Inequality and Social Mobility

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:50 pm on 12th June 2019.

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Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester 5:50 pm, 12th June 2019

I believe that every Member in this place—on both sides of the House, in every party—came here wanting to reduce inequality and boost social mobility. At the most basic level, there will always be inequality. There is no controlling where we are born, which country we open our eyes in and under what circumstances. Some people start with opportunity, but many do not. As politicians, it is our job to create a society where there are opportunities at every stage of life for as many people as possible. By doing so, we will not only help individuals but stop wasting the potential in our country.

All my friends who I grew up with back in Liverpool had just as much potential as those I have met at the top of business, and now in politics, yet many of them were denied opportunity. In my experience, education and training are the key to unlocking that potential. I grew up in Huyton near Liverpool in the ’80s. My grandad was a miner. My nan—who sounds very much like the grandmother of Emma Hardy—worked in a biscuit factory, and my other nan was a dinner lady. My mum and dad grew up in council houses. I went to the local—unfortunately failing—comprehensive school, which I left aged 16, as there was nowhere in the whole borough to do A-levels. Opportunity came for me in the form of an apprenticeship in a car factory. Little did I know at the time that that first step on the ladder was a brilliant opportunity that would launch my subsequent 30-year business career.

Even before a child is born, inequality exists. According to the Social Mobility Commission, by the age of five, 48% of children who are on free school meals achieve poor levels of attainment compared with those from better off-families. That does not have to be the case. Chichester Nursery in my constituency is excellent at supporting children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The maintained nursery has a children and family centre that works with the families. When I visited, I was blown away by the diversity of activities on offer, all aiming to develop both physical and mental agility, such as woodwork, cookery and computer technology.

School is a crucial time for those looking to improve their life chances, and children must have access to a good-quality education, so I am pleased that since 2010 there are now 1.9 million more children in good or outstanding schools. I did not get that opportunity, but I am glad that many more do today. Chichester exceeds the national average for attainment at key stage 4 and A-level, as a result of the hard work and dedication of teachers all the way from early years to secondary school. Even when schools are performing well, we can all think of examples when, for one reason or another, education gets disrupted. That can be because of bullying, illness or bereavement. Sometimes people miss out on their first chance, and we need to create a network of chances, so that people can always get a second and third shot.

University often provides an opportunity for people to become more socially mobile. Today there are more people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university than ever before. None of my friends or I got that opportunity, but many of their children do. Chichester University is a great example. It works incredibly hard to be an attractive option for people who do not know anyone who has been to university and do not come from that background—people like me, if I had got that chance. It offers all kinds of courses and gives people advice and guidance, to prepare them for a smooth transition to university. It is doing a fantastic job.

Apprenticeships are another brilliant way to develop relevant skills. They are really needed for the workplace, because they allow people to implement, the very next day, in a practical environment what they learned in the classroom. They also ensure that whatever someone studies is relevant to the workplace, which is a problem in the university sector. The Government have an excellent record of developing and promoting apprenticeships. My focus, as an apprentice ambassador and co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on apprenticeships, is to make sure that we build on that, that the programmes we offer are of the highest quality, and that people can go on up the qualification levels.

This year I have been very lucky to have an intern, Hillary Juma, from Mr Speaker’s internship programme, which opens up Parliament to people from disadvantaged backgrounds. During her time with me, Hillary explained that most people who live on her council estate are often in lower paid, lower skilled jobs, but there is no shortage of aspiration. She said that her experience on the scheme has opened doors for her and I am delighted that she is now off to work in the civil service. Hillary told me that anyone from her estate who makes it gets called “a star in the hood”, and I know that she is well on the way to becoming one. Hillary will be a future role model for others from her estate, and that is so important in encouraging social mobility.

Social mobility is about giving people chances in life. It is much better if that is done earlier in life, but if for some reason the opportunity has been missed, it is never too late to improve life opportunities and learn new skills in an ever-changing world. We as a Government must make sure that the opportunities we develop through apprenticeships and further education are properly funded and available all the way through a person’s life, so that we can all fulfil our potential.