Blunkett admits the poor feel alienated

15th May 1998 at 01:00
The Education Secretary has defended Labour's record in its first year of power, Nicolas Barnard reports.

LABOUR must do more to convince the poor and excluded it has not forgotten them, Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett has admitted.

In the week the Government launched the first report of its Social Exclusion Unit, Mr Blunkett defended Labour's record in its first year in power, saying its core programme - including its education reforms - had been aimed at closing the divisions in British society.

But the poor turnout in last week's local elections - as low as one in 10 in some inner-city wards - showed the very people who stood to benefit most from Labour's reforms were the same communities who felt most powerless and alienated.

"The turnout in some parts of our country was so disturbing we have to take it seriously as a message," he said. "Some of it may be the culture of contentment. But some of it is a bewilderment as to what is happening around them."

Many in Labour's heartlands were people who "don't hear the message at home, who don't feel the change taking place, who haven't yet been engaged by the hope and possibility of transformation," he told the South London Industrial Mission, in a lecture at Southwark Cathedral.

But the Government's New Deal, its action to improve training and lifelong learning among adults, raise achievement in schools and give tax breaks to low income families were all geared to help the most disadvantaged.

Mr Blunkett's second speech in a week on the philosophy underlying New Labour placed him increasingly as the Cabinet's conscience - seven days before addressing the church, he addressed Mammon in the form of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics.

If this week's social exclusion report on truancy - advocating a one-third cut in exclusions and giving police the power to round up truants - seemed often to shake a stick at those on the margins of society, the Education Secretary emphasised at Southwark Cathedral the need to encourage them back.

He sounded stung by accusations that Labour in power has become the friend of big business and failed to tackle poverty.

Labour's huge majority, and the strength of its support across a wide social spectrum, gives the party the opportunity to heal the divisions created by Thatcherism, he argues - "to engage those that can help with those that need it."

Drawing both on personal experience from his Sheffield constituency and from a raft of facts and statistics, Mr Blunkett showed he was acutely aware of the impact of poverty.

He pointed to the divide in education in his home city, and to the health divide that affected the poorest in a country where the life expectancy of boys born in Manchester is six years less than those born in Surrey.

Britain needed a Government with a renewed commitment to its public services - services which largely benefited those that could not afford to buy their way out of despair.

Help for truants, page 8 Local elections, page 11

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