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Social Mobility Strategy

Volume 726: debated on Tuesday 5 April 2011


My Lords, I wish to repeat a Statement that my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister made earlier today.

“Today I am launching a cross-government strategy to improve social mobility: Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility. This has been overseen by the informal ministerial group on social mobility, which I chair, and in close collaboration with key departments. I am placing a copy in the Libraries of both Houses and making it available on the Cabinet Office website.

Fairness is a fundamental value of the coalition Government. A fair society is an open society in which everyone is free to flourish and rise regardless of the circumstances of their birth. This strategy sets out a vision for a socially mobile society, the principal objective of the coalition Government’s social policy.

In Britain today, the income and social class of parents continue to have a huge bearing on a child’s chances. Gaps in development between children from different backgrounds can be detected even at birth. These gaps grow rapidly during the early years and widen throughout school, such that only one in five young people from the poorest families achieves five good GCSEs, including English and maths, compared with three-quarters from the richest families. This has a major impact on participation in further and higher education, and on success in the labour market. These cycles of disadvantage are repeated across the generations. This not only is a source of great unfairness but hinders our national prosperity, as talented individuals are denied the opportunity to develop to their full potential.

This strategy takes a comprehensive life-cycle approach. A person’s fortune should not be determined at the age of five, 15 or 30. By providing help and support at every stage, we aim to narrow the gap and provide second chances. The strategy seeks to improve social mobility at each life stage: the foundation years, nought to five; the school years, five to 16; the transition years, 16 to 24; and adulthood, aged 24 and over.

In the foundation years, we welcome the independent reviews carried out by Frank Field, Graham Allen and Dame Clare Tickell. Our approach puts supporting parents and providing affordable, high-quality early education and care centre stage. We are maintaining Sure Start children’s centres, recruiting thousands more health visitors, expanding family nurse partnerships and investing in free pre-school education for all disadvantaged two year-olds, on top of existing provisions for all three and four year-olds.

During the school years, our school reforms, giving schools greater freedom, raising the status and quality of teaching and improving accountability and transparency will raise standards in all our schools, while the pupil premium will provide an extra £2.5 billion a year to radically improve educational outcomes for the most disadvantaged pupils. We will also raise aspirations through high-quality advice and guidance, and through much greater engagement between schools, business, universities and wider society.

For young people, we will look to narrow gaps in educational attainment, raising the participation age and increasing funding for apprenticeships while ensuring fair access to higher education and developing a new strategy to increase participation in education and training.

During adulthood, we will continue to encourage fair access to jobs, with the Civil Service leading by example and a new business compact on social mobility asking business to do its bit. At the same time we will maintain a second chance to train and for lifelong learning opportunities, improve work incentives through our welfare reforms, support lower and middle-income earners through our goal of raising the personal allowance to £10,000 and help people to build up their assets.

Crucially, our strategy sets out a clear framework for holding the Government to account on our ambitious proposals. We are creating a new statutory social mobility and child poverty commission to assess progress on child poverty and social mobility, hold the Government and others to account, and to act on and advocate change. We have developed a set of high-level indicators that will be used to track progress; and for the first time, as departments develop their new policies, they will need to consider the impact on social mobility.

I will continue to chair a group of key Ministers to maintain this momentum for change. We recognise that the Government alone cannot single-handedly create a fairer society. This is a task for parents, communities, businesses, professions and voluntary organisations too. However, the coalition Government will help to create a fair and open society where opportunity is shared and everyone can flourish”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I am sure that on all sides of the House we welcome a commitment to improving social mobility. All of us who want a fairer society want more room at the top and people to succeed on the basis of ability and not birth. It is also clear that there is much to be done. The figures at the beginning of the strategy make that clear, and I agree with it that:

“The lack of social mobility is damaging for individuals”.

It also leaves the country’s economic potential unfulfilled.

The Statement says that the promotion of social mobility is,

“the principal objective of the coalition Government’s social policy”.

That is also welcome. In that respect, and in the appointment of my right honourable friend Alan Milburn to head up this work, the Government are continuing an emphasis that Gordon Brown gave the last Government when he became Prime Minister.

I am the first to say that the last Government—alongside lifting half a million children out of poverty, embedding the principles of Every Child Matters, establishing universal early years provision for the first time, and a record number of children getting GCSEs, and ensuring a record number of students going to university—could have done more on social mobility. That is precisely why Alan Milburn was commissioned to write his report at the beginning of 2009, so today’s strategy has a familiar feel to it as something of a reheat of the last Milburn report, and on that basis there is not a lot to criticise as far as it goes. On the three actions set out in the strategy, there is nothing wrong with establishing a new public body to monitor progress. I welcome the publication of indicators of progress. And, of course, the final action point of a group of Ministers chaired by Nick Clegg is bound to add significant value.

However, I am bound to ask: where is the beef? Is this it? How do these three actions counteract the damage already done by this Tory-led Government? Let us, like the strategy, take the life-cycle approach. Before a child is born, support for parents, especially the mother, is important. What will be the social mobility effect of abolishing the health in pregnancy grant? Then life begins and we find that the baby credit element of tax credit has gone, the Sure Start maternity grant is cut for a significant number of women, and the childcare element of tax credits and child benefit are gone for a growing number of middle- income families as thousands more move into the top rate of tax. Let us hope that the child is healthy, because there is a strong link between health inequalities and social mobility. Just last month, the British Medical Journal published a report saying that the shambles of the NHS reforms risks making child health worse because of the lack of access to specialist paediatricians, a general view supported by the Government’s own Commissioning Support Programme. Incidentally, how come the Government launched a consultation on these reforms yesterday, during local election purdah?

Let us hope that the child’s family does not live in private rented accommodation, especially here in London. Shelter estimates that housing benefit changes will force 129,000 children to move to more affordable homes with, as the Government’s own impact assessment says,

“an adverse impact on work to reduce child poverty and … children’s schooling could be affected”.

Before they get to school, the parents and the children might be lucky enough to get support from one of the remaining Sure Start children’s centres. Much has been made of 15 hours of free pre-school support for some two year-olds and all three and four year-olds, but where will they go for this support? Children’s centres are fundamental to the early intervention that Frank Field’s poverty report put such stress on; yet despite the Prime Minister’s spin in the other place, the fact is that hundreds are closing and thousands are reducing their services.

Then we get to school. The concept of the new pupil premium is welcome, but the reality is that, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has noted, schools in more deprived areas will receive a smaller pupil premium than similarly deprived schools in more affluent areas. In order to pay for it, the two most successful schemes that academics tell us narrowed attainment gaps between rich and poor children, London Challenge and Extended Schools, have been either scrapped or allowed to wither on the vine. If a child is not academic, he or she will be written off and turned off school by the English baccalaureate that exclusively values academic attainment and thus incentivises schools to narrow their focus. However, if a child is not too disengaged by the narrower focus of school, will he or she stay on after 16? Some 600,000 students who would have received the educational maintenance allowance will no longer qualify for financial support, even with the new replacement scheme. That is another attack on middle- income families.

If children manage to stay on, what about university? Most universities are now trebling their fees. Despite warnings, it appears that the Government cannot afford this and look set to reduce the number of student places accordingly. What does that do for social mobility? Does the Minister really believe that families who just miss out on a bursary will think it worth encouraging their children to take on all that debt, and will not some universities go out of business? London Metropolitan University has more black and Afro-Caribbean students than the whole of the Russell Group put together. Can the Minister assure us that universities of that kind will be protected to aid social mobility?

Finally, what about work? Unemployment is up 600,000 since the election; it was falling when I left office as Employment Minister. There are 60,000 more unemployed young people. Unemployment among women has risen every month for the past eight months. Graduate unemployment is at a record high. And what is the government offer on work—that most basic tool of social mobility? Well, there are some mini work experience opportunities and now some internships, including at Cowley Street for the Liberal Democrats. It is reported that these were being advertised yesterday as unpaid, as voluntary. Obviously, that is better than the Tories auctioning them off as a fundraiser, but how does it sit with compliance with the minimum wage brought in by the previous Government? How does it compare with the half a million opportunities for young people that I was responsible for? Our young person’s guarantee was scrapped. The guarantee of training, a job or work experience for 18 to 25 year- olds has gone. The Future Jobs Fund has gone.

A life-cycle approach in this strategy is welcome, but I wish the Government luck in making it work after the destruction of the past 10 months. Social mobility is an important cause for us to rally around, but I am not sure that people will take this strategy seriously. It is short on positive action and it does nothing to address the attacks on social mobility already launched by this Government. If the Deputy Prime Minister wants to be taken seriously on this, as with other things, he will have to do a lot better.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that warm welcome for this initiative. At least he gave a warm welcome for the fact that Alan Milburn is continuing his work, which I freely acknowledge he started before this Government came into power. I am pleased that he has continued to make a contribution from his experience. However, there was a little bit of a clue in what the noble Lord said. He said that Mr Milburn started his work in 2009. If my mathematics work right, that is 12 years after the Labour Government came into office. This initiative is within the first year of the coalition Government, a sign that we have hit the ground running in our commitment to this issue.

I know that it is hard for Labour to accept, but the truth is that social mobility flat-lined under its stewardship. There were many reasons for that and I know that attempts to tackle it have been a problem for succeeding generations. My first job was with the Fabian Society of Brian Abel-Smith and Richard Titmuss. Successive Government have looked at this problem of poverty traps.

It is not fair to ask, “Where’s the beef?”. As I said, we are already providing help for disadvantaged two year-olds, 4,200 more health visitors, the pupil premium, to which the noble Lord referred, funding for disadvantaged learners, the national scholarship fund and new access rules for universities.

The noble Lord talked about non-academic children. This Government have addressed in a way that previous Governments perhaps did not do for 30 years the question of apprenticeships. We have expanded the apprenticeships programme to offer 360,000 new apprenticeships at all ages. We are reforming welfare so that work pays and we are raising income tax personal allowances.

Of course, it is easy to snipe at the internship programme and the business compact, but at least this Government have acted in retaining the services of Mr Milburn and asking him to do the preparatory work for a new body. We will keep track of what these initiatives produce and we are willing to be judged by the assessments made by the new body and the progress made by these initiatives.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge that a number of Sure Start centres are being closed. That being so, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that the centres that remain are made available to the children of families in the greatest need?

That is certainly the Government’s intention. The initiative on Sure Start is still at local authority level but the intention is that it should remain a targeted benefit for those in greatest need, as the noble Lord said.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating this important Statement in your Lordships’ House and I ask him to congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on it. The area of internships has rightly been identified. Does my noble friend accept that in some parts of the country, particularly in the poorest areas, disadvantage and discrimination are an everyday reality in the lives of many people? In many cases, people are still disadvantaged by being in the same place as the one allocated to them when they first moved to this country. What sort of monitoring mechanism will be put in place to ensure that no one suffers discrimination or disadvantage on the basis of their background?

I am hopeful that this will be one of the jobs of the new body that Alan Milburn is setting up. I agree with my noble friend that, of the many problems that we have to tackle, one of the most intractable is social mobility among those from ethnic backgrounds, who often find themselves trapped not only by poverty but by other forms of discrimination.

Does the Minister accept that he is not able to make any announcements today because we are in the middle of the purdah leading up to the local elections? Does he acknowledge that the strategy will end up, as my good friend and fellow north-easterner Alan Milburn said this morning, as motherhood and apple pie unless there are serious changes to some policies, including the way in which mainstream services are funded? The specific attention that is given to areas of higher deprivation is being changed so that, for example, Alan’s and my home county—Durham—is losing money in the funding formula on health to places such as Norfolk, while areas of high deprivation in education are losing more than the pupil premium will give them back. As my noble friend on the Front Bench said, areas that have the highest deprivation will suffer most. What is the Minister going to do in the committee to address this issue, which will signally send social mobility the wrong way?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, for pointing out that I cannot make detailed announcements today. There may be two reasons for that, one of which is the purdah that she mentioned. The danger of this being motherhood and apple pie is always there. This has been a long, intractable problem in our society. Somewhere in my brief there are details of the fact that, even in a time of high unemployment, we still have skills shortages. The mismatch between need and opportunity continues to be there. There is a real determination in the Statement, and in the intentions of the Government’s strategy, to make sure that such resources as are available—I will not go through the mantra about the decrease in resources available to the Government—are genuinely targeted at those in need. If one can comment on the last Government, no one could deny that they put vast amounts of money into some of these problems. One of the questions that we must now ask in politics in general is why, with the resources that they undoubtedly put into areas such as education, social mobility remained so stubbornly difficult to move.

My Lords, while welcoming what has been said on apprentices, may I ask for assurance that any apprentice who is given an apprenticeship gets both the practical on the factory or shop floor and the theory in the vocational colleges? Also, will the House authorities ensure, given the fine craftsmen here, including chefs in the kitchens, that we have a full capacity of apprentices in the Palace of Westminster?

My Lords, on the last question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Martin, I will certainly take that excellent suggestion to the House authorities. If we are going to lead by example as far as the Civil Service is concerned, as my right honourable friend said, we should also do so in the Palace of Westminster. As the noble Lord said, we see excellent craftsmanship at work in many parts of this building. To enable young men and women to obtain skills here would be a good example.

I also agree with the noble Lord on his first question. I always thought that the fall-off in apprenticeships in the 1980s was a waste and that we have had to make a great effort to catch up. It was a loss of real skills. The old apprenticeship scheme was a very valuable part of the skills base in our society. We are only just beginning to put that back. I agree with the noble Lord that there must be both on-the-job training and the use of the full benefits of further education. Another part of the strategy is that the study of an apprenticeship should have, where it merits it, academic recognition to allow somebody to go on into higher education. This is something that we are going to press with the authorities.

My Lords, I am on my feet, so noble Lords have to sit down. As we have 12 minutes, I suggest that we go to my noble friend Lord Willis, then to my noble friend Lord Ryder and then to the noble Lord, Lord Richard.

Can my noble friend please clarify why the Statement that he has just given to your Lordships’ House apparently bears scant resemblance to the Statement given earlier by the Deputy Prime Minister in the other place? I picked up a copy of the Deputy Prime Minister’s Statement in the Printed Paper Office just before coming into the House and I would like to know the reason why the two Statements are markedly different. Was it because the committee under the Deputy Prime Minister met between the two Statements, had an argument and decided to change the text?

No. I am not aware that there is a difference between the two Statements. If there is, I apologise. This was the Statement I was given to read. Well done to my noble friend for such a helpful intervention. I am sure that his long experience in government has come to his aid. Perhaps somebody would like to work out what the differences are. Otherwise, I will write to the noble Lord if there are marked differences.

My noble friend Lord Knight of Weymouth welcomed the strategy, but he was obliged to give a list of actions by the Government that undermine the principle behind it. He missed one very important action, and that is the cuts that have been made to voluntary and community services and to charities, many of which have tried for many years to do invaluable work in helping social cohesion and looking to improve social mobility. In my own town HomeStart, a valuable organisation giving families the support they need in life, will close in the next few weeks because of cuts to its funding. How does that improve social mobility?

I listened to the Statement at the other end. Local authorities across the country are making cuts and it is very easy for people to leap up and say, “How does this strategy match what is going on?”. This strategy is trying to deploy the fewer resources we have in a much more focused way. We are going through a period of economic difficulty and it will be easy to pick up on the impact of the various changes, but today we have laid out a strategy that focuses resources on the most needy and addresses some of the issues that have been identified as causing a lack of social mobility. What we cannot do is return public expenditure to the level at which it was being run by the previous Administration—who were, as the noble Baroness knows, planning to make cuts as well.

Does my noble friend agree that this is a highly important issue and social mobility is something which nobody on any side of this House or in another place has solved for a great number of years? It behoves us to find practical solutions to the issues rather than simply throwing insults across the Chamber. Today I received a letter from a parent in Greater Manchester who informed me that it previously cost 60p each way per day to send his two children to sixth form in Oldham. The fact that concessionary travel for 16 to 19 year-olds has been removed means that it now costs £3.90 each way per day. Is that what we believe to be increasing social mobility?

No, it is not; but I thought that my noble friend was moving away from that kind of question when he opened his remarks. Funds being targeted at the neediest families will also address problems of travel. I am not standing here saying that there are no cuts or difficulties. I am saying—and I welcome my noble friend’s idea that, at least on some of these issues, we might try to establish a cross-party consensus—that the roots of social mobility have puzzled us as a society at least since the war. I believe that what my right honourable friend has given today, partly building on some of the work of the previous Administration, is a clear sign that we—rather like the Attlee Government after the war, who also faced very difficult economic situations—are not abandoning the causes of welfare reform, work reform or social mobility, or putting them to one side during difficult economic times.

My Lords, we have not yet heard from UKIP. May I suggest that we do so and then hear from the noble Baroness?

My Lords, the House will be relieved to hear that this is not a European question. Does the noble Lord agree that teacher training is the soil in which the roots of our education system feed, and that it has been very unsatisfactory for many years, serving the poorest children worst? For instance, the average A-level attainment of those entering bachelor of education courses has often been as low as two Es at A-level, according to government Written Answers. I know that the Government are seeking to address this problem. Can the noble Lord give us any news of progress in this deep but fundamental area?

I am not sure that I can—all my briefing for the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, refers to Europe, so I am not sure. I also see too many educational experts around for me to play this one on the hoof. I do know—as we all know over our lives—that some of the most inspirational people we have ever met have been our teachers. We also know that some of the people who take the toughest jobs and help the very young people we are talking about are teachers in deprived areas. So I am not going to make any comments on teacher quality. I am pleased with the scheme that encourages graduates to go into teaching for a time. It is a very good idea and I am pleased that some of them, having experienced it, stick to it. But I am sure that the noble Lord is right that a high-quality cadre of teachers is part of the solution to social mobility.

My Lords, perhaps I may take a rather different line. Quite a lot of criticism has been coming in the direction of the Minister, but I should like to congratulate him and the coalition Government on the approach that they have taken to the issue, particularly the fact that the issue now appears to be high up on their agenda. However, as we are referring to the life-cycle approach, I should like some reassurance that this will include, and not place in a separate category, the need for early intervention as described in the two important reports by Frank Field and Graham Allen which we have discussed in your Lordships’ House. That alone would enormously help the whole business of social mobility.

I fully accept what the noble Baroness says. With regard to the source of those reports and Alan Milburn’s involvement, I hope that we can attempt this with some degree of cross-party consensus. It is not the case that we have just discovered the problem of social mobility; as I said before, it has been around for a long time. Without playing prolier-than-thou, I come from a working-class background and in my childhood I was surrounded by what I call the aspirational working class. My father, who was a process worker, was one of the best-read men I know. How we instil in some of the more deprived families the kind of aspiration that there was in, say, the Welsh mining community and other, older working-class communities, I do not know. As my noble friend Lord Dholakia said, one sees it in some of the immigrant communities. There are factors that hold people back but poverty and deprivation are not the only ones. That is why just throwing money at some of these problems is not the solution either.

The fact that this has been announced—slightly differently from the way I announced it, evidently—by the Deputy Prime Minister, with the machinery in place overseen by Alan Milburn to check against results, means that this is not just about motherhood and apple pie but is a genuine attempt, building on some of the work of our predecessors, to be tested against results, to try to deal with a problem that, as I say, has challenged our society since at least the Second World War.