Sarah Teather to the London Voluntary Service Council conference - Closing the gap: inequality in London

The Children’s Minister sets out how the voluntary sector, along with the government’s reforms, are vital to ending child poverty.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Sarah Teather

The Government has a lot to be thankful for that organisations like the London Voluntary Service Council exist. We need critical friends like you - organisations who are prepared to challenge us, to work with us, to hold us to account, but also to make sure that you do that in a constructive way.

And I’m very pleased to be here today to speak about issues that are very close to my heart as a minister and as an MP representing a constituency like Brent Central - tackling poverty in our city and promoting social inclusion.

I thank you for the hard work you all you do with our Child Poverty Unit, through the London Child Poverty Delivery Group.

And I thank you so much for your work you do on the ground, with the most marginalised and vulnerable groups in our society - dealing with the sort of issues that I see in my own constituency.

I see how poor families struggle to cope every day - when some of the wealthiest in the country live a few streets away.

I see how young people never achieve their full potential or fulfil their talents because of the barriers thrown up in their way - when their neighbours clear the same hurdles with ease.

And I see the unacceptable reality in London today - that in the twenty-first century, a child born in Harlesden, in my constituency, is still expected to die more than ten years before one born a few miles down the road in Kensington.

We have a moral duty to change this - that’s why we’re committed to ending child poverty by 2020.

Breaking that cycle of disadvantage; building a fairer society; ending the inequality we see in this great city, and beyond, are the uniting passions of all of us in the coalition.

Today I want to set out the task we face; the foundations we’ve begun to lay; and how our education, early years and welfare reforms, with the voluntary sector, are going to be vital to ending not just material poverty but the poverty of ambition in our society.

The task ahead - results are all

We need to start with asking ourselves hard questions.

Why, after a decade or more of booming economic growth and public investment, are we still such an unequal society?

Why has social mobility largely stalled since the 1970s?

Why is there still a yawning attainment gap between rich and poor at five, which gets wider as they get older?

Why does work still not pay for families wanting to escape a life on welfare?

Disadvantage in Britain today too often gets passed from one generation to another. Birth still dictates your fate. Your parents’ income still predicts how well you do at school, your job, your expectations and hopes for your own children.

One in five children still lives in poverty nationally. In inner London it is closer to one in three and in the area we are today, in Tower Hamlets, it is six out of ten. Almost two million children live in households where no one is in paid work. Almost two million live in poor housing - crowded rooms, squalid conditions, dangerous buildings. Just a quarter of our poorest children reached the most basic GCSE benchmark. And young people from poorer backgrounds are less than twice as likely to go to university as those from richer backgrounds.

No one doubts the good intentions and hard work of the previous government of trying to deal with poverty. But you can’t judge your efforts simply by the billions you’ve thrown at tax credits. You have to judge it by results.

Too much time and effort has been spent trying to move poor households across an arbitrary income line, without focusing on whether it actually transformed people’s life chances.

Nobody is saying income isn’t important - it clearly is. If you don’t have enough money to feed or clothe yourself properly or put a roof over your head, then life is unimaginably tough, no matter what else you’re doing.

But in the long term, the best way to tackle poverty is to break down the barriers so families can escape it: entrenched worklessness, economic dependency, and educational failure.

Coalition - laying foundations

So we’ve begun to set out our stall in the Spending Review - dealing with the mess in the public finances and sowing the seeds of economic recovery, while making sure we don’t burden future generations with the legacy of our mistakes.

There is nothing fair about leaving our children and their children with unsustainable debts, higher taxes and public services stripped bare for decades, because we weren’t brave enough to deal with deficit now.

We’ve had to take hard decisions in the national interest, while making the economic, social and moral case for protecting and strengthening the poorest as far as we can.

Our budget in June and the Spending Review last month are not the whole story. We need more than investment - we have to deepen and broaden our thinking on how we tackle poverty.

The fact is, we can only truly achieve success by giving people the chance to break free from their parents’ income and background; by equipping them with the right incentives, know-how, aspirations and skills to leave poverty behind.

Firstly, through radical welfare reform - to make sure work always pay.

And secondly, through unlocking social mobility by giving young people the best start in life - giving young people the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

Welfare reform

Taking the first. The welfare bill has almost doubled since 1997 and the system still creates few real rewards for people to get back into work.

It can’t be right that tens of thousands still lose 90p out of every extra pound they earn, when they move back into work and their benefits are phased out.

It’s unacceptable that tens of thousands of part-time workers are no better off in employment than on benefit - so see no incentive in increasing their hours.

That’s a sign of an unfair society - burdening the poorest with the cost of our failure to face up to welfare reform.

So we have set out a radical programme to ensure that work pays and gets people out of the poverty trap.

Reforming the welfare system is not easy but we have made it clear that we will protect the most vulnerable by making sure that benefits are well targeted and fair.

The Universal Credit will not reduce the level of support. It will make the system simpler and more efficient, with fewer benefits, fewer layers of bureaucracy and with financial support firmly focused on rewarding work.

And all told, it will help reduce the number of workless households by around 300,000 within two or three years.

The best start in life - early years and schools

But we can’t stop there. Escaping from poverty is not just about income. It is about giving every single the person the chance to make real choices about their future without it being dependent on their background.

And the keys to this are high-quality education and early years provision.

Despite the state of the public finances, we made a very clear commitment in the Comprehensive Spending Review to focus what resources we have on education and on investing in the early years.

I know many of you are anxious about funding. But in terms of education, we secured the best possible settlement given the circumstances:

  • Sure Start children’s centres protected and accessible to all - but better targeting those with the greatest needs;
  • free childcare for all three- and four-year-olds to 15-hours a week, with it extended to all disadvantaged two-year-olds for the first time;
  • School funding cash protected, with a Pupil Premium on top, for children from the lowest income families that need the most support in class - an extra £2.5 billion by 2015.

These changes can make a real difference to children’s lives.

Michael Gove will be setting out a radical reform programme for schools this week - setting out in particular how we can attract the best teachers to the most deprived areas. The Pupil Premium will play a central role, meaning that from next September, teachers will have the funding they need to help our most disadvantaged children in the way they think is best - with one-to-one tuition, after school support, mentoring and coaching, instead of that cash being sucked elsewhere, as it is too often.

But we also believe that we must also look much earlier than the start of school to really help families escape poverty.

So over the last few months, I’ve been looking at how the poorest can get high-quality Early Years’ provision and family support.

That’s why I’ve decided to enshrine in law that all disadvantaged two-year-olds will get the free childcare entitlement from 2013. That’s why we’re going to make Sure Start far better at reaching out to the poorest families in future - backed by an extra 4200 health visitors. That’s why we are breaking down the barriers which stop families giving their children the best - with more flexible working and shared parental leave. And that’s why we’re focusing on supporting families who have a disabled child, to make sure that they get the best possible support.

Getting the structure right

We want a shift in focus, right across government and local government towards early intervention and a much greater role for the voluntary sector.

Two very important views will inform the government’s work in this area.

We’ve asked Frank Field to look at a new measure of life chances and how we can tackle poverty best. And we’ve asked Graham Allen to do a review of best practice around early intervention.

We recognise that every area is different and so we want a very different relationship with local authorities.

We want to get away from an approach where Government tells local authorities exactly what they must do on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and what order they must do it in. Tower Hamlets is very different to Brent. And they are both certainly very different to Surrey or Yorkshire.

We need to be able to give freedom to local authorities to make decisions on the ground and to decide how best to target resources. That’s why when we set out the details of the new Early Intervention Grant next week, every area will have the freedom to get on with the job.

We do want councils to focus much more on outcomes, not just the numbers of people that have gone through their system. And we will use payment by results to try and drive that process.

We won’t tell councils exactly how to work with the people on the ground. But we believe that the voluntary sector is often the key to tackling the most disadvantaged groups. It has enormous expertise but at the moment it is not utilised enough. We’re determined to open up the market to make sure it can be better involved in delivering services for young people, Sure Start and families with multiple problems.

We will use the Localism Bill to try and drive this process. So if the voluntary sector, for example, thinks it can run a children’s centre or is better placed to tackle some of the most difficult, hard-to-reach groups in their local area, we will allow it the right to challenge local authorities to put those services out to tender. We will be announcing more about that very soon.


So I’ve tried to lay out some of the main themes around the government’s policy on tackling poverty and inequality over the next few years. I want to work much more closely with the voluntary sector in shaping that vision. So I say again, we need organisations like you that challenge us, that focus our attention to make sure we stick to the pledges we make, and judge us by our results.

Published 25 November 2010