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Education Committee

Volume 638: debated on Thursday 29 March 2018

Select Committee statement

We now come to the Select Committee statement. Robert Halfon will speak on his subject for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of the statement, I will call Members to ask questions on the subject of the statement and call Robert Halfon to respond to them in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions and should be brief. Front Benchers may take part in questioning.

When the Prime Minister made her first speech outside Downing Street, she spoke of the importance of

“fighting against the burning injustice”

in our society and pledged to lead a Government that would make Britain

“a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.”

The role of the Social Mobility Commission, formerly led by Alan Milburn, was to shine a light on injustice, but in December, Alan Milburn resigned, alongside his three fellow commissioners. He believed that the Government were

“unable to devote the necessary energy and focus to the social mobility agenda”.

Social justice is a key issue facing our country and there remain great social injustices. The Social Mobility Commission reported that only one in eight children from low-income backgrounds is likely to become a high-income earner as an adult. At the current rate of progress, it will take 120 years before disadvantaged young people are as likely as their better-off peers to achieve A-level or equivalent qualifications. Just 39% of pupils on free school meals achieve A to C in English and maths at GCSE, compared with 67% of all other pupils. The Social Mobility Commission’s state of the nation reports were vital in drawing attention to those injustices, because the list of inequalities is expansive—they are not just in education, but exist across the policy spectrum, from housing to health.

It is wrong that the membership of the commission was allowed to dwindle to the extent that the remaining commissioners felt that it had become unviable. Given the Prime Minister’s commitment to social justice, it seems extraordinary that the commissioners felt that the Government were not listening. How can a commission that is designed to report on and address social injustice do its job if it is not listened to by those in the corridors of power?

The Education Committee is responsible for holding the pre-appointment hearing with the Government’s preferred candidate for the chair of the commission, and we look forward to doing that shortly. Because of that role, we decided to investigate the circumstances that led to the resignation of the commissioners and to consider how the commission could be made more effective. Our report was published last week. I pay tribute to my fellow Committee members—the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) is present—for their work on this important matter, along with our hard-working Committee staff and officials.

The commission can be made more effective with minor legislative changes. It should have the responsibility to publish social justice impact assessments on domestic policies. It needs the power to advise actively on social justice issues, not just when Ministers request advice. There must be a minimum membership of the commission so that its membership cannot dwindle in the same way that it did over the past couple of years. The name of the commission should be changed to the Social Justice Commission, to reflect more accurately its role.

We also recommend that the Government create a body at the heart of Government to drive forward and implement recommendations and co-ordinate across Government. It would be led by a Minister in the Cabinet Office, who would be given specific responsibility for leading cross-Government work. The Minister should have responsibility for a dedicated unit with a remit to tackle social injustice. The body would also be the way that the commission would report into Government. The combination of a strengthened commission and a body at the heart of Downing Street to drive forward recommendations would better demonstrate the Government’s commitment to social justice.

Alan Milburn told us that the Government

“lacked the headspace and the bandwidth to really match the rhetoric of healing social division with the reality.”

Baroness Shephard spoke of delays and blank walls as far as appointing new commissioners was concerned and concluded that there was, “No point at all”.

The Government must not let this happen again when the new commission is appointed. If the Prime Minister and the Department for Education are to take social justice seriously—I welcome the Education Whip on to the Treasury Bench, as Ministers were unable to attend this statement today—the important work produced by the commission must be listened to, and the Government must implement proposals for change. We are looking forward to our pre-appointment hearing for the chair of the new commission. The Committee will be keeping a close eye on the appointments process for the other commissioners to ensure that the last process, described by Alan Milburn as farcical, is not repeated.

An effective Social Justice Commission, to monitor and report on progress on tackling social injustice, working in tandem with an implementation body at the heart of Government, could really begin to heal some of the great divides in our country. Only then will we give the most disadvantaged in our society the chance to reach and to climb the ladder of opportunity and live in a country that works for all of us.

I am very pleased to hear the report of the Chair of the Education Committee. These economic and educational divisions were deep in our society when I was young, which was a very long time ago, and they are still here today. My view has always been that these things develop in primary education. Is the Committee looking seriously at how we can avoid those divisions opening up at a very young age?

The hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point. Our Committee is dedicated to looking at social injustice. It is a key aim of the Education Committee. Only yesterday, we had a discussion about early intervention and life chances—about intervening very early on to ensure that social injustice is not carried through later on in life. The answer, therefore, is, yes.

My right hon. Friend mentioned that one in eight children from low-income backgrounds is likely to become a high-income earner. What is the percentage for the rest of children—what percentage becomes high-income earners—so that we have a good comparison?