Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to the Social Mobility Commission.
Social justice is the defining issue for our country, and I was delighted that the Prime Minister’s key message in her “burning injustice” speech in July 2016 was that the Government would fight injustice in our society. The Social Mobility Commission, then led by Alan Milburn, was to play a crucial role in that mission: its purpose was to shine a light on progress towards tackling injustice. In December last year, however, Alan Milburn resigned, alongside his fellow commissioners. He explained his reasons in his letter of resignation, stating specifically that roles on the commission had been vacant for nearly two years, and expressing his belief that the Government were—in his words—
“unable to devote the necessary energy and focus to the social mobility agenda”.
Social justice is one of our themes on the Education Committee. We want everyone in our society to be able to reach and climb the ladder of opportunity, and the resignation of the commissioners was naturally a source of serious concern. We held a public evidence session with Alan Milburn, Baroness Shephard and David Johnston, and published a report with our conclusions. We concluded that there should be a body inside Government to co-ordinate and drive forward initiatives to ensure social justice across the country, and to ensure coherence and cohesion across Departments. We also said that a few relatively minor legislative changes would result in a more effective commission, and it is those changes that the Bill seeks to implement.
By the time the commissioners walked out in December, there were only four of them left. The commission had started with 20, but there had been no renewals since March 2015. An appointment process at the beginning of 2016 was described as “farcical”. The commission was left to dwindle, which seems totally at odds with the Prime Minister’s commitment to social justice. Baroness Shephard was the deputy chair of the commission. She said that
“the writing was very firmly on the wall anyway. It had to be because we could not get answers. There were delays. Not delays, but blank walls as far as appointing new commissioners was concerned, and I thought there was no point…there was no point at all.”
The Bill would create a minimum membership of the commission, of seven members in addition to the Chair. I see no reason why the Government should aim for the number of commissioners to be fewer than 10, although I recognise that there may be occasions on which the membership may, for one reason or another, fall below that number. However, introducing a minimum membership in law will mitigate the risk that such attrition and neglect will happen again.
The commission has conducted in-depth research, and has a focus on data and analysis. It is therefore in an ideal position to analyse Government policy objectively for its effect on social mobility. The Government already recognise the value of independent advisory bodies’ objectively assessing financial implications of policy: the Office for Budget Responsibility is one example. Why should that not apply to social justice as well? The Bill seeks to give the commission specific powers to publish social justice impact assessments of both policy and legislative proposals. Those assessments should be used to help Governments to improve policy, not just as a means by which negative effects are flagged.
The legislation that set up the commission provides that it must, on request, give advice to a Minister of the Crown on how to improve social mobility in England. However, Alan Milburn told us that the Government
“lacked the head space and the band width to match the rhetoric of healing social division with the reality”.
He noted that
“there is only so long you can go on pushing water uphill”.
We are not confident that Ministers regularly and usefully request advice from the commission. The Bill would give it power to give advice proactively to Ministers on how to improve social justice in England, as well as its duty to give advice on request.
Our final suggested legislative change is to the name of the commission. I do not like the phrase “social mobility”. It reminds me of a Vodafone advertisement. While it can convey the idea of people moving up the ladder of opportunity, the phrase “social justice” goes much further. It describes helping the most disadvantaged to reach that ladder of opportunity, and supporting them should they fall. Changing the name of the commission would make abundantly clear what it is seeking to improve. It is the Ronseal principle: it does what it says on the tin—not just improving the chances of some people, but offering all people equal access to opportunities. As its name has already changed twice since 2010, a further small change would be consistent with its changing role.
I am delighted that our report was agreed unanimously and that the draft Bill has the full support of the Education Committee. I pay tribute to all my colleagues on the Committee for their hard work and support, and for their commitment to social justice. We may be members of different parties, but we are united in addressing social justice in education. I thank the officers of the Committee as well.
We are convinced that the relatively modest changes proposed in the Bill, in addition to a body inside Government to implement recommendations and co-ordinate across Departments, will result in a more effective social justice commission. We want to see the commission empowered to monitor and report effectively on progress towards achieving social justice in England. We want the Government to hear the commission loud and clear when it suggests remedies, and when it advocates on behalf of those in our society who need a voice the most. An effective social justice commission working in tandem with an implementation body at the heart of Government could really begin to heal some of the great social divides in our country. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will support the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
That Robert Halfon, Lucy Allan, Marion Fellows, James Frith, Emma Hardy, Trudy Harrison, Ian Mearns, Thelma Walker, Lucy Powell and Mr William Wragg present the Bill.
Robert Halfon accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 15 June and to be printed (Bill 213).
Before we proceed with the main business of the day, I remind the House that we will interrupt the debate at 2.30 pm, or possibly a few seconds before, to hold a one-minute silence to remember the terror attack in Manchester on 22 May 2017.