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Social Mobility: North-west

Volume 652: debated on Wednesday 9 January 2019

[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered social mobility in the North West.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. Social mobility is a term that we frequently use, but what do we really mean by it? At its core, we are discussing the life chances of every person in our constituencies, but what impact does the place we live, the family we were born to, our age, our career, our earnings or our parents’ background have on our educational and career opportunities and our life experiences?

Perfect social mobility would mean that, wherever we came from and whatever our background and our parents’ experiences, we would have a fair shot at success. Sadly, many of the constituencies represented by hon. Members in this debate are all too familiar with what poor social mobility looks like. It means that in areas such as Leigh, the place in which a person happens to live or have grown up in too often dictates their opportunities in life and blocks their shot at success.

I am doubly delighted, as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility and as a north-west Member, to be present in this debate. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not just a regional issue, but is much more nuanced? It varies between individual towns, and there are rural issues too. Social mobility is a much more finessed geographical issue than is sometimes imagined.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and I thank him for all the work he does on the APPG on social mobility. I think he is referring to the 2017 “State of the nation” report, which stated that it is no longer inner cities, but remote rural and coastal areas and former industrial areas where social mobility is a huge problem. He will agree that that goes against everything we should stand for as MPs. It cements inequality into our society. It excludes and isolates whole areas of the country from our joint prosperity. It demotivates and demoralises, and can even lead to the breakdown of our social fabric.

Unfortunately, in the north-west we know exactly how that can feel. The region has some of the highest poverty rates and some of the lowest attainment rates in the UK. Fewer than half of children from low-income families—48%—are school-ready. Just 3.9% of children eligible for free school meals gained five A grades at GCSE, and nearly three quarters of local authorities in the north-west have more than one in four workers earning below the living wage. As the Social Mobility Commission said in its annual report, and as I just mentioned,

“old industrial towns and coal mining areas that have struggled as England has moved from a manufacturing to a services-based economy now dominate the areas identified as social mobility coldspots.”

As the Member of Parliament for Leigh and, most importantly, having lived in and represented our post-industrial towns, I know exactly what poor social mobility can lead to. I grew up in neighbouring Salford, and I did not have the best start. Back in the 1980s—I am probably giving my age away now—I did not have the best education. I left school without qualifications, and so did many of my peers and friends. I was lucky because I got supported, but that was not the case for many of my friends.

There are many drivers of social mobility. What more does the hon. Lady think can be done to keep people who have achieved social mobility and become successful in the communities they came from, rather than moving away and taking their success with them? What more can local communities and perhaps local authorities do to help people to remain in place?

I thank my constituency neighbour for that contribution. He is absolutely right. Particularly in places such as Leigh, we see that if people become qualified, get a good education and go on to university, they do not bring their skills back.

I am conscious that we do not have much time, so I will be brief. On that point, we found in evidence to the APPG that it is important that people who have moved on go back and give youngsters something to aim for aspirations, ideas and a belief that they can get on and do different things in life.

Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution and, again, for all the work he is doing in the APPG.

It pained me to read in a recent House of Commons Library analysis that the constituency of Leigh is ranked 501 out of 533 on the social mobility league table, but we must be up front and honest about why we are there. As a post-industrial town, which was once at the heart of the first industrial revolution, we knew what success and prosperity looked like. As the mines closed and the Beeching cuts took away our railway stations, we were left without the infrastructure to prosper and the investment to succeed.

My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. I congratulate her on securing this debate and thank her for being such a fantastic neighbouring MP. We represent towns and villages across St Helens and Leigh that are intimately linked because they were, and still consider themselves to be, coalfield communities. Does she agree that the Government should continue to support those proud, resilient communities through organisations such as the Coalfields Regeneration Trust and the Industrial Communities Alliance, which are implementing programmes that create employment opportunities, increase social mobility and give ambition to our young people in those communities?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that really important point. He is absolutely right about the support that is out there for communities such as ours. Later, I will talk about what we can do to come together to make this issue work for places such as Leigh and St Helens North.

We have been left isolated from our booming cities, without the tools to remedy our situation. There is no doubt that the talent and aspiration are there. I am often struck by the energy and determination of our young people, who are desperate to get on in life and succeed, and by the passion of our incredible community leaders such as Peter Rowlinson and Elizabeth Costello in the Leigh Film Society, who work relentlessly to put Leigh on the map. Without outside help and meaningful plans for inclusive growth, towns like Leigh are left feeling helpless.

I am very lucky to live in a constituency that has very good transport links into London. I was in Manchester at the weekend and had the pleasure of travelling on the trams there. Does my hon. Friend think that greater investment in the transport system would benefit Leigh and overcome the social mobility issues?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that really important point. Again, that is something that I will talk about later in my speech. This is not just about education, but about a whole-system approach, which includes transport. We need to bring it all together.

Let me talk about the pathway of a young person growing up in Leigh and share that experience. The statistics and Ofsted reports show that our school provision is good. We are not letting young people down between five and 16, as they progress through education, but when a young person reaches the stage of deciding their career path, they hit a brick wall. There is no obvious industry to enter as there used to be. We are desperately short of inward business investment, which often comes with the offer of apprenticeships and training. With only one sixth-form college in the constituency, achieving A-levels is difficult. Our young people have to travel out of the constituency to gain decent A-levels. A higher education is even more difficult with no providers at all. Where other constituencies might rely on transport connectivity to access those opportunities, the young people of Leigh cannot. They are brought up in the fifth largest town without a railway station in the country. Those young people are left with the looming question at the end of their mandatory education: “Then what?”

Quite simply, our failure to provide adequate options in answer to that question, which should be at the top of our list of priorities, is an enormous failure of us all as a society. Although I am enormously optimistic that this week’s draft spatial framework in Greater Manchester will explore the options for a railway station in the constituency—I will be working closely with Transport for Greater Manchester on that—we must look at the Government’s broader responsibility to promote and ensure inclusive prosperity. When I look at their response however, I am left asking, “Where is the pathway for local areas to propose local plans? Where are the resources to tackle”—in the words of the Prime Minister—“those ‘burning injustices’? And where is the joined-up strategy across Government needed to tackle such an enormous problem?”

As delighted as I am that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) will respond for the Government, why has it fallen to the Minister of State for Children and Families to respond to an issue in desperate need of a cross-governmental approach? Social mobility needs a whole-Government approach that opens the machinery of government up to local areas. This is not only a children’s or educational issue, as it feeds into our infrastructure needs and our transport connectivity, and it crosses into the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Justice and the Treasury. This truly is a cross-Whitehall task that needs the resources of a cross-Whitehall response.

Too often, token vanity projects from the Government are hailed as the golden bullet for social and economic progress. They include, for example, the creation of the Social Mobility Commission—it went nearly a year without commissioners after they all resigned—the northern powerhouse and HS2. HS2, a prime example, was meant to connect northern communities with London and the south-east—the famous trickle-down model of economic inclusivity. HS2 will cut through the middle of my constituency, however, and offers no connectivity whatsoever. The nearest station to access HS2 will be an hour away for some residents. How does that help our northern communities, which are feeling isolated and held back?

We must also recognise that the Government’s response cannot be blanket across the country, but needs to complement and respond to plans drawn up locally with the input of the community, and in Leigh we took the first step last year. I recognised that our towns face unique challenges, so I organised the first Leigh social mobility roundtable, where the local council, schools, businesses, community organisations and stakeholders were all invited to discuss our situation, what can be done and what needs to be changed to help everyone in Leigh to succeed.

As I am sure the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown)—to whom I am grateful for attending our roundtable—would agree, what quickly became apparent is that without Government support for local plans or the devolution of investment and infrastructure decisions, towns such as Leigh will never be connected to the educational and employment opportunities in nearby cities or their thriving economies. Put simply, without a railway line and with such poor road infrastructure, which already struggles to cope with our daily pressures, how will constituents access educational and retraining opportunities outside the town, and why would businesses decide to invest in our towns? The people of Leigh have been left in this never-ending cycle of limited employment, low pay and restricted opportunities to upskill or retrain.

To us, Leigh is a beautiful place to live and bring up a family; a place with rich culture and heritage, near to both Manchester and Liverpool. But we have seen our town transformed from the thriving powerhouse of the industrial revolution to a place left feeling isolated and held back; a place that no longer offers the opportunities that it once did. For the first time, the next generation may not see fulfilled the promise of a better life than the generation before them. That sad reality underlines the importance and urgency of taking action to leave our community on a better footing than when we found it.

I therefore urge the Minister to review the approach that the Government take, recognise the importance of locally produced models and commit to empowering and entrusting our communities with the investment decisions that have such a heavy impact on their lives.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank the hon. Member for Leigh (Jo Platt) for securing this vital debate, and I welcome the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government. She spoke powerfully of her experience growing up and the experience through the eyes of a young person growing up in Leigh.

At this point, it would be remiss of me not to mention my Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris), who was born and bred in Leigh. He grew up and left school with only five O-levels and no A-levels, went to hairdressing college and opened a salon, which became the biggest hair salon and chain in the Leigh area, before he became the MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale. His son is a lawyer from Leigh. That is a true example of social mobility in Leigh. I also thank the hon. Members who have so far contributed to this important debate: my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green), and the hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) and for St Helens North (Conor McGinn).

We welcome the debate secured by the hon. Member for Leigh—it is important that we take a close look at social mobility. Rightly, social mobility is a critical priority for the Government and, as she argues, it is a challenge that requires action across the whole of Government in order to make progress. Our social housing Green Paper, for example, makes social mobility a key priority, and we are the Government who introduced the national living wage and increased it at the last Budget. She is also right to single out the importance of good transport connections for regional prosperity. That is why £48 billion will be invested in modernising our rail network over the next five years.

To ensure that our efforts are joined up across Government, the industrial strategy provides a comprehensive plan to ensure that no place is left behind when it comes to boosting opportunity and growth. That strategy sets out the steps that we are taking to spur productivity and to create more high-skilled and high-paying jobs. We are delivering that agenda not only across Whitehall, but through our local industrial strategies, local enterprise partnerships and with mayoral combined authorities.

As a Minister in the Department for Education, however, I hope that the hon. Lady will understand if I focus the majority of my remarks on that subject, although not just because of my day job. As someone who came to this country unable to speak English, I know at first hand how education can change lives and open the doors of opportunity. We still live in a country where someone’s start in life far too often determines their future success. Education can and should break this link by helping everyone to fulfil their potential. I am pleased to say that the Government have made significant progress in closing the opportunity gap when it comes to education. The difference in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has been reduced across all stages of education, and through our opportunity areas programme, we are targeting extra support at some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country.

Yet there can be no room for complacency. It is both an economic and a moral imperative that we ensure the schools system works for all and that it does so up and down the country.

Does my hon. Friend welcome the fact that, on youth social mobility, my constituency comes 73rd out of 553 constituencies from around England and Wales? I also want to support the idea of a huge sense of responsibility—a duty—not only for local entrepreneurs to invest in the local communities but for local councils to support local business, provide opportunities and enable those businesses to invest. It is so much more inspirational when someone comes from our own community.

My hon. Friend makes the point about engagement by local councils eloquently. He pursues such engagement passionately, locally and nationally.

We take action in every region and at every stage of a young person’s life to close the opportunity gap. I will now take each of the stages of education in turn, reflecting in particular on the progress that we have made in the north-west of England.

Good early years education is the cornerstone of social mobility and we are making record investment in that area. Too many children, however, still fall behind early, and later in life it is hard to close the gap that emerges. Today, 28% of children finish their reception year without the early communication and reading skills that they need to thrive. The Secretary of State has set out his ambition to halve that figure by 2028. We have announced a range of initiatives to deliver it, including a local authority peer review programme, which we piloted in Wigan, and a professional development fund for early years practitioners in 54 local authorities.

The Government are committed to help parents to access affordable childcare, which is why we will spend about £6 billion on childcare support in 2019-20, a record amount. That will include funding for our free early education entitlements, on which we plan to spend £3.5 billion this year alone. I am pleased to say that, in Wigan, take-up of all the Government childcare entitlements is high: 93% of eligible children there took up care that we made available for two-year-olds, which figure is substantially higher than the national average of 72%; equally, 95% of three and four-year-olds took up an entitlement place, which is also higher than the national average. During the first year of delivery, more than 2,700 children in Wigan benefited from the places that we made available under our policy offering of 30 hours of free childcare.

On school education, we target extra support at the poorest areas of the country to raise standards and to attract great teachers to our primary and secondary schools. I know that schools have faced cost pressures in recent years, but I am happy to report that schools in the north-west will attract an average of 2.8% more funding per pupil by 2019-20 compared with 2017-18.

I am trying to make headway, but if I have time, I will come back to the hon. Gentleman towards the end.

This year, the north-west received more than £369 million in additional funding through the pupil premium, giving more than 300,000 disadvantaged young people extra support for their education.

On post-16 education, our efforts do not stop when school comes to an end. Social mobility means that everyone must have the right level of ongoing support to help them on to a path to a skilled job. That could be via university, but it could also be a more practical, technical path. I am sure that the hon. Member for Leigh and I agree that getting that right is critical to boost regional growth and to expand access to opportunity for all. In the current academic year, we invested more than £750 million in the education of 16 to 19-year-olds in the north-west, with £80 million of that funding allocated specifically to support disadvantaged students in reaching their potential, whether that is for employment or ongoing education.

For those who want to take the academic route, we will ensure its availability as well. We therefore welcome the fact that more disadvantaged pupils than ever before go on to university. In 2010, more than a quarter—27.6%, in fact—of 18-year-olds from the north-west entered university; by 2018, that figure had risen to one in three, or 33.1%, so the north-west outperformed all English regions outside London and the south-east. Data released by the Department for Education in November of last year showed that 23% of students eligible for free school meals from the north-west had entered higher education by age 19 in 2016-17. That compares with 26% for England, with only London and the west midlands having a higher rate.

In the north-west, the Office for Students has invested more than £15 million through its national collaborative outreach programme, with key programmes in Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside. The Government have also embarked on a long-overdue overhaul of technical education, which is why we are acting to expand high-quality apprenticeships. In the 2017-18 academic year, the 58,120 apprenticeship starts in the north-west were 15.5% of all such starts in England.

Skills challenges and priorities differ not only across the country, but within regions such as the north-west. We heard that from the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate. We must therefore collaborate with local partners in order to ensure our reforms make sense on the ground, which was very much his point. That means working with employers and providers, and supporting individuals who want to succeed in life and work. We have also introduced skills advisory panels, which will bring together local employers and skills providers to pool knowledge on skills and labour market needs in the regions. That will help to address local skills gaps more effectively.

We are to introduce a national retraining scheme, an ambitious and far-reaching programme to drive adult learning and retraining. It will be in place by the end of this Parliament. The Chancellor recently announced £100 million to roll out initial elements of the scheme across the country. That accompanies funding announced in the previous budget for the Greater Manchester combined authority to test different approaches to encourage and support adults to undertake training.

I am happy to take an intervention if the hon. Member for St Helens North still wishes to make one.

The Minister is so generous to take one intervention from the Opposition in the 10 minutes for which he has spoken. None the less, I appreciate it.

When I visit schools in my constituency, teachers and headteachers tell me that they have less money, fewer resources and larger class sizes. Does that have an impact on social mobility?

We have protected the schools budget. I hope that I made that clear earlier in my remarks, when I also recognised that there are financial pressures on schools.

Progress on social mobility is critical to our shared prosperity. No progress is possible without action in every part of a young person’s education and in every part of our country. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leigh for beginning the year with a debate on a subject that is fundamental to our future success as a country. Again, I thank my colleagues for their contributions—my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West and the hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston, for Enfield, Southgate and for St Helens North—and congratulate my brilliant PPS, my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale, on his ability not only to build a great business but to be a very successful musician. He has delivered real social mobility in Leigh.

Question put and agreed to.