Unemployment and discrimination still wreck the lives of millions in the UK. On the launch of Centrestage , Barbara Gunnell examines the context of economic exclusion today
If you wanted to identify an economically and socially ‘included’ citizen in the UK today, what would you look for? You would probably expect such citizens to have sufficient disposable income for reasonable quality housing, food, clothes, essential transport and enough left over for occasional leisure and cultural activities. They would be likely to be working, earning and paying tax (or contributing to the common good in other ways such as caring for children or relatives); you would assume that they voted more often than not and that they and their families were able to benefit from the nation’s schools, universities, health and social care provisions and that they were broadly satisfied with them. You would expect, too, that they would have confidence in the legal framework of the democracy in which they lived.
It sounds a little Utopian but millions of citizens in the UK do in fact enjoy that kind of inclusion. The problem is that a growing number of millions do not. Among these outsiders are more than one in five young people (around a million are unable to find work); groups of individuals who face racial, sexual or age discrimination and prejudice in a shrinking job market; pensioners dependent on state benefits (more than 2,000 of whom will cease to be a problem this winter when they die of hypothermia); those whose access to justice is made possible only by legal aid; thousands dependent on disability allowances, the budget for which is to be cut by £1 billion, and a long list of vulnerable groups such as new immigrants, former offenders, victims of gender violence and drug addicts, whose support networks around the country also face budget cuts.
Exclusion is not inevitable
All this is usually explained as a predictable consequence of the 2008 banking crisis and ensuing European debt crisis. But social and economic exclusion is not inevitable. Depriving one individual or group rather than another of a safety net or legal protection is a deliberate deciding of priorities. If ‘we are all in this together’ that would be reflected in a more even distribution of hardship.
There is no disagreement between the Coalition Government and the Labour Opposition that social cohesion is a worthy aim. Give or take a few points of emphasis, the main political parties in Britain probably also agree that tackling exclusion should be a primary goal of government and that no one should be deemed as beyond the pale.
But it is easier to agree that inclusion is desirable than it is to bring it about. Britain today has never seemed further adrift from that ideal. There is huge discontent about the widening gap between fabulously high-paid bankers and top executives and increasingly squeezed low-paid workers. Today’s students and recent graduates believe they have been particularly ‘clobbered’, with loss of education maintenance grants, higher university fees and a stagnant labour market.
The widespread sympathy for their anger goes some way to explaining the support enjoyed by The St Paul’s Cathedral ‘occupation’ in London – misleadingly described by some media as ‘anti-capitalist’. The protesters have few concrete targets or demands, yet have the goodwill of a large number of newspaper columnists, politicians and non-protesting citizens who share their outrage at the undeserved rewards enjoyed by the continuing City bonus culture. Even the Bishop of London appeared to be swayed by the arguments of his squatters when he stood on the steps last Sunday to tell them that he would spread their message but would prefer them to go elsewhere.
While the occupiers have an influence beyond their numbers and strength of argument, the debates in parliament around budget cuts and the role government should play in alleviating hardship have seemed of another era, completely failing to address an evident appetite among the public for new thinking. A new dialogue on how sections of society become marginalised in the first place is urgently needed.
The most appropriate place to start investigating social and economic exclusion is to start with how society treats its young children. Melissa Benn, author and education campaigner, argues in her article today The schools our children deserve that our school system is where all economic exclusion begins. To accept when children first enter school that some children matter more than others is to abandon the very idea of an inclusive society.
There can be no starker symptom of social exclusion than street mob violence. Riots in major British cities last August provoked anxious analyses that an angry generation was retaliating against having been cheated out of a decent future. In fact, the disturbances had little coherence or purpose beyond the criminal. A high proportion of those arrested turned out to have previous convictions (which hardly supports the idea of a formerly pacific generation driven to despair). Nonetheless there are warning signs to heed in the data released by the Home Office.
The rioters were predominantly from the age group most affected by high unemployment: 47 per cent were aged 18-24, 25 per cent were aged 10-17. Other statistics reveal a cross-section of young people already far down the road to social exclusion. Of the 10-17 year olds, 33 per cent had been excluded from school and 66 per cent had special educational needs. Some 42 per cent were in receipt of free school meals (an indication of a low-income household) compared to the national average of 16 per cent. In other words, the rioters were young, poorly educated and from deprived backgrounds.
We all lose
In the coming weeks we will look at the generation beyond school and university – the young men and women now seeking work who with good reason feel betrayed. They are the first generation in modern times to face the prospect of being poorer than their parents. Official labour market statistics for 2011 revealed that more than one in five of all 16-24 year olds (21.3 per cent) was unable to find a job. This cohort, according to a recent report from the International Labour Office, is part of a global ‘bad luck generation’ likely to be dogged by unemployment for years to come. What policy initiatives should the Government now be setting in train to reclaim this lost generation? We will also be asking feminists of all ages what battles have yet to be won. (Top marks to the Prime Minister for noting that more women at senior level in the boardroom would solve the problem of excessive salary increases. The cynical assumed he meant they would simply be paid less.)
Exclusion concerns us all. When the median wage is insufficient to pay for decent housing, when one in five young people is out of work, when new immigrants are prevented by prejudice from realising their potential, or petty criminals find re-offending the easy option, or drug offenders become trapped in a cycle of addiction and lawbreaking, society loses much-needed creativity and energy. A school-leaver with no prospects stands a greater chance of becoming a young offender. A child in a family where no one is in paid employment is unlikely to fulfill his or her potential. We all bear the costs of overcrowded prisons, poor health, social breakdown and an inadequately educated workforce.
Centrestage will be open to a wide range of voices, particularly those who want to look beyond party policies at the circumstances and events that can force families, workers and even individual children, off-course. We hope you will be part of the debate.