Magazine article Public Finance

Still Less Equal Than Others

Magazine article Public Finance

Still Less Equal Than Others

Article excerpt

This generation of politicians is the first since the war to govern in a period of stalled social mobility. The policies of the 1970s and 1980s left a legacy of stagnation of social change that this government has relentlessly tried to overcome since it first came into office.

The growth of the middle class has stopped and 'relative social mobility' has declined: the odds of workingclass children earning considerably more than their parents have worsened.

Our vision of public service reform is rooted in a commitment to social mobility, equality of opportunity and citizen empowerment. But this is not a simple focus on creating conditions to succeed. The government also firmly believes that we have a primary duty to tackle the problem of absolute poverty.

We have to continue focusing on the personalisation of services and empowering individuals to be active in shaping services rather than passive consumers. There has been too much focus on a philosophical debate around choice. Choice in public services is a tool for progressive change because it is one of the ways in which provision is improved. Resources go to the better providers, less effective organisations are exposed and action can be taken to improve failing services.

The simplest criticism of choice is that it excludes disadvantaged people who, for whatever reason, cannot exercise that choice effectively. We cannot brush that charge aside. The infrastructure has to be there for the disadvantaged, from accessible information to a public transport system that works. The alternative to this is choice as a tool of regressive politics to entrench social division: the historical choice that allows the middle class access to better services.

We know from studies that the main barriers to and determinants of relative social mobility are: educational attainment; the family; and the strategies families adopt to support their children, particularly in early childhood. The most important of these include access to financial, social and cultural capital, ie, not just money but values, behaviours and networks of contacts that affect access to opportunities, attitudes, expectations and aspirations.

We also know that the physical environment is important: the neighbourhood and the impact of area deprivation are issues local authorities are all too familiar with.

Central government is working in partnership with local government to narrow inequalities of opportunity for all children, and to improve the full range of local services for children.

But local authorities have the chance to see the whole picture, to provide the services to the child and the support for the adult. …

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