driving component of free-market capitalism, and to an extent the Courtneys of this world are simple, heartless, by-product of a system that goes abroad for brighter, more willing workforces than they.

But a lot of it too is psychological, inside the heads of the socially excluded, entirely bound up in the value they put upon themselves than the value that others confer on them. No physical initiative, no advertising campaign, or tax credit, no sweetener, is going to change that.

They socially excluded themselves, say that one-to-one help from someone with time to listen to them is the factor that helps them most. How that gets delivered to millions like Courtney when it is so much easier to demand the return of the workhouse, is quite a challenge for the gurus of social exclusion. The debate must move on, to recognise that the attitudes of the socially excluded must themselves change, not just the environment that they are in. This recognition must be firm and unflinching, tough but supportive as well. Sadly, there are signs that the tide is already turning away from this. It's far too soon to abandon the fight against social exclusion, and return to the easy option of victim blame.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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