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Employment: Access to Professions

Volume 710: debated on Monday 11 May 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to follow up the recent report by the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions to ensure that senior ranks of the professions are accessible to state-educated people.

My Lords, the recent report by the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions was an interim report only. The Government have no plans to respond to the interim report. However, when the panel publishes its final report in the summer, the Government will make a full response.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. The Cabinet Office interim study confirms a picture of apartheid Britain, painted so vividly by my noble friend Lord Adonis some years ago, with over 50 per cent of the most senior positions in the law, the media, the financial services and the Civil Service occupied by a privately educated 7 per cent minority of the population—a sort of self-perpetuating closed shop. First, does she agree that the relatively limited opportunities for the 93 per cent in state education and the hugely disproportionate opportunities for the 7 per cent who went to public schools are inevitably two sides of the same question? Secondly, to do something about this stranglehold, would Her Majesty’s Government encourage those involved in the final stage of the study to examine the charitable status of public schools with a view to tax relief being gradually withdrawn from schools that do not have at least 50 per cent of their pupils and governors drawn from the community as a whole?

My Lords, it is precisely because we still have a system, although it is greatly improved, in which children from state education have fewer opportunities than those who are educated privately that this panel was set up. I thank the panel for the work that it is undertaking; it is doing a splendid job. We await the panel’s report but, in the mean time, I shall of course take back the issue about taxation raised by my noble friend.

My Lords, does the Leader of the House agree that it is rather foolish to assume, as some do, that the failure of enough people from state schools to reach the top of the professions is due to discrimination or artificial barriers being put up against them? Would it not be more sensible for all of us to concentrate all our efforts on ensuring that the standards in schools are so improved that every really able young person has the chance to get the qualifications necessary for entry into our best universities?

My Lords, the panel, in its interim report, identifies five barriers, of which education is one. Yes, education and educational opportunities are extremely important, which is why I am delighted that so much progress has been made on results. However, things like health inequalities are important, too. Then there are things such as Sure Start. The gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children kick in as early as 22 months, which is why I am very proud of the Sure Start system that this Government introduced, as it means that all children will have more opportunities in their later life.

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware of the fact that the medical profession is one of those that has been making considerable efforts to widen participation? However, medicine involves a very long training and one barrier to students doing that training is the debt that they incur. Are there any plans in the review of fair access and student fees to consider courses that are much longer than the normal three-year degree courses, such as those for the medical profession?

My Lords, I do not have that information to hand, but I will certainly come back to the noble Baroness with further information if I can.

My Lords, while I warmly welcome the work of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, does my noble friend share my concern about the increasing tendency in more and more professions to have simply graduate-only entry? That means that the vast majority of people in the professions have left school at 18 to do a three-year full-time course and often have gone on to a one or two-year postgraduate course. Is it not important to remember some of the lessons of the past, where many professions were open to people via different routes? Those people had often left school earlier, at 16 or 18, gone into different jobs, and may have decided in their 30s to go into the professions. If we are to widen access, is it not essential that we ensure a variety of entry methods?

My Lords, I strongly agree with my noble friend. We are having 35,000 more apprentices this year, many of whom will, I hope, have access to the professions. Just last week in Knowsley, I met a fantastic bunch of apprentices and I am sure that two or three of them—for example, one working in accountancy and another in the media—will ultimately reach the top of their professions.

My Lords, as a member of the panel, I feel that I should declare an interest. Does the Minister agree that it will be important for the panel to do an extremely careful audit of what all the professions are doing to encourage access? We need a thorough look at what is already being done—and a great deal is—before the panel can come to conclusions and enable the Government to consider, in due course, the recommendations that it makes.

Yes, my Lords, the committee clearly has to take its time. It has to get all the information that it requires from the professions about what is happening within them. I am sure that the report, when it is published in the summer, will take all those things into careful consideration.