Social Mobility

– in Westminster Hall at 4:27 pm on 21 March 2023.

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Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury 4:27, 21 March 2023

As the mover of the motion and the Minister are present, we can start slightly earlier. We can run on until the end of the debate’s allotted time. I call Sir David Evennett.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Conservative, Bexleyheath and Crayford

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered social mobility.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and to be able to raise the important issue of social mobility. I am absolutely delighted to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Mims Davies, will respond to the debate.

This matter has interested and concerned me for many years. Having been so fortunate as to be a product of social mobility, as are my family, I am keen to see it advanced. My family originated in the east end of London, in Bow and Poplar. Through education, hard work, opportunity, determination and good fortune, my grandfather, Thomas Evennett, and my father, Norman Evennett, were able to progress during their lives. I too have had many opportunities to work in careers that I have loved so much, including as Member of Parliament for Bexleyheath and Crayford, and before that, for Erith and Crayford.

Social mobility is about every single person having the opportunity to succeed. It is the link between our starting point in life and where we end up. If where we begin strongly determines where we end up, mobility is low, but if everyone has a good chance of achieving any outcome, regardless of their background, mobility is high, and that is what all of us here want. The Conservative Government are determined to ensure that work is a route out of poverty and into a future where individuals can achieve their ambitions, irrespective of their situation or origin.

Social mobility is one of the key reasons why Britain has been so successful in channelling the talents of all sections of our country, to their own benefit and that of the whole nation. Social mobility is good not just from a moral perspective; it has a huge impact economically. By ensuring talent is harvested from across the whole social spectrum, we can boost productivity and our GDP.

The Social Mobility Commission notes:

“the popular narrative of worsening mobility prospects for young people in the UK is not supported when we take a careful look at a range of outcomes across education and employment.”

That is positive news, because although talent in Britain is spread evenly across the country, regrettably, opportunity is not always. Every individual should have a fair chance of reaching their full potential, so we must ensure that everyone has the opportunity to build a good life for themselves, irrespective of their background.

In the latest “State of the Nation” report from June 2022, almost every gap in the intermediate outcomes between young people from higher and lower socioeconomic backgrounds has narrowed in the past decade. However, there are still disparities, but there has been progress across all measures. Intermediate outcomes in education and work have been trending in a positive direction. Educational attainment gaps between people from higher and lower socioeconomic backgrounds have narrowed, especially at key stages 2 and 4.

The gaps between those from professional and working-class backgrounds for both university participation and degree attainment have also narrowed, although I only have figures from the Sutton Trust, which are rather out of date now. However, there is still a long way to go. On early careers, the gap between people from professional and working-class backgrounds has decreased for most of the occupational and economic outcomes since 2014. However, it is noted that the full effects of the covid-19 pandemic are still unlikely to be shown in any data.

Although positive progress has been made, research undertaken by Professor Steve Strand from the University of Oxford found that there are still vast inequalities in educational achievement at the age of 16. I am particularly concerned about the fact that British white and British black Caribbean male attainment falls well below the average for all students of that age, and scores the lowest across all socioeconomic groups, particularly for the working class.

The variations in attainment are particularly pronounced in the lowest socioeconomic groups, with black Caribbean males achieving an average score of -0.77, and British white males achieving a score of -0.68, compared with Bangladeshi boys achieving a score of 0.07 and those in other Asian male groups scoring -0.11. There are also significant disparities between the attainment of boys and girls in these groups. White British girls and girls of black Caribbean origin score significantly higher across the socioeconomic levels than their male counterparts. Girls from black Caribbean origins from an average socio-economic group scored 0.01, whereas boys scored -0.41. British white girls from the same socioeconomic group scored 0.09, while British white boys scored -0.22.

This data is concerning as educational achievement has such a significant impact on socioeconomic attainment in later life. Our priority must be to create an even playing field, so that everyone has the opportunity to excel and achieve, wherever their ambitions take them. Even before the pandemic started in 2020, there were already many challenges facing our country, but the past three years have added many global challenges outside of the Government’s control—not just the devastating pandemic, but the ongoing war in Europe and the rise in the cost of living. These have all had an impact on social mobility. That is why it is more important than ever that the Government’s levelling-up agenda should remain at the heart of all that we do. The Government have an important role to play—they can lead—but others need to take up the issue and give it support, be they businesses, professions, families or communities.

The covid-19 pandemic was hopefully a once-in-a-generation crisis. It will have an impact on the world’s social mobility for years to come. It was entirely out of the Government’s control. It is important to remember that the historic vaccination programme enabled us to be one of the first western democracies to restore people’s freedoms and open our economy. The Government also delivered more than £400 billion-worth of unprecedented support during the pandemic. It was one of the most generous economic support packages anywhere in the world. It supported more than 14.5 million jobs and provided almost £80 billion in business grants and loans. However, the covid-19 pandemic has impacted particularly harshly on young people from poorer backgrounds. It is likely to have long-term consequences, in education and work, for that cohort. In the short term, we can expect there to be an adverse effect on social mobility, particularly for young people entering the labour market.

It is more important than ever that we provide support that can lift everyone, irrespective of who they are, where they live and where they come from. We cannot accept a country where people have different ladders to climb. People must be encouraged to engage with education and understand its long-term benefits. The recovery programmes that have been introduced, such as the recovery premium and the national tutoring programme, are vital in helping the most disadvantaged. I also welcome the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill, which is proceeding through Parliament. It will enable people to get education and training throughout their life, so that they can skill and upskill, from school age up to the age of 60. That is a really positive movement.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for what he says. I am very aware that those with educational attainment can move on to employment that reflects that. People move from one job to another, but not every person can achieve educational attainment. I am not decrying anybody, by the way; it is just a fact of life. For those who cannot achieve educational attainment, their jobs may be on a building site or a farm, but we should never decry them. The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned opportunity three or four times. Does he agree that we need to make sure that a young boy or girl who is trying to achieve something moves in the direction that they need to?

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Conservative, Bexleyheath and Crayford

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Of course, the whole thing about the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill is that it offers skills, training and opportunities. If people did not succeed at school, they can come back and get skills, training or qualifications later. That is a really positive thing that the Government are doing.

I have worked as a college lecturer, teaching women returners to the workplace after career breaks, the unemployed and those who needed additional qualifications to advance in their careers, or to change career. Unfortunately, too much of the education in colleges and universities has been for young people only, but I taught people who are older—those who would benefit from what the Government are doing with the lifelong loan entitlement. It will improve access to education and training, and accelerate the Government’s levelling-up agenda.

Providing people with opportunities to acquire skills will help them to obtain work, or to advance their careers. That is particularly important in the technological age we live in, where the need to learn new skills never stops. All of us are always learning. Lifelong learning has become a reality, as I am sure you will agree, Mr Robertson. Education played a vital part in my life, and I am grateful to teachers, employers and my family for support and encouragement. We should accentuate the positives and say thanks to the teachers and lecturers at colleges and universities, as well as businesses and industries that invest in their staff and help them to advance in their careers.

I recognise that education alone will not be enough to transform social mobility; nor are the Government’s actions alone. As we continue our recovery from covid, the Government are spending record sums on apprenticeships, which play a key role in boosting social mobility, improving people’s skills, and increasing earnings and opportunities.

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. He rightly highlighted the challenges faced in raising educational attainment for white working-class boys and Caribbean boys. Under the coalition Government, many of the initiatives that he outlined were started, and they are beginning to bear fruit. There was also a Cabinet Sub-Committee, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, focusing on social mobility and how we could target groups who had fallen behind. Would my right hon. Friend recommend that to the Minister as something that could be taken forward? If we want to get real impetus behind improving social mobility, there needs to be much more focus centrally, and a Cabinet Sub-Committee is a good way of doing that.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Conservative, Bexleyheath and Crayford

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which I know the Minister will have noted. This focus is so important. We had it, but we have slightly stalled, which is why I sought this debate.

We need to see even more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds accessing higher and degree level apprenticeships, and to ensure that all young people have an understanding of the many and varied options available to them. Careers advice in schools, colleges and universities is vital to let individuals know what is out there and what their potential could lead them to. Additional funding is being provided to employers and training providers who take on apprentices aged 16 to 18, and apprentices aged 19 to 24 who have an education, health and care plan or have been in care. This targeted support incentivises employers to provide high-quality apprenticeships across all sections in disadvantaged areas. However, according to the latest figures, the share of apprenticeships in the most deprived areas has fallen from 26% in 2015 to 20% in 2020. That is why it is vital that everyone—in our constituencies, across Government and so forth—publicises the excellent opportunities that are available.

I have long advocated for more collaboration between businesses and education. Businesses should look to partner schools or colleges in their local area to provide more careers advice, work experience and support to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. This would improve social mobility and help to ensure that pupils obtain the skills necessary to succeed in the world of work. All children must be nurtured, valued, enthused and inspired by their schools, and although all children should study the basic curriculum, there should be the opportunity to have a curriculum with more relevance to their future life chances; there needs to be more focus on career opportunities, and it is important that students are shown the full range of opportunities that they may be able to pursue. Successive Governments have tried to improve the careers advice on offer, but unfortunately it still varies widely across the country, which is why the involvement of businesses is vital, as is the provision of advice and role models. Role models are so good to give people an idea of what they could become via training, skills and education.

A particular campaign that I have been very supportive of and promoted is the Social Mobility Pledge, which was founded by my friend, former parliamentary colleague and former Education Secretary, the right hon. Justine Greening, alongside entrepreneur David Harrison, who are both passionate about improving opportunities for all. Some 700 organisations have made the social mobility pledge, with 5 million employees and 2 million students covered by it globally. It encourages organisations to be a force for good by putting social mobility at the heart of their purpose. The pledge recognises that it is more important than ever for organisations to take steps to boost opportunity and social mobility, as we face the challenges of a growing opportunity gap post covid.

We all want Britain to be a country where all can get on in life, regardless of our background. Talent is spread across our country, and businesses, with the prosperity and careers they create for people, are key to improving social mobility locally and nationally. There are three parts to the pledge. The first is getting businesses to partner directly with schools or colleges

“to provide coaching through quality careers advice, enrichment experience and mentoring to people from disadvantaged backgrounds or circumstances.”

The second is access:

“providing structured work, experience and apprenticeship opportunities to people from disadvantaged backgrounds”.

The third is the adoption of more

“open employee recruitment practices which promote a level playing field for people from disadvantaged backgrounds or circumstances”,

with things like “name blind” and contextual recruitment. Businesses that are prepared to take those simple steps show their commitment to levelling the playing field of opportunity for everyone.

I was delighted that the Chancellor’s Budget last week recognised the need for further investment in removing barriers to work—in particular, by investing £485 million in support for unemployed people and those on universal credit working part-time. Assigning a work coach to those people will support them in obtaining full-time work. Supporting people into work is important, but we should also strive to support people into higher-paying jobs, as that is critical for social mobility. The Government’s job support initiative provides more than 120,000 low-income workers with tailored support and guidance so they can earn more and progress their careers. The Government’s various skills initiatives provide excellent opportunities to gain key skills such as numeracy and digital, but it is more important than ever—essential, in fact—that everyone is encouraged to take up those opportunities.

Our defining challenge in Britain is to level up opportunity and make sure everyone gets the chance to go as far as their talents or ambitions take them. Ultimately, it is about delivering generational change. That means looking right across people’s lives from childhood to adulthood. We cannot afford to leave any section of our population behind; otherwise, there will be discontent and disillusionment, which is terrible for individuals and frankly very bad for our nation. Aspiration, opportunity and achievement are the goals that we should be aiming for. In so many fields, we have entrepreneurs with business success, scientists, lawyers, clinicians—high achievers, all of whom need to be role models. The Government have a mission, but employers need to raise their own game and rise to the challenge. Britain remains a great country, but with a more skilled, enthused and aspirational workforce that is socially mobile, I believe we can be an even better one.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

Order. A number of Members are trying to get in. If they can limit themselves to roughly five minutes or so each, we should be able to manage that.

Photo of Jon Trickett Jon Trickett Labour, Hemsworth 4:46, 21 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. It was interesting to listen to the speech of Sir David Evennett. He is right to emphasise social mobility, and I was very interested to hear him describe his background.

It is probably worth referring to my background. I was more or less told to leave school when I was 15. I left with no meaningful qualifications and I went to work as a manual worker in the building industry. I was encouraged by my grandfather to try to understand why the system had failed me or why I had failed the system. I became very curious about it, and eventually I went to a further education college. The right hon. Gentleman said he had been a college teacher, so no doubt he helped many people in my position. I eventually finished up at university.

My first reflection is this: the stepping stones that were available to me are no longer available to the same extent to the current generation. Further education has been cut to the bone and is simply not available at the scale that it was when I was younger, when I basically left school in some disgrace. The university system is now really a commodified form of education. I voted against the original idea to charge student fees—it was a mistake. I did it because I was thinking about people from my background. My grandad said to me, “The system doesn’t work for people like us.” That is a profound thing to have said, and I have spent almost all my life trying to understand what it is about “people like us” and why the system is not working properly for them.

The right hon. Gentleman has an optimistic view of social mobility in our society, perhaps because his constituency is the 51st most socially mobile in the whole country. There are 533 constituencies in England, and mine is the 529th most socially mobile, so he and I inhabit almost two different worlds. He is right to be passionate about this subject, but the truth of the matter is that the Conservative idea that there is real social mobility available for all who are able to make use of it is simply an ideological myth designed to gloss over the fact that our social structures are ossified and it is almost impossible to break though.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Sutton Trust. The trust identified, out of the 60-odd million of us in this country, 6,000 people who run it; and two fifths of them went to public school, which is five times as many as average. I accept the right hon. Member did not go to public school; I do not know why I am looking at him—I will draw my attention elsewhere. The people who run this country, including this Parliament, tend to come from very privileged backgrounds. Not so many years ago, there were 100 manual workers in Parliament; now there are only seven of us left. There are 200 people with a business background in the House of Commons. If we look at almost every power structure in our society, the same thing applies—other than in professional sports, where more people from working-class backgrounds have access.

I will cut to the chase. There are 440,000 children living in poverty, despite that fact that their parents are working full-time, and yet Government Members and Ministers continually tell us that work is the way to opportunity in life. I believe in work. I am a member of a party called Labour; the Labour party is about work. We believe in work and want people to be at work. But do not tell me or my constituents that work is a route out of poverty. It is a route into poverty as much as any other system in our country.

In my constituency, there has been a 50% increase in the number of children in poverty since 2015. That is in one constituency. My constituency is also in the lowest 20% for young people’s educational attainment. Given the low levels of social mobility, and the levels of poverty and education in my constituency, it is impossible to imagine, how—without dramatic social and economic change—a child born there today can expect to do anything other than die younger than normal and in poverty. The whole idea of social mobility is a myth, unless it is combined with massive structural and transformative change. With that, I will take the hint that I have had my five minutes.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston Conservative, Wantage 4:52, 21 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir David Evennett on securing the debate. I have heard him talk many times about how important social mobility is to him, and we have had conversations about it. He is right that we have slightly lost focus on the issue in recent years.

Social mobility has been very important to my own personal and professional life. I ran three charities for disadvantaged young people, the last of which was called the Social Mobility Foundation. I was on the original Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, when Alan Milburn was the chair. I chair the social mobility all-party parliamentary group. The two words “social mobility” have been very important in both my personal and professional life.

If there is one key point in what I will say, it is that it is everybody’s responsibility to make social mobility happen. On the commission, we used to say that we can get into a situation where employers blame universities, which blame schools, which blame families—and everybody blames the Government—and that, actually, if at each stage of people’s life cycles things were done slightly differently, obstacles that are in the way of social mobility would be removed.

Starting with the early years is very important, but it should not be an obsession. It does not necessarily provide what Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children’s Zone calls the escape velocity that will take someone through the rest of their life—even though we might hope it does. Some academics would say that about 80% of our outcomes are about what happens in the home rather than in school. We focus on school in this place. That is why things like family hubs are so important; every parent wants to be able to do the right thing, but they do not necessarily get the right advice and guidance about what to do. Being school-ready at age five is so important to how children then access school as they move through their lives. That is one big area that is not within the Government’s control, but it is important that we encourage the right things.

Then there is school. The Prime Minister said that education is the closest thing to a silver bullet that we have for social mobility.

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich

Before my hon. Friend moves on to school-age children, there are things the Government can do to support disadvantaged and vulnerable children at an early age to improve not only educational attainment, but many aspects of their lives. We can look at longitudinal studies of schemes like the Family Nurse Partnership, which targets vulnerable and poorer families, provides targeted support for new mums and dads, and helps children be school-ready. Will he briefly comment on that, because that is something the Government could put money towards?

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston Conservative, Wantage

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have to talk more about this because too often in politics people on the left fear they will demonise parents and on the right they fear they will appear to be the nanny state if they talk about it, but politicians and commentators who say those things are doing exactly the right things for their children. He is absolutely right about the Family Nurse Partnership and a whole range of other things, including family hubs.

The schools system is the easiest lever for politicians to pull, and we have seen huge increases in attainment through academies, free schools and various other initiatives. We have seen London state schools go from being the worst to the best, but we still have parts of the country where the standard of education is not good enough. We have a gender gap in education where girls do better than boys, and an ethnicity gap where certain ethnic groups do better than others, but the biggest gap in education is between children who have free school meals and those who do not. Although we have been making progress—albeit slow—covid has made that situation a lot worse, and has destroyed a lot of the progress we have made. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford says, the national tutoring programme is important, but we have to do more to focus on that.

Let me quickly canter through some other areas. This is about further education colleges and ensuring that the courses they provide will help people in the employment market, which is what we were trying to get to with the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022. When it comes to universities, the success they often trumpet about the percentage of state school students they have masks the fact that a huge proportion of them went to selective state schools—grammar schools—and that the proportion of comprehensive school entry pupils is still low. There is more for them to do, particularly at the most elite universities.

Finally, on professions, Members will have heard me say previously that someone is 24 times more likely to become a doctor if their parent is a doctor; only 6% of doctors are from a working-class background. Again, that is not in the Government’s control. Employers have to do something about that. Some people will say that social mobility is not about people leaving their home area, going to a Russell Group university and getting a middle-class job, but show me someone who says that, and nine times out of 10 they will have done exactly that in their own life. That does not invalidate the point—we need to have both, and to move jobs and investment to those areas—but do not tell me that we should not be trying to get more people into those universities and professions, because they are controlling the country. If we are to get to a position where talent and opportunity is everywhere, everybody has to play their part.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

I have to ask Members to please stick to four minutes now.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 4:57, 21 March 2023

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate Sir David Evennett on securing and leading this important debate. A gap between aspiration and opportunity exists in some parts of the country, and that should not be the case. I am in a similar position to my hon. Friend Jon Trickett; if we look at the list of constituencies and the ranking of social mobility, Barnsley East is 430 out of 533 constituencies in England. That is different from constituencies of—not exclusively, but generally—Conservative MPs.

Former coalfields like Barnsley East tend to have fewer good jobs, which obviously has a knock-on effect on the number of schools and transport infrastructure in the area. Among other factors, this has led to a significant geographical divide between the north and the south. For example, life expectancy in Barnsley for both men and women is approximately two years less than the national average and five years less than more affluent areas of Surrey. More than 6,300 children across Barnsley East alone—that is just my constituency, not the borough of Barnsley—live in child poverty. A third of Barnsley residents now live in fuel poverty, and the Office for National Statistics found that 12.4% of those eligible to work in Barnsley do not have any qualifications. That is in stark contrast with London, where the number of people with no qualifications sits at just 6.6%.

All these factors obviously have an impact on children’s and young people’s life chances. Accessible vocational education is an important part of overcoming disadvantage, giving young people the tools and employment experience to get on in life. My constituency of Barnsley East does not have a sixth form college, so when students finish their GCSEs at one of the secondary schools, they have to travel into the town centre and go to Barnsley College. That is not to take away from the fantastic work that the college does; it is an excellent college and it really supports people. I know from being a teacher that for some children and young people, not having to take that step of leaving their supportive school environment would encourage them to stay on and think about further education.

We need long-term, sustained investment in our schools. Investment has been cut over the last decade. We also need investment in industry so that young people and children have as much chance to succeed as they would in other parts of the country. We need to think about young people’s experience at school. As a former teacher, I have seen at first hand that if they turn up to school hungry, it affects their ability to learn and to do well.

We must also think about young people’s access to extracurricular and cultural activities. Parents may be doing the best they can, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth said, being in work does not necessarily mean they are not in poverty. A good example of encouraging kids to do a cultural activity is the fantastic, world-class Barnsley Youth Choir, which provides choral training regardless of financial or social background. It is an amazing programme that has done so much for Barnsley, and I am pleased to support it.

My final point on education relates to the point that the previous speaker, David Johnston, made about the impact of covid. There was a huge disparity between the learning experiences of working-class kids and middle-class kids during the pandemic. Using predicted grades for people’s A-level results also had a hugely disproportionate effect on areas such as Barnsley, and that will have a huge impact going forward.

Social mobility is really about this generation doing better than the generation before, and we are falling behind on that. The Government can, and should, do better to support working-class communities such as Barnsley, by investing in both people and local economies. I am sure that the Labour spokesperson, my hon. Friend Alison McGovern, will touch on some of this, but a future Labour Government have pledged to do just that.

We will invest in the skills of our workforce, including a shift of resources to local communities to help people back into work. We will help more people into high-skilled and better-paid jobs, and implement a new taskforce—Skills England—to link local people with local businesses to grow skills and the economy across the whole country. It is about ensuring that kids have the best education, and that they can get qualifications and good jobs. Where someone is born should not limit their opportunities or their chances. It currently does, and that must change.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington 5:02, 21 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir David Evennett on securing this important debate, and I am delighted to see the Minister for Social Mobility, Youth and Progression responding to it.

Levelling up is not just about dishing out money to parts of the north that have been ignored by Governments of all colours. Righting that wrong is part of my motivation for being here, and it is about delivering on the core missions of the levelling-up agenda. Social mobility goes to the heart of those missions, particularly education and skills. We all know that there are only two real- terms solutions to solving poverty—work and education. Providing opportunity, aspiration and inspiration to the next generation is critical to delivering social mobility. We all have a part to play in that.

For the record, Darlington is ranked 120 out of 533 English constituencies on the social mobility index, so Conservative Members are representing every type of constituency out there. There is already a vast swathe of new opportunities for local people in Darlington, which will enable them to fully reach their potential and find good, well-paid and secure employment into the future. Just this weekend, the brand new engineering block, the Ingenium Centre, opened at Darlington College. The centre has been delivered with £2.96 million from the towns fund, and it will house the college’s T-level students.

I commend the Government for introducing T-levels, and for providing an innovative educational route for people to gain the skills they need to prosper and fully meet their potential. I simply do not recognise the picture painted by Jon Trickett.

Literacy and reading is a great ladder for opportunity, and we know that wider reading broadens aspirations. I take this opportunity to highlight and pay tribute to Skerne Park Academy and its reading lobster scheme, which was introduced after the children said they did not have someone to read aloud to at home. They now each have their own reading lobster, a buddy for life to listen to their stories. The scheme is proving hugely successful and is promoting a lifelong love of reading in these children. Indeed, Seb, my own lobster, has met Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. The scheme is going down very well in Skerne Park in Darlington. We know that children who read for pleasure go further in life, and I ask the Minister what the Government are doing to ensure that we encourage wider reading.

This debate seemed a perfect opportunity to highlight the work of the Purpose Coalition and the Social Mobility Pledge, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford has already done that, so I want to put on record my thanks to Justine Greening and David Harrison for their incredible work on the Social Mobility Pledge. Through the Harrison Foundation, which David heads up, the Social Mobility Pledge has contributed over £50,000 to First Stop Darlington, which is helping people get on in life.

In conclusion, the investment that Darlington has received from the Government has helped to galvanise organisations that work with local people to ensure their true potential is not wasted. But we can go further, and I urge the Minister to do so. Many of us in this place can be examples to our communities of what can be achieved. I am thinking in particular about those of us who went to state schools and were the first in our families to go to university, or indeed did not go at all.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy) 5:06, 21 March 2023

Social mobility ought to concern us all. I am not comfortable living in a country where the chances of success are heavily influenced by where someone is born and who they are to. The Sutton Trust’s report “Elites in the UK: Pulling Away?” found that one in five men in professional occupations who were born between 1955 and 1961 became socially mobile, but the figure drops to one in eight for those born between 1975 and 1981. In other words, as generations go by, we are becoming a less mobile nation.

When I was chair of the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility, we did a report on access to professions, including medicine, law, politics, media and art. Those are the areas where the lack of opportunity is most prevalent. Three quarters of senior judges, more than half the top 100 news journalists, more than half the Cabinet and two thirds of British Oscar winners are privately educated. We have already heard the statistic that someone is 24 times more likely to be in medicine if their parents are already in it.

Our report is six years old but just as relevant today. I would really like to see some of the practical recommendations in it implemented, such as a ban on unpaid internships, which really take the ladder away from many who are trying to get on the first rung. Exploitation is taking place at entry level.

Drama is one area where opportunities are limited. I should point out, for the record, that my son is an aspiring actor and uses some of the services I am about to mention. I mention them because they are a new way of exploiting young people’s ambitions. Most acting jobs now are hidden behind paywalls, costing anywhere from £15 and £19 a month to access. What kind of world do we live in where someone has to pay a subscription just to see whether there are any jobs they might want to apply for?

There are three companies that seem to operate in this way: Spotlight, Mandy and StarNow, which I see regularly advertising on social media. I say three companies advisedly, because Backstage and StarNow seem to have almost identical websites, and Mandy and StarNow have the same registered office and similar directors. Perhaps I am missing something about why I need to have three separate subscriptions. In their defence, they say:

“Having memberships to the multiple platforms will give you access to the most job opportunities and increase your visibility to casting”.

That sounds reasonable enough, but I suggest it would also be reasonable to put all the jobs on one site and not charge at all. We can debate the morality of this business model another time, but I wonder whether the Minister thinks it is right for a profession that is notoriously difficult to access to be exploiting people and charging them just to look at what jobs are available.

I conclude by asking the Minister another question about where social mobility lies in the Government’s list of priorities. As we have heard, if social mobility is to be tackled properly, we need to tackle more than just access to work. It is about tax, welfare, housing, transport and health. At the very least, it should not be the remit of just one Minister in one Department; it should be a central mission across all Departments. If the Government are serious about tackling injustice and widening opportunity, it must be driven from the very top.

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows Scottish National Party, Motherwell and Wishaw 5:09, 21 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate Sir David Evennett, but I also want to chastise him because he has taken some of my best lines.

I, too, am a product of social mobility. My father was a co-operative milkman and my mother was a cleaner. They both left school at 14, but they were determined to give me the chances that they never had. I was the first in my entire family to go to university in the days when many folk considered educating girls to be just a waste of time—she would only get married and have weans. I did both, and now I am here.

I also taught in further education. I know that times have changed, but social mobility is a real issue. Those in poverty cannot be socially mobile. Those who are hungry cannot learn. When fees are a barrier, many cannot access higher education. That is why children in Scotland are lucky. The Scottish Government take their duties to the next generation seriously, and they have introduced many measures to tackle child poverty. The latest iteration is “Best Start, Bright Futures”, which looks at long-term parental employment support, increased social security and measures to reduce household costs. The recent Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis of Scottish tax and benefit reform found that the lowest-income families in Scotland are significantly better off as a result of the Scottish Government’s tax regime.

Among the poorest 30% of households, those with children will see their incomes boosted by a sizeable £2,000 a year on average, driven by higher benefits for families with children. Perhaps the Minister would consider that in relation to the UK. The Scottish child payment has recently been increased immensely. It is now up to £25 a week—the Scottish Government are providing an extra £2.6 million this year—and it is being extended to children up to the age of 16.

Other small independent countries do much better on social mobility. I am thinking of Nordic countries, such as Denmark. According to OECD figures, it takes two generations to increase social mobility in Denmark, but it takes five generations in the United Kingdom. We must look at that.

I do not want to, and cannot, mention everyone, but Jon Trickett caught my attention when he talked about Conservative Members saying that the only way out of poverty is work. That is not the case for those on a zero-hours contract and minimum wage. The living wage, as it is described by the Tory Government, is not enough to live on. That is why many working parents are still getting universal credit. There is something wrong with a system where both parents are working and children, who are our future, will never be able to be socially mobile. They will not know how, because they are being held back by poverty. Will the Minister also look at introducing a minimum support payment for the Child Maintenance Service if parents refuse to pay? I have already spoken to her about this.

Social mobility is important. Social mobility actually works. Social mobility means that we will prosper, right across the UK. Countries, such as Norway, which give their citizens high social benefits, are not poor countries. They make people’s lives better and therefore increase social mobility. I will sit down now, because I am really interested in what the Minister and the Opposition have to say.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 5:14, 21 March 2023

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Robertson. I will try to be swift.

I obviously thank Sir David Evennett for securing this timely debate, and I thank all the Members who have spoken. The right hon. Member began by mentioning the 2022 report of the Social Mobility Commission. However, since its publication the chair of the commission has given up her role and it is unclear what the future holds.

I am here on behalf of the shadow Department for Work and Pensions team, and the Minister is here representing DWP. Responsibility for social mobility has been passed from Education to Equalities and now to DWP. Over the past couple of years, that has suggested that it is an unloved policy area for which nobody really wants to take responsibility.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am sure the Minister did. But what exactly is going on? Part 1 of the Equalities Act 2010, which Parliament passed all those years ago, set out a public sector duty regarding socioeconomic inequalities that would have tackled, in a cross-cutting way, as ably described by my hon. Friend Justin Madders, all the issues that Members have mentioned today. That is its objective. Amazingly, the Conservative-Lib Dem Government and subsequent Conservative Governments have never brought that duty into force. We are left asking why.

However, as we are here with a DWP Minister and her shadow, I will just raise some points about the Department’s own policy areas. If it had that overarching duty to tackle socioeconomic inequality, it might not have adopted, as it has done for many years now, the policy of any job, better job, career. That policy has shaped the Department’s approach and has resulted in people being told to get any job, as if that was a route up or a route out of poverty. As we have heard from Member after Member today, it is simply no longer the case that work, by definition, provides a route out of poverty. It is also true, and the Government themselves know this from their own pay progression report, that getting any job is not a route to better pay.

We need new principles and new policies, not least because of the geographical impact of this issue. We know from the House of Commons Library’s analysis of the Social Mobility Commission’s previous rankings that 77% of constituencies in London are in the top 20% of social mobility constituencies by metric, whereas the corresponding figure for the west midlands falls to 14%, for the east midlands 9%, for the north-west 8%, for Yorkshire and the Humber 7%, and for the south-west just 2%. Of the top-ranking areas for social mobility, 77% are London constituencies and just 2% are in the south-west. Geography is at the heart of this.

Exactly what steps is DWP going to take to clarify the role of the Social Mobility Commission? What data will be made available to this House and when on the current state of social mobility in this country? Precisely what targets are the Government now setting? What is the future for the commission’s metrics—it seems to have veered between different ones—and its report? And what action will DWP take immediately to stop forcing people to take jobs that, as several Members have said, are likely to make them struggle with social mobility and not achieve their ambitions?

Social mobility cannot just be a talking point for us politicians; it has to be about genuine hard work to shift the opportunities in our countries. I am afraid that the Tories and the Lib Dems saw this as a way out in 2011: they wanted to end the child poverty goal and to put something fluffy about social mobility in its place. But passing a non-specific goal from Department to Department is kidology—it will never work. We need a real effort for change. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston has already said how the Labour party will do that. The first thing that we will do is to enact part 1 of the Equalities Act 2010 and take real action against class discrimination and put in place policies to bring it to an end.

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 5:19, 21 March 2023

I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend Sir David Evennett on securing this important debate and on his excellent, thoughtful and wide-ranging speech on social mobility. It has also been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I thank all Members who have contributed to this excellent debate.

I reassure Members of all parties that as the Minister for Social Mobility, Youth and Progression in the Department for Work and Pensions, this is a topic that I am particularly passionate about. In response to my hon. Friend Dr Poulter, I am absolutely committed to working across Government and keeping a focus on this issue. I absolutely agree with the point about role models: you simply can’t be it if you can’t see it.

On Single Parents’ Day, and as a single mum, it is an honour and still a surprise to serve in this House. I was the first uni student in my family, with many of my relatives still thriving in trades as manual workers with a farming background. My father left school at 14 with no qualifications and a substantial dyslexia challenge, so our family is absolutely a product of social mobility. I understand the strong views expressed by Jon Trickett. I take a different view, but I am very proud and pleased that we all share our own experiences in this House, and how we learn from our experiences helps with the role model piece.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford and many colleagues about the commitments that we make in this House by continuing through, and this is a great opportunity to move the levelling-up conversation into the social mobility conversation. Social mobility is absolutely about every single person having the chance and opportunity to succeed, no matter their background or postcode.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

The Minister may not be aware that Darlington is home to one of the largest settled Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in the country. I am particularly keen to hear her views—if not today, by following up in writing—on what the Government are doing specifically in respect of them.

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The support for all groups, no matter their background or where they are, is exemplified by hon. Friend pointing out that particular group. I am happy to come forward with further information on that, including cross-Government work.

The Government remain committed to all aspects of life, from education to work and later life, and to having a comprehensive suite of measures in place to achieve social mobility. The challenges laid down today are very welcome, because we have heard about different experiences in the different corners of Britain. Yesterday I visited Sandwell, West Bromwich, Wolverhampton and central Birmingham to discuss how our DWP support, youth offer and work with the third sector and local partnerships is making a difference in our communities.

I do not agree with Alison McGovern on the ABC—any job, better job, career—approach. Throughout the engagement that I had yesterday, it was consistently said to me that the skills, confidence and network that that gives people are transformative. As we have all spoken about today, you have to start somewhere.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

It is great to hear the Minister’s contribution, and I know she cares deeply about this issue. If she has evidence of the efficacy of that policy approach, will she place it in the Library of the House of Commons?

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

We are doing some work on the impact of the kickstart scheme and how getting a job and progressing is leading young people to stay in work. There will be further information coming, and I will always share that with the hon. Lady.

In my conversations yesterday, I heard how adverse childhood experiences such as bereavement, poor attainment at school and other issues have impacted on young people’s confidence and opportunities, and on their experiences in adulthood. It demonstrates the critical point made in the Chamber this afternoon about the importance of getting education right and, above all, getting the Government’s lifetime skills guarantee right. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford rightly said, education and skills have a massive impact. I absolutely agree that local colleges are among the most socially mobile and able connectors in terms of what they achieve, and I applaud the work that goes on in colleges. Spreading opportunity for every child and young person is a top priority, because their talent should contribute to where they end up.

I am concerned by the point made by Justin Madders about job opportunities being hidden behind paywalls. As the former Employment Minister, and as the Minister for Youth, I worry about those opportunities. I thank him for raising that point. I ask those sectors that often approach the Government about being more socially mobile and more open to look at themselves. This is not a finger-pointing exercise, but those that continue to recruit in the same way often end up with the same people around the table. If that is excluding people, let us look at those recruitment basics.

The Government are investing in 55 education investment areas where outcomes in literacy and numeracy are the poorest, including £86 million in trust capacity funding to support and expand areas of improvement. That will help my hon. Friend Peter Gibson in terms of his reading ask. I will meet my parliamentary neighbour, the Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing, my hon. Friend Claire Coutinho, shortly and will raise the issue of reading confidence. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington use the O-word—opportunities. We are absolutely trying to spread opportunities.

The Department for Education is delivering a clearer skills system that is employer focused, high quality and fit for the future, which is what my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford, who set up the debate so well, asked for. If only we had had time for a longer debate. We should get this subject into the main Chamber and spend more time on it. I would be very happy to respond to it—that is another commitment from me today.

The Social Mobility Commission has said that apprenticeships are among the best mechanisms to help employers build that diverse, talented, wide-ranging workforce, as well as to tackle the skills shortage. Many apprentices earn more than graduates five years after completion. Average graduate earnings five years after graduation are £28,200, compared with £30,900 for level 4 apprentices five years after completion. That is a lesson to us all to promote filling the skills gaps with apprenticeships.

DWP has progression leads in our jobcentres to help people. I recognise that some people work all the hours God sends but still find it difficult to make ends meet. Our progression leads work with our claimants, partner organisations, local authorities, local employers and small and medium-sized enterprises, to make sure that people are able to progress in work.

I had a very engaging meeting with leading employers during the week of International Women’s Day, to talk about the barriers and to focus on interventions. I will meet the Social Mobility Pledge team, including our former parliamentary colleague, Justine Greening, to discuss her mission. She is doing a brilliant job. DWP also has the social mobility commitment, pledge and consortium, of which 60 employers are a part.

It has been such a pleasure to respond to today’s debate, because this week is the DWP’s inaugural social mobility week—a week of action and engagement in our Department, with colleagues across the country working out how to tackle any barriers and to focus on social mobility. That includes being a national employer and giving our customers aspirations and goals. We are looking at things such as caring responsibilities, and I will host a session on Thursday. We are also looking at subjects such as accent bias and recruitment bias. I hope that reassures the hon. Member for Wirral South.

Throughout the debate, we have seen that social mobility is a key priority and I hope I have shown my passion for it. We will break down the barriers. No matter what someone’s background is, we can cater for every single circumstance. Everybody, like us, should have the opportunities to succeed.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Conservative, Bexleyheath and Crayford 5:29, 21 March 2023

I thank the Minister for her response and thank everyone who has participated. We should be working together as much as we can. I do not agree with Jon Trickett, but I hope we can have a chat over a cup of tea.

This is a very important issue. We have had a very constructive debate. We have lots of ideas and we want to make progress. Those of us who come from very ordinary backgrounds want other people to be able to do the same and make something of their lives—I think we can all agree on that. This is a very important issue. I do not want to make it party political, because I think it is much bigger than that. There should be a national approach to get the very best for all of our people, so that they can progress to what they want to and really can be.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered social mobility.

Sitting adjourned.