Friday, July 02, 2010

Deprivation and inequality - New Labour's record

You didn’t have to wait for the Lib-Tory coalition for the assault to begin on living standards, health and education. All you had to do was endure years of New Labour and watch inequality rise sharply.

Take life expectancy. The gap between average life expectancy and that of the poorest in England has actually widened over the last decade. A National Audit Office (NAO) report finds that life expectancy is now 77.9 years for men and 82 years for women but in many working class areas it falls to 75.8 and 80.4 years.

From 1995-97 to 2006-08 the life expectancy gap grew by 7% for men and 14% for women. The NAO is not known for its social concern, being more worried about “value for money” and “efficiency” in the public sector. However, this time it rises to the occasion and reports that the system "does not provide enough of an incentive" to encourage GPs to focus on the neediest groups in their practices.

The reason, which the NAO doesn’t go into, is of course that surgeries are driven by an internal market imposed on the National Health Service by the Blair/Brown governments. The main thrust of Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) is actually to keep costs under control, which clouds the work of doctors in local surgeries.

There are, of course, other factors too. The NAO points out those poorer areas in England often have fewer surgeries in the first place, which makes seeing a doctor difficult to start with. Above all, there is the fact of low wages, high unemployment and poor housing – all of which New Labour did nothing about.

With cash in short supply, diet in poorer households often suffers as a consequence, with money going on cheaper junk food. As Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University says: “Food poverty is worse diet, worse access, worse health, higher percentage of income on food and less choice from a restricted range of foods. Above all food poverty is about less or almost no consumption of fruit and vegetables.”

Who would have thought that it would be left to the British Medical Association to call for policies “to narrow the income gap between the poorest and the richest in society” as the action necessary to tackle health inequalities.

Then there is educational inequality. After abandoning active support for equal opportunities in well-resourced comprehensive schools, New Labour condemned many school students to life in an “Academy”. Largely freed from local authority control and often sponsored by big business, academies would, it was claimed, raise standards and give students a better chance of finding a job.

How hollow that claim has proved is revealed in another report, this time from the think-tank Civitas. Its research shows that GCSE exam results are inflated and distorted because the Academies load up non-academic subjects. When like-for-like comparisons are made, Academies perform far worse than other schools.

Anastasia de Waal, Civitas’s head of education, said: “Academies are replacing academic subjects with so-called equivalents of extremely questionable value. The ultimate concern is that the already deprived are being deprived of academic learning and that un-checked this is set to continue much further.”

Piling deprivation upon deprivation. What an indictment of New Labour! Of course, the Coalition’s policies will make matters even worse. But let’s not forget that they will continue where the previous government left off. I’m so glad that I hung on to my vote in May.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

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