Headlines: December 9th, 2003

Poverty in Britain has fallen to levels last seen at the end of the 1980s although there are significant differences between Scotland, Wales and the English regions according to new figures out today. They also show that improvements in school attainment and the number of young people gaining basic qualifications have stalled.The findings come from ‘Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2003’, the independent assessment of trends in tackling disadvantage compiled by the New Policy Institute and published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The report assesses 50 different indicators, ranging from income and employment to education, health and crime. It found that that 21 of the measures have been improving in recent years, compared with only seven that have grown worse. Indicators showing little change include health inequalities, where people on low incomes are more likely to suffer long-term sickness or disability, and the fact that one in four 19-year-olds lack basic educational qualifications. That is no better than the proportion recorded in 1999.

For the first time the report includes an analysis of regional variations for the 26 indicators for which comparable data exists. This shows, for example, that the East, South East and South West of England stand out as regions where most of the indicators are better than the average for Britain as a whole and that the North East of England is the only region where poverty and social exclusion are worse than average on a majority of indicators. It also found that inner London is the most unequal part of the country, combining the highest proportions of both rich and poor people. Homelessness is also higher in the capital than elsewhere.

Across Britain, figures for the year 2001-02 show the number of individuals in homes with incomes below the poverty line fell to 12.5 million, or 22 per cent of the population. That compares with a peak of 13.4 million people in low-income households in the mid-1990s and the figures are lower than at any time during the 1990s. The report says there are signs that Britain may have started to move away from the bottom of the European Union ‘poverty league’, a position it shared four years ago with Portugal, Greece, Spain, Italy and Ireland.

On education, the report reveals that after falling steadily between 1995 and 1999, the number of 19-year-olds without five GCSE passes, NVQ Level 2, or equivalent qualifications has stalled. The importance of acquiring this basic level of qualification is underlined by a further indicator that shows half of all adults in their late 20s with no qualifications earn less than 200 pounds per week.

The most positive health indicator nationally is for premature death, where the rates for both men and women under 65 fell by a sixth between 1991 and 2001. Progress was also made between 1996 and 2001 in reducing the annual number of births to girls under 16, from 5,000 to 4,000.

The report also found a continued concentration of low-income households living in council housing and homes provided by housing associations. Half of all social housing tenants are poor, compared with one in six people living in other housing tenures.

Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2003 by Guy Palmer, Jenny North, Jane Carr and Peter Kenway is published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and available from York Publishing Services, 64 Hallfield Road, York YO31 7ZQ (01904 430033.