Leading Article: Social exclusion - stick to problems we know can be solved

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The season of goodwill is upon us so let's not sniff too suspiciously at the timing of yesterday's announcement about the Social Exclusion Unit in the Cabinet Office. That it came usefully close, for ministers with tender consciences, to tomorrow's vote on lone parent benefits was merely curious coincidence. Let's not, in the same spirit, commiserate with the residents of Lambeth's Stockwell Park estate. All too near Westminster, they have been on the receiving end of political visitations and the promises they bring for years and years - during which time they have continued to suffer from the ministrations of (Labour-controlled till recently) Lambeth Council.

Let's instead welcome the Unit. "Social Exclusion" does (in Professor John Hills' phrase) convey a concern with dynamics, the movement of people out of poverty. There is a serious point here, and a reason why the objectors to Labour's hard line on benefit levels are wrong. A lump of cash, handed out by the state, does not make a poor household part of the mainstream. A job does, as does a child attending school regularly with a reasonable chance of getting some GCSEs. Exclusion also has a geographical resonance. There are hundreds of identifiable blocks of housing, mostly local authority or housing association, which exist outside the norms, where crime, drugs, unemployment and disaffection have become a way of life. The solution here is rarely money for property refurbishment; the Tories spent wildly on the fabric of certain estates, to no obvious avail.

If the new Unit bends its mind to "including" people in work, schooling and ownership, this will be an administrative innovation worth celebrating. But will it? As a piece of machinery, it has a lot going for it. Here are a dozen youngish people, seven of them women, who in theory offer intellectual firepower and managerial experience (several of them have been recruited into Whitehall from the real world). They will be advising a Cabinet Committee chaired by the Prime Minister himself. On it, David Blunkett and John Prescott and Jack Straw will be invited to collaborate (and where necessary kicked) on a limited number of projects. The key word there is limited. If you want to change people's lives, concentrate on two or three things that will really work, and don't try to change the world. The Unit will succeed where previous attempts at coordination have failed if it focuses its fire on efforts that we know succeed. The head of the unit, Moira Wallace, seems to realise this: she may have a job convincing political bosses avid for quick fixes and glory.

The first issue tackled is one of the best, and most likely to bear fruit: reducing truancy and absence from school by preventive action. But that will have to involve education welfare officers, social workers, police officers, who will have to be co-ordinated. How will a new Unit achieve that?

In theory the Unit will go out and find examples of good practice and propagate them. Having no budget it will be in no position to bribe, only to persuade. But will the town halls and the chief superintendents and the probation officers and the voluntary organisations listen to a bunch of civil servants sitting at desks in Whitehall? We have, thanks to the Audit Commission, a vast knowledge of how the police and councils might run better. The difficulty is implementation, of ensuring that recommended changes are carried through on the ground. That is essentially a political task. Yet there seemed yesterday to be a curious political innocence about proceedings. During that walkabout in Lambeth, where were the councillors? Local authorities are run by elected politicians. Most of the areas where the socially excluded live are Labour controlled. Doesn't Tony Blair therefore need to make sure his own members are on song?

The Social Exclusion Unit has to bite on solveable problems where success can be measured. Take truancy, on which the Department for Education and Employment has just issued new guidelines. If, in six months' time, rates of absence from school are not falling, we will know this initiative is not having much effect. Similarly homelessness among the relatively small number of people released at age 18 from statutory care. And also the Unit's third priority, reducing crime on the "worst" local authority housing estates. We know enough - there have been enough previous initiatives - to say that zero tolerance of truancy or homelessness or crime is utopian. There may be a residual population which either won't be helped or cannot be brought into the mainstream. But the effort is worth making. Provided the Government does not raise unrealistic expectations (it might start by avoiding razzmatazz of the sort in evidence at Downing Street's "summit" yesterday), the Unit can make a difference. Let's hope it does.