Blair's pledge to the dark estates

Anthony Bevins
Monday 02 June 1997 23:02

Housing estates where the biggest employer is the drugs industry were yesterday cited by the Prime Minister as part of a legacy of Tory neglect and incompetence.

But Tony Blair said in a speech about the help and hope that Labour would offer the "workless class" of a divided Britain that he wanted government by results.

Dogma would be replaced with rigorous pragmatism, and the balance of action would be shifted from too-late cure to early prevention. "We will support the successes and stop the failures," Mr Blair said.

In his first non-parliamentary statement on the approach of his administration to the crisis inheritance, the Prime Minister went to a rundown housing estate in Southwark, south London, to spell out his One-Nation plans to bring back the "will to win" for the people who had been forgotten under 18 years of Conservative government.

"It is a legacy that previous generations of Conservatives would have felt ashamed of," Mr Blair said. "After several years of economic growth, 5 million people of working age live in homes where nobody works. Over a million have never worked since leaving school.

"For a generation of young men, little has come to replace the third of all manufacturing jobs that have been lost. For part of a generation of young women, early pregnancies and the absence of a reliable father almost guarantee a life of poverty, and today Britain has a higher proportion of single- parent families than anywhere else in Europe."

The raw statistics included 150,000 deemed to be homeless and, possibly, as many as 100,000 children not attending school in England and Wales.

Adding to his litany, Mr Blair said nearly half of all crimes were concentrated in only a tenth of neighbourhoods; dozens of failing schools were threatening another generation with unemployment and failure; housing estates, where only one-third of homes had a telephone, were cut off by poor public transport.

"Behind the statistics lie households where three generations have never had a job. There are estates where the biggest employer is the drugs industry, where all that is left of the high hopes of the post-war planners is derelict concrete. Behind the statistics are people who have lost hope, trapped in fatalism."

While the country's leaders had faced the challenge of creating a welfare state after the last world war, today's challenge for everyone, not just government, was to bring the new "workless class" back into society.

Last night, Peter Lilley, one of the challengers for the Conservative leadership, said two days of tough headlines had turned out to have the "flimsiest of foundations". He added: "In Opposition, Labour lived by soundbites, but they can't expect to govern by soundbite, too."

But Mr Blair said the Tories had failed the challenge of a divided society because they had believed "we could afford to forget about a workless minority".

They had been proved wrong because the cost of the "workless class" had fallen on business and people in work. "The Tories never guessed that social security spending would double since 1979 ... that crime would more than double, or that benefits for lone parents would now cost pounds 10bn each year."

Stressing that there was no question of penalties for single mothers, who would be offered help to get them off benefit, Mr Blair repeated that there was no option of an inactive life on benefit for the 250,000 young people who would be offered work or training under the welfare-to-work programme to be financed by the windfall tax Budget, on 2 July.

"Work is the best form of welfare," Mr Blair said. And to create the opportunity for work, the way government works had to be changed.

"Before embarking on new policies, it is salutary to remember that the equivalent of all the revenues from North Sea Oil has been spent on poverty over the last 25 years - yet poverty got worse. If we are to succeed, and to avoid the pernicious combination of profligacy and neglect, it is incumbent on us to learn from the mistakes of the past."

Mr Blair said the Tories had fallen into the trap of short-termism; dealing with the results, rather than causes: more was spent on unemployment than on education and training.

The Prime Minister also said that the Government machine lacked coherence and communication; too often working at cross purposes. "This matters," he said, "because it leads to poor policy and wasted resources - like excluding pupils who then become a huge burden for the police."

The third mistake made by the Conservatives was in allowing policy to be driven by dogma, rather than common sense. Mr Blair said he wanted departments, companies and communities to seek out what worked. "We will back anyone if they can deliver the goods," he said.

Donald Macintyre, page 19

Blair's visit, page 3

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