Inequality and Social Mobility

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:43 pm on 12th June 2019.

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Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston 6:43 pm, 12th June 2019

I refer David Linden to the report on access to the professions by the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility, which talks about politics and the scourge of unpaid internships.

As chair of the APPG, I was pleased when, on taking office, the Prime Minister talked about tackling the burning injustices. She seemed to sum up many of the frustrations and factors that led to the Brexit vote. Ironically, the fact that the Government have been tied up with that is part of the explanation for the stagnation on social mobility right now.

When the board of the Social Mobility Commission took the unprecedented step of resigning wholesale 18 months ago, it was not a decision taken hastily or lightly; it was an act of desperation, following months of frustration at the Government’s failure to engage meaningfully on the issue. We have a new chair now, Dame Martina Milburn, who attended the all-party group last month, when we asked for her view on what she considered to be the top three asks of the Government. She said that they were: extending the eligibility of the 30 hours’ free childcare to those working eight hours a week; introducing a student premium for those aged 16 to 19; and making the Government a living wage employer. A recent study by Pearson found that there had been a 60% drop in funding for 16 to 19-year-olds in the past few years—how on earth is that investing in young people? As for the Government being a living wage employer, as a result of what she said I have been asking written questions to Departments and it seems that most do not even hold the data on who receives it already, which hardly suggests great enthusiasm for the idea.

I was encouraged by similarities between some of the recommendations the all-party group made in its recent report on the regional attainment gap and those put forward by the commission, such as: looking at the way Ofsted operates; thinking differently about how the pupil premium can be used; and the importance of children’s centres in getting a good early start in life. The question we both have is: are the Government listening? What happens if the commission’s recommendations are not acted on? How much longer will things be left to stagnate? For how much longer will the most likely experience in the job market for our young people be casual work, low pay and chronic insecurity?

The commission’s report provides us with a wholesale national analysis of the issues, which demands cross-government action. Yes, its focus is on education—addressing inequalities in access to early years provision; primary and secondary schools; and technical, further and higher education—but it goes far wider and includes access to work, tax, welfare, housing, transport and health, to name but a few. There is plenty to build on, but we need a focused, consistent approach across many Departments, one that transcends the day-to-day whirl of politics. That is where I hope the commission can really add value.

Taking just two of the headlines from the latest state of the nation report, we can see the scale of the challenge we face. The first is that social mobility in this country is virtually stagnant and has barely moved in the past five years. The second is that a staggering half a million more children are in poverty now than there were seven years ago. Those two facts alone tell us we need to do so much more, and it is even more damning that this is coming off the years of consecutive economic growth. Could there be a clearer example of how growth is not evenly spread?

I believe there is much merit in the Select Committee’s recommendation that a Minister be given specific responsibility for leading cross-government work on social mobility, with a dedicated unit to tackle social injustice. Indeed, I am pleased that my own party has pledged to create a Minister for social justice, who would also work cross-departmentally to help drive the social justice agenda across all parts of the Government, so that whom someone was born to and where they were born are no longer the biggest influences on their prospects. The analysis that the commission’s powers need to be expanded and become much more proactive is one I support; the limited role it has at the moment is evident from the previous chair’s frustrations and resignation. There does need to be much greater accountability and transparency about what the Government do in this area. It seems incredible that no automatic impact assessment is carried out on every piece of legislation. Perhaps if it were, we would not have much legislation coming forward.

I wholeheartedly agree that social justice should be central for any Labour Government, but I also believe that social mobility can play a part in levelling the playing field as we work towards creating a society where everyone has the same opportunities in life, regardless of their background. We have a long way to go, and as long as three quarters of the senior judges, more than half the top 100 news journalists and more than two thirds of British Oscar winners are privately educated, we will not have a fairer society and the kids from the council estates will still get the message that those jobs are not for them. So “aspiration” should not be a dirty word, but “inequality” and “injustice” should be. The evidence shows that countries that have greater social mobility tend to have less inequality, thus demonstrating the two go together. It is a scandal that in 2019 where someone is born and whom they are born to are still the biggest influences on their prospects. If we are ever going to move forward as a nation, everyone should be given the same opportunity to achieve their potential.