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Social Mobility Commission

Volume 826: debated on Thursday 12 January 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they intend to review the skills and experience required for the role of Chair of the Social Mobility Commission, following the resignation of the previous chair.

My Lords, leadership of the Social Mobility Commission requires a strong understanding of, and a demonstrated commitment to, the cause of social mobility, particularly in education and business. We sought a chair with excellent leadership and persuasive communication skills. Both Katharine Birbalsingh and the interim chair, Alun Francis, displayed these skills in abundance through their initial recruitment and their work at the commission in delivering a fresh approach to deep-rooted challenges. We have no plans to review the job specification for this role.

My Lords, the Minister is working overtime today. To ensure she is on the appropriate rate, I suggest she has a word with my new noble friend Lady O’Grady of Upper Holloway, whom I am very pleased to see in her place. I thank the Minister for her reply, but the resignation of Katharine Birbalsingh came after just 14 months and after a number of statements were made which demonstrated that she was ill equipped for the role. She was appointed in addition to her day job as a head teacher. The issues of social justice that need to be addressed are so pressing that I do not believe it is realistic to expect the person tasked with leading that work to do so in their spare time. Will the Government recognise those pressing issues and the increasing level of child poverty—which, incidentally, used to be in the title of the Social Mobility Commission—by refocusing, by renaming the body the social justice commission and by making its chair a full-time role?

My Lords, the Government have no plans to do that. Katharine made very clear why she left in her article in Schools Week. The Minister for Women and Equalities has been very clear about how grateful she is to Katharine for her time as chair and also to Alun Francis, her deputy, who has now taken over as interim chairman. The commission has done excellent work under Katharine’s chairmanship and Alun’s deputy chairmanship, and that work will go on, so we have no plans to change anything at the moment.

My Lords, as I have read it, the person who has resigned felt that they were doing more harm than good in the end. Can the Government make sure that they define exactly what they are supposed to do, and that the public know what that is, so that when the next person takes up this role on a permanent basis, we can all know what to expect and they can know what to deliver?

My Lords, it is very clear what the SMC should be doing. It is written down in its agreement with the Government. It has been delivering that, and it will continue to deliver that. I know that the commission met on 9 January under the deputy chairman, Alun Francis, and it is continuing to work and continuing with the priorities set previously by Katharine, Alun and the commission.

My Lords, I offer the Minister congratulations on answering three Questions out of the four, particularly since she has done so without any support from officials in the Box. I have never seen this before. In view of the debate that we are about to have on relations between Parliament and the Executive, does this indicate how the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities shows no real interest in the proceedings of this House?

My Lords, I assure noble Lords that I have been extremely well briefed—I hope—on this issue. This issue, interestingly enough, is not to do with DLUHC. It comes from the equalities grouping, which is the responsibility of the Cabinet Office. The reality is that when one is answering 10 or 12 questions in 10 minutes, one cannot get anything from the Box, so it is much better that the officials stay away and brief the Minister beforehand.

My Lords, I start by congratulating the Minister on her stamina this morning. She deserves a cup of coffee after this. My noble friend Lord Watson mentioned child poverty, so I remind noble Lords that last year, the Social Mobility Commission reported that almost 700,000 more children were living in poverty than in 2012. Will the Government establish a new child poverty reduction unit in No. 10 to accompany the work of the commission?

I am not aware of any plans to do that, but I will take the idea back. I have yet to meet my officials. I was officially put into this role only on Monday evening, so at my first meeting, I will certainly talk to officials about that and will talk further to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, does my noble friend consider it seemly that reference should be made to the most senior officer of a board as an inanimate object?

I certainly would never want to be called a chair; I have always required people to call me a chairman. That is the name of it, but perhaps I am a little old-fashioned.

My Lords, given that social mobility has been decreasing over several decades now, will the Minister define what the Social Mobility Commission and the new tsar should be doing to improve this? All the evidence shows that it is not working.

My Lords, it is working. The annual State of the Nation report from the Social Mobility Commission, published on 23 June, talks about the progress made towards improving social mobility in this country. Produced under the previous chairmanship of the commission, it sets out a new approach to social mobility. It introduces a new social mobility index, which provides a systematic way of measuring social mobility across the whole of the UK. Data will now be compiled annually and at longer intervals of five and 10 years. This is important because we need to show the trends and to be able to prove it, as at times we get conflicting evidence about what is happening to social mobility. Certainly, the number of children from deprived areas who are going to university is going up.

My Lords, the Minister will know that two months ago, the commission reported that schools were no longer agents of social mobility. She will also know that universities now are not always guaranteed agents of social mobility because of the high level of graduate unemployment or underemployment. Will she ensure that whoever becomes the head of this commission really understands that the curriculum in general schools today is not serving the purpose of social mobility for hundreds of thousands of students? At least 300,000 students are disadvantaged still.

I thank my noble friend for that. I will certainly take that back. I am almost sure that anybody who will be chairing this commission or serving on it will have all that information in front of them and be looking at it in detail.

In an answer to an earlier question, the Minister referred to the remit and the scope of the work of this body on social mobility. Is there not a glaring problem in this House, where there is a clear restriction on any kind of social mobility? I am referring to the 92 places that are reserved for hereditary Peers. Is there any progress at all towards greater social mobility among this sector, and if not, why not?

I have no answer for the noble Lord on that one. The questions I am answering are on a completely different subject.

My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking pointed out, the key to greater social mobility must lie in education reform. By a happy coincidence, this House is about to establish a Select Committee on that very subject.

I agree with my noble friend that it has to start with education. That is why we had an extremely strong person in the chair at the time: her views on education were different, but they were extremely strong about the importance of education for children and for social mobility. I am pleased that we have a new Select Committee discussing this issue, and I hope that it will take forward those issues because they are important.