Inequality and Social Mobility

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 12th June 2019.

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Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 4:45 pm, 12th June 2019

My right hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. I wholly agree.

Of course, it is not just the commission that is seriously concerned. In May, the Institute for Fiscal Studies launched a five-year study on equality, reflecting growing concern about the deep divisions within our society. In the same month, the final report by the UN special rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights said that

“key elements of the post-war ‘Beveridge social contract’
are being overturned” and highlighted that

“British compassion has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach” by Government. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has attacked what she called “the extraordinary political nature” of the report and the Chancellor, too, has brushed aside the evidence that Professor Alston presented—as if none of it mattered; as if the devastated communities and the lives of people ground down by poverty are of no concern. What sort of a Government are they who fail to see that the impact of their policies on people’s lives is always political? And what sort of a Government are they who can have such disregard for the suffering of their people? One of Professor Alston’s conclusions was that the

“Government has remained determinedly in a state of denial” about the impact of its austerity policies. How right he is.

The next Labour Government will do things differently. Last Saturday, my colleague, the shadow Education Secretary, announced that Labour will create a new independent social justice commission to replace the current Social Mobility Commission. That is in line with the recommendation of the Education Committee, which called for a new commission to drive forward work across Government to tackle social injustice. We believe that social justice is the right goal to pursue, rather than social mobility. Social mobility focuses on how easy it is for individuals to escape poverty. That is, of course, important, but it does not address the wider issue of tackling the causes of poverty and inequality. Our goal has to be the delivery of a fair and just society.

The Government’s own figures tell a shocking story. In 2017-18, 14 million people in the UK were living in poverty, 1 million higher than in 2010; 2 million pensioners were in poverty, 400,000 up on 2010; and 4.1 million children were growing up in poverty, an increase of half a million since 2010. Of course the impact of child poverty can continue throughout life. Children in poverty are more likely to die suddenly in infancy, to suffer acute infections, and to experience mental ill-health. The disadvantage they suffer can affect their progress at school or in work. By the age of 11, only 46% of pupils entitled to free school meals reach the standards expected for reading, writing and maths, compared with 68% of all other pupils. Only 16% of pupils on free school meals pass at least two A-levels—less than half as many as all other pupils.