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Social Mobility Commission

Volume 787: debated on Monday 4 December 2017


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made in the other place by my honourable friend the Minister of State for Children and Families:

“Thank you very much indeed, Mr Speaker, for taking this Urgent Question, which gives us an opportunity to underline our commitment to improving social mobility in our country.

I am extremely grateful to Alan Milburn for his work as chair of the Social Mobility Commission over the past five years. We had already told him that we planned to appoint a new chair, and we will hold an open application process for that role to ensure we continue to build on this important work and that the foundation laid by Alan Milburn and his team can be built on.

Tackling social mobility is the department’s priority. We are driving opportunity through the whole education system. We have made real progress in recent years. The attainment gap between disadvantaged children at the end of reception has narrowed. The proportion of eligible disadvantaged two year-olds benefiting from funded childcare has risen from 58% in 2015 to 71% in 2017. We are putting more money into the early years than ever before, spending a record £6 billion per year on childcare and early education support by 2019-20.

We are also increasing the number of good school places, with 1.9 million more children in good or outstanding schools than in 2010. There are more than 15,500 more teachers in state-funded schools in England than in 2010. The £140 million strategic school improvement fund will target resources to support school performance and pupil attainment at the schools that need it most. The attainment gap, as highlighted by the commission, between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has narrowed since we introduced the pupil premium, now worth around £2.5 billion per year, a coalition policy we continue to embrace.

We know that there is more to do, and we are focusing on areas of the country with the greatest challenges and fewest opportunities, including investing £72 million in 12 opportunity areas. Plans for the first six areas were published on 9 October, and we will publish plans for the second six areas early in the New Year.

The outgoing chair of the Social Mobility Commission welcomed the launch of the opportunity area programme and the Government’s commitment to addressing disadvantage. This remains a priority for the Government”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Statement. However, those words and the catalogue of claimed achievements are in stark contrast to what the outgoing chair of the Social Mobility Commission said yesterday, and indeed what the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report said today. I am not making a partisan statement, because of course one of those resigning from the commission was the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, a former Conservative Secretary of State for Education. Reinforcing that is today’s editorial in the Times newspaper—not a source I normally quote, and usually a friend of Conservative Governments—which said of Theresa May that the resignations were,

“an embarrassing failure of both politics and policy … No wonder her social mobility commissioners have quit”.

When the commission was established in 2012, it was as the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission and had nine members. Two years ago, the Government indicated that they regarded child poverty as having been ended, because they dropped that part of the commission’s title. They also took away its remit to advise Ministers. Meanwhile, the number of commissioners had dwindled to four.

How can the Government claim to have social mobility as an aim when, at this year’s general election, their manifesto contained a proposal to increase the number of grammar schools—the effect of which would have been the very antithesis of social mobility? Can the Minister tell noble Lords why the Government did not adopt a single recommendation of the Social Mobility Commission? Do the Government remain committed to the commission and, if so, why?

My Lords, I reassure the noble Lord that we are committed to the Social Mobility Commission and it will remain an important force in encouraging the Government to improve social mobility. He asked specific questions around the recommendations that have been made by the commission in the past. One which I am familiar with is the opportunity area concept, which came from the commission’s recommendations, including the use of the social mobility index. As the noble Lord will be aware, and as I mentioned in the remarks from my honourable friend, we have created 12 opportunity areas, six of which have already released their plans for tackling some of the deprivation in those areas.

My Lords, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report that was alluded to found that 3.7 million in work are now classified as poor compared with 2.2 million a decade ago. As we see the economy of London and the south-east pulling away from the rest of the country, it is strange that we should do things such as stopping the regional growth fund, which seemed to me to be a good mechanism that was trying to rebalance funds at a time when over half the money for infrastructure projects goes to London and the south-east.

As for the co-ordination of such matters, a number of staffing vacancies in the Social Mobility Commission were of course left unfilled. Does the Minister not think it is time to appoint a Minister whose department could co-ordinate the various activities that are now taking place—or not taking place?

My Lords, the process of appointing a new chair of the Social Mobility Commission will be run from the Department for Education, and internal discussions have already started to begin that process. It is a public appointment and so will receive the scrutiny that that requires. In terms of regional growth, the social mobility fund of £140 million that we have established in the last year is very much aimed at helping education in the areas of need which go beyond the opportunity areas referred to by the Social Mobility Commission.

My Lords, I have not been privy to the discussions about the size of the commission and its commissioners, but I reassure this House that it remains a very important part of our strategy for social mobility and that we look forward to appointing a new chair. As your Lordships will be aware, Mr Milburn served five years, and it is time for a new face.

My Lords, I very much welcome the work of the commission and of the outgoing commissioners. We live in a very divided and polarised time. After a period of low economic growth and austerity, and with Brexit, it feels as if the divisions in society are very great. This piece of work has the potential to be cross-party, and indeed it has been. How will the Government ensure that it continues to be cross-party as a process of building the common good and mending some of the divisions, as well as paying serious attention to the growing inequalities in society to which the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has drawn attention?

My Lords, I completely agree with the right reverend Prelate that this should be a cross-party action. That is why we had a former Labour Cabinet Minister as the chair of the last commission. To pick on one policy of this Government over the last seven years, the sponsored academy programme has gone out to 150 local authorities and taken in some of their most failing schools. Those schools were in areas where 21% of the pupils in the secondary sponsored academies were eligible for free school meals, which is dramatically higher than the average of 13%. When we began the programme and those schools joined it, only one in 10 was good or outstanding, but today nearly seven in 10 are good or outstanding. That makes another 400,000 children who were in failing schools but are now in better schools, and largely they were in areas of deprivation.

My Lords, I was a member of your Lordships’ Select Committee on Social Mobility in 2016. The committee looked at the transition from school to work for the majority of young people. The majority actually do not go to university or end up as NEETs; they go into vocational education, training or apprenticeships. Can the Minister outline whether the Government will ensure that at least one of the commissioners has personal or other direct experience of that transition or the social mobility of being from the vocational or apprenticeships sector and then achieving a position in society as a result? It seemed to us that many of the policy workers—Whitehall civil servants and indeed Ministers—came from degree backgrounds and did not necessarily have a full understanding of the challenges facing the majority of young people who do not go to university.

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very good point, and it is something I will take back to the department for consideration. I can speak personally as someone who never went to university. I realise how important it is that we provide good career paths for pupils leaving school who do not go to university. That is part of the reason why we have created T-levels, which will involve a substantial investment of nearly £500 million a year when they are fully rolled out over the next three years. So I can give some reassurance that we regard this as an important part of the strategy.

My Lords, what changes do the Government intend to carry out to restore the credibility of the Social Mobility Commission, which, frankly, is in shreds, as is the Government’s commitment to it? Without a change in attitude on behalf of the Government, let alone new personnel, there seems little purpose in continuing with it at all.

My Lords, I have already complimented Mr Milburn on the great work that he has done with his commissioners over the last five years. We are determined to keep the Social Mobility Commission. If the Government were not interested in social mobility then perhaps we could do as the noble Lord suggests and shut it down, but that is not the intention. We want a strong and vocal commission to hold us to account. I know we fully intend to appoint a new board in the next few months.

My Lords, the Social Mobility Commission’s report State of the Nation 2017, published earlier this month, paints a very stark picture of a country with many deep divisions—economic, social and geographical— and makes a heartfelt plea for the Government to publish an overall strategy for tackling them as well as a detailed action plan to respond to the specific recommendations in the report, a number of which are aimed directly at the Government. When do the Government intend to respond to the report?

My Lords, I can confirm that we will be publishing a social mobility action plan shortly; I cannot give an exact date but it will be soon. It might also be worth mentioning some of the achievements of the last seven years because I think people can get rather downhearted by the whole issue of social mobility. It is important to remember that today we have 3 million more people in work; 950,000 fewer workless households; 600,000 fewer people in absolute poverty; 100,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty; and 300,000 fewer working-age adults in absolute poverty. Lastly, 600,000 fewer children are living in workless families than in 2010.