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House of Commons Hansard
04 December 2017
Volume 632

  • We are about to come to the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) and his urgent question. Let me say to the House that this is not the occasion for a general exchange about social mobility or the lack of it. This is a question laser-like focused on the resignation of the board of the Social Mobility Commission and will be treated as such by the Chair. I want it to run for no longer than half an hour, not because it is not important—it is extremely important—but because there are eight hours of protected business, which is also extremely important, and I have to balance these considerations, so self-discipline is required.

  • (Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for Children and Families if he will make a statement on the resignation of the board of the Social Mobility Commission.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to take 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. We will hold an open application process for that role to ensure that we continue to build on this important work and that the foundation laid by Alan 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, and 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 a 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 over 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 a year—in 2011. That is a coalition policy that 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 the fewest opportunities, including £72 million in the 12 opportunity areas. Plans for the first six areas were published on 9 October 2017 and we will publish plans for the second six areas early in November.

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

  • I do not think that the Conservatives have ever claimed to be a party of equality, but they have always claimed to be a party of equality of opportunity—in other words, social mobility. When the Prime Minister took office, her first speech set out very clearly the objective to do everything to help everybody, whatever their background, to go as far as their talents will take them. What does the resignation of the commission tell us about the Government’s success in achieving that objective? The chairman of the commission was very pointed. He said that the worst possible position in politics

    “is to set out a proposition that you’re going to heal social divisions and then do nothing about it.”

    It would be very difficult to spin the resignation of the commission in partisan terms, because Alan Milburn has conscientiously served Labour, coalition and Conservative Governments. Among the commissioners who have resigned with him, one was a highly respected former Conservative Secretary of State for Education.

    I have a specific question for the Minister about the most recent of the commission’s reports, to which he will no doubt be able to respond. Why have only five of the 65 social mobility coldspots—the areas with the least social mobility, everywhere from west Somerset to east midlands cities—been covered by the various growth deals negotiated by the Government? The report makes the point that geographical division in Britain is now more extreme than in any other country in Europe, so will the Government consider reinstating the regional growth fund, which played an important role in addressing that problem during the coalition? As the barriers to social mobility often rest in incentives to work, will the Minister explain how the £3 billion cut to the work allowance will affect people’s willingness to work once they are in low-income employment?

    The commission is even-handed and praises the Secretary of State for Education for her commitment. But what does it say about the Government’s commitment when the most committed and conscientious member of the Cabinet is presiding over a 60% cut in apprenticeships, which blocks social mobility through vocational education, and a 6% cut real cut in schools spending over the next five years?

    Does the Minister agree with the chair of the commission’s point that Brexit is now sucking the life out of Government, and that the biggest casualties of Brexit—particularly the extreme Brexit of withdrawing from the single market and the customs union—will be the 60 of the 65 social mobility coldspots that voted for Brexit?

  • I do not recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s characterisation that we have done nothing to address social mobility. Disadvantaged children are 43% more likely to go to university than in 2009. Our two-year-olds childcare offer has a 71% take-up compared with 58% in 2015. Some 1.9 million more children go to outstanding schools than in 2010, and there are more teachers in schools than ever before. We have made progress in a number of areas, including our offer of 30 hours of free childcare, which helps working families to cope with the cost of childcare while they juggle childcare and work at the same time.

    I reaffirm the fact that social mobility remains a priority of the Government. I am fully committed to that, as are the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned geographical spread. If he reads the report, he will see that the spread is patchy, with parts of London demonstrating a real need for more assistance, and more needing to be done in places such as the east and west midlands. That is precisely why we have designated the 12 opportunity areas in the places where we most need to address the situation for children in the early years, with regard to education, the aspiration to get into employment and get good qualifications and the most difficult nut to crack—the home learning environment. Many young children are starting nursery provision without the basic skills that many other children from better-off backgrounds have.

    I want to make it clear that, although Brexit is an important priority for this Government, we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that we continue the process of improving social mobility for everyone in the country.

  • May I remind the House of what I said fewer than 10 minutes ago? The question is about the resignation of the board, so questions should be about that matter; it is not unreasonable to hope that the same might also be said of answers.

  • Many people were inspired by what the Prime Minister said on the steps of Downing Street when she took office. Will my hon. Friend look into using this opportunity to reform the Social Mobility Commission to create a social justice commission at the heart of Downing Street to assess the impact of every bit of domestic legislation on social justice?

  • May I put on record our commitment to maintain the Social Mobility Commission? It has done great work over the last five years, and I again pay tribute to Alan Milburn for his work as chair. We intend to refresh the commission. We need to bring in some new people—people who will hold us to account and who will hold our feet to the fire—to ensure we get a good spread of representation on the commission.

  • I thank the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) for securing this urgent question.

    Once again, this Prime Minister is not for turning up, and nor is the Education Secretary. No wonder the former chair of the commission said that No. 10 was no longer listening. Perhaps the Minister can actually answer the questions the chair raised in his resignation letter. Are the Government really committed to the commission as an independent body? Although they have just put on record their commitment, what do they see as the commission’s role, and what will its remit be now? How much funding will the commission have? Can the Minister confirm that, in the year since the commission’s 2016 report, the Government have not adopted a single one of its recommendations? Did the commissioners raise that with Ministers before resigning? The report said that Britain had a “deep social mobility problem” and

    “an unfair education system, a two-tier labour market, an imbalanced economy and an unaffordable housing market.”

    What are the Government actually doing about that, and was that a factor in the resignations?

    On the labour market, the Prime Minister made a defining speech on insecure jobs—she has been developing an expertise in that issue lately—but whatever happened to the Taylor review? In education, has the Minister seen the commission’s findings on the teaching workforce, early years and kids in care, who are still denied the 30-hours entitlement? Has he listened to the commission’s recommendations on housing, regional transport infrastructure and the need for rebalanced investment to create more decent jobs across the country?

    When a former Tory Education Secretary resigns from a Tory Government commission, we know this goes well beyond party politics. In his resignation letter, the chair of the commission said the commissioners were resigning because he had “little hope” of the current Government building a fairer Britain. If their own commission has little faith in this Government, why should the rest of us?

  • I am happy to answer this question on behalf of the Department, as the Minister for Children and Families and also as the Minister responsible for the opportunity areas, which demonstrate our real commitment to tackling social mobility in the coldspots, as laid out by the commission itself.

    The hon. Lady asked, are the Government really committed to this commission? The answer is yes, absolutely. She asked about the role of the commission. That will not change; indeed, I pay tribute to the commission for the work it has done and to Alan for the work he has done.

    The hon. Lady talked about the workforce in education, and I just repeat the fact that we now have 457,000 teachers working in state-funded education, which is over 15,500 more than before. She drew attention to the 30 hours of free childcare, and that is an example of exactly how we are trying to help working families. We have a 93% uptake from the children who have achieved codes. I have met parents up and down the country who have told me that this has transformed their lives, enabled them to juggle work and childcare and, indeed, put £5,500 in their pockets.

    So I am proud of what this Government have achieved in addressing social mobility. To listen to Labour Members, you would think that everything in the garden was beautiful when they left power. Again, as in so many cases, we are sorting out the mess they left behind.

  • Can the Minister confirm when the Government are likely to publish their social mobility strategy, and are there likely to be any changes in the light of what Alan Milburn has said in recent days and of his resignation?

  • I thank my hon. Friend for the question. We continue to work hard on our social mobility action plan, and we plan to publish it soon.

  • Alan Milburn is no longer a Member of this House, so he observes the Government from an outside and slightly detached point of view. When he says that this Government are riddled with

    “indecision, dysfunctionality and a lack of leadership”

    I have to say to him that he should see it from where I am standing—it is a lot worse than that. In this country, we are approaching a perfect storm of freezing wages in real terms, cuts to benefits in real terms and rising prices—a perfect storm where the poor will pay for the failure of Government policy. So I ask the Minister what assurances we have, given that the Government continue to be obsessed by Brexit, that he will actually listen to any advisers in this policy area who are appointed in the future?

  • Alan Milburn has advised the Government through his commission over the past five years, and the Government have taken much of his advice on board; when he was publicising his most recent report, he made some very constructive comments. I stand by the record as outlined in the answer to the initial question from the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable): we have made considerable progress but there is much left to be done. The best way of getting families out of poverty is to ensure that they get into the workplace, and we have record levels of employment. The best way to get children the best opportunities in life is to deliver a great education, and we are delivering a better education for more children than ever before in England.

  • I was pleased to hear from the Minister about the home learning environment, alongside our good schools, giving true opportunity to our children. On the Government side of the House, we want our children to go as far as their talents will take them. Is this not an opportunity for a renewal?

  • Order. I remind hon. Members again that the resignation of the board is the matter of which we are treating.

  • I will comment briefly. The home learning environment is one of the toughest nuts to crack. Many children start their early education without the basic skills that they need. Much of that is due to the fact that they are not read to, that televisions may not be turned off and that they are not communicated with. That is a real challenge, and I hope that the new commission will give us pointers on how we can continue to address it.

  • The Minister is doing his best to ignore the fact that the entire board of the social mobility commission has resigned. Why does he think that is? Can he give us an answer?

  • If the hon. Lady looks back over the past five years, she will see that Alan has been supportive of much of the action that we are taking to improve social mobility, such as the Department for Education’s opportunity areas. We welcome constructive challenge as we all work together to tackle social mobility.

    This will give us an opportunity to refresh the commission and improve its diversity. I assure the House that we are not in the position of employing a patsy for the Government: I want somebody who will continue to challenge the Government, continue to hold our feet to the fire and engage constructively—not only with central Government but with local government, which is charged with delivering many of the solutions.

  • Before the commission resigned, did they suggest one radical idea for driving social mobility through the education system, and did the Government gainsay it? Namely, why do we not concentrate on the children from the most deprived backgrounds and postcodes, give them an intelligence test at 11 for which they cannot be tutored, and put them in special schools so that they have a rigorous academic education? The schools could be called grammar schools.

  • As I understand it, that was not one of the suggestions that Alan Milburn made as he was leaving.

  • Order. That question, although delivered with the hon. Gentleman’s customary lucidity, also suffered from the disadvantage of being utterly irrelevant to the question of the resignation of the board. Perhaps we can return to the matter at hand.

  • Let us take a good, honest, reliable citizen—there are so many to choose from on both sides. I call Peter Kyle.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker—that is an introduction I will struggle to live up to.

    Alan Milburn has said that he resigned because of dysfunction in the Government and the lack of implementation. The Minister’s response gives the impression that he resigned because all the work was already done. Once again, can the Minister give us a clear explanation: why did the board resign, from his perspective?

  • Mr Milburn was told on 22 November that, although the post would be readvertised, he would not be expected to apply. On the resignation, as the hon. Gentleman described it, we were looking to refresh the board and bring some new blood in. I hope that that will give us a good opportunity to improve the functioning of the board. As I say, that is no personal reflection on Alan Milburn or the work he has done—he has been very good over the five years he has done this job. He has held us to account and held our feet to the fire, as the commission was designed to do.

  • I was gently teasing the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) but, needless to say, all Members are honest—that goes without saying.

  • Reports produced by the Social Mobility Foundation show that in the past year, east Cambridgeshire has gone up 70 places. While there is still more work to do, does the Minister think that the commission should be proud of this progress?

  • Absolutely. There are parts of the country where tremendous progress has been made, not least in London, and they have shown the way ahead not only in education but in other areas. I am very optimistic that, as our 12 opportunity areas get into the full implementation stage, we will see improvements in those areas and learn lessons that can be applied elsewhere around the country.

  • Is the fall in social mobility reported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation today good reason for the commission to resign, or should the Government be resigning for their failure?

  • I am certainly aware of the Joseph Rowntree report on relative poverty. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that absolute poverty has fallen by over 300,000 since 2010 and pensioner poverty remains close to historical levels. That is the sort of poverty that affects people in their everyday lives. Perhaps people are not as aware of the measure of relative poverty as they would be of real poverty.

  • I am very sorry that the board has chosen to resign. The Conservative party has done so much for social mobility; I would consider myself an example from the ’80s. When it comes to appointing a new board, could we look at having more than four members to provide a bit more diversity?

  • My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is no limit on the number of people on the board; indeed, I think it had almost 10 at one time. I hope that the publicity surrounding this question may encourage people to apply to be on the board, because we want a wide cross-section of applications, including perhaps somebody who has not necessarily been in political life but has been involved at the cutting edge in delivering better social mobility solutions.

  • The board members have clearly become exasperated by the UK Government’s failure to acknowledge and act on their work on lifting people out of poverty. Does the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report today not highlight and emphasise that?

  • The Joseph Rowntree report on relative poverty will always reflect changes, for example, in levels of pensions and levels of employment. If we see higher employment or higher levels of pensions, then an unfortunate side effect will be that relative poverty will increase. As I have said, there are now over 300,000 fewer people in absolute poverty, and that is the figure that is more important to them in their everyday lives as they are shopping for Christmas.

  • As the new board is formed, one of the key areas of expertise we need is the ability to build on record employment as, for the first time ever, those entering into work will continue to get support from their named job coach, helping to unlock their potential to keep their work, increase their hours, increase their pay, and progress within work. Can that be a real priority for a new board member?

  • There are number of areas of experience and expertise that we will wish to see from the new board members. This is an opportunity to refresh the board. I look forward to an inspiring chair of the Social Mobility Commission to take forward the work that Alan Milburn has laid the foundations for.

  • The Minister’s attempt to divert attention from what has happened simply has not worked. Is he embarrassed that according to the Joseph Rowntree report the Government have presided over a record increase in poverty, particularly among young people and pensioners?

  • Once again, I must repeat that while there are changes in relative poverty, absolute poverty has fallen.

  • Education is key to improving social mobility, so will the Minister ensure that the new commissioners who are appointed recognise the benefits of, and draw inspiration from, the fact that the proportion of pupils attending good or outstanding schools has increased from 66% in 2010 to 87% today?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the best routes out of poverty—out of the trap that social mobility failures often put people in—is a good education. I am very pleased that we have more good school places than ever before, that more people from underprivileged backgrounds are going to university, and that more people than ever before are taking the other opportunities such as apprenticeships and training.

  • In the years for which I worked in the university sector, a great deal of time was spent going out to schools to encourage pupils from all backgrounds to apply to university. What sort of message does it send when the chair of the commission resigns and says that the Government simply do not have time for social mobility?

  • That is not the case. Social mobility is absolutely at the top of my priority list, as well as those of the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister. We are absolutely committed to delivering better social mobility in our country. The evidence that I have already given about progress in very many areas, including in university, is testament to that.

  • Rather than appointing politicians as replacements to the board, is my right hon. Friend keen to consider leading community people who have ground-level experience? I can suggest to him a list of brilliant people who do incredible work in Corby and whom he might want to consider.

  • Yes, absolutely. I must make it clear that Alan Milburn was told that there would be an open process—in other words, that we were opening up the selection—and he said in his letter that he would not be applying. That is to put on record exactly what happened in that case. I hope that we will get a wide range of applicants, so that we can choose some of the very best and most able to help us in moulding our future policies to improve social mobility.

  • Why have the Government not adopted any of the Social Mobility Commission’s recommendations since 2016? How does the Minister expect to attract new commissioners when he ignores the very important work that they do?

  • We have certainly not ignored the commissioners’ work, and the social mobility index has been a useful tool to help the Government to prioritise how they address the problem. The opportunity areas, some of which were announced in September and more of which will be announced in the new year, are precisely targeted at the areas identified by the Social Mobility Commission in its “cold spot” programme.

  • With a report in The BMJ estimating that up to 120,000 deaths in England and Wales have been caused by UK Tory policy, with Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner threatening to take the UK Government to court over universal credit, and with life expectancy falling for the first time in decades, it is little surprise that the Social Mobility Commission resigned en masse. What changes are the Government going to make, and what are they going to do to get in place a new independent commission that can hold the Government to account?

  • The recruitment process will commence as soon as possible and will ensure that we get the best people to advise us and the House on the progress that we continue to make. As I say, the situation has improved since 2010, and we are ensuring that it continues to improve.

  • With all the board members of the Social Mobility Commission resigning, and with a new report released today by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showing that the number of lone-parent families in poverty has increased by 5% since 2010-11, does the Minister agree that the Government’s ambition for social mobility has failed?

  • Our 30 hours’ free childcare offer is available to lone parents, who need to earn only about £6,500 a year to qualify. That is a great opportunity for lone parents to get into the workplace, to start putting some money into the family budget and to get themselves and their families out of the difficult financial situations in which they may find themselves.

  • The former commission was valued across the political spectrum for its independent advice. Can the Minister assure us that in contrast to Norwich’s social mobility opportunity board, where a crony has been appointed, he will consider allowing a Select Committee to appoint someone to this public position?

  • I had thought that the hon. Gentleman was better than that. I think we have some great people on the board in Norwich, and I look forward to working with them to provide better opportunities for people in Norwich.

  • The Minister is a plain-speaking Yorkshireman. Could he use those attributes to explain why he thinks the whole board resigned?

  • As I have made clear, we need to refresh the board. The board have been very effective, but earlier in the year we had a recruitment round, at which we did not feel we had the right calibre of new people coming in. I think this is a great opportunity to get some new blood on to the commission and make sure that it carries on the work started by Alan and his board, so that we continue to identify the challenges of social mobility and the best ways of addressing them.

  • If everything the Minister says is true, why was Gillian Shephard, a Conservative member of the board, absolutely livid about the way in which the Government have treated the commission?

  • I cannot speak for my right hon. Friend, but as I have said, we now have an opportunity to get some new people on to the board. A number of the existing members had been long-standing members of the board, and although I recognise the contribution they have made, a refresh that brings in new people will provide a good opportunity to increase the body’s diversity and experience.

  • Will the Minister confirm whether he or the Education Secretary has had the chance to speak to any members of the board since their resignation and to establish whether the wholesale closure of our children’s centres across the country, including the 25 in Warwickshire, contributed to their resignations?

  • The Secretary of State spoke to Alan Milburn on 22 November. I understand that the other members who have tendered their resignations have written letters; they have not made them public, which I think is interesting.

    Certainly one of the challenges for local authorities is how they deliver good services for children, and having children’s centres is one way of doing so. If I may say so, when I was at the children’s centre in my constituency, the lady in charge looked out of the window and said, “Of course, the real problem is that the kids we need in this children’s centre aren’t here; they are stuck at home because their parents won’t bring them in.” There are a number of initiatives around the country that will demonstrate better solutions for addressing social mobility issues for the most difficult to reach families.

  • The commissioners who have resigned claim there is a lack of Government seriousness on social mobility, as evidenced by the fact that the millennials are the first generation ever to earn less than the previous generation. Is what pushed the commissioners over the edge the fact that, under this Government, things can only get worse?

  • The hon. Lady makes quite a political point. I note that the East Anglia Co-op is now selling goods that are past their best-before date, but I do not think this country needs Labour peddling policies that were well past their sell-by date in the 1970s.

  • Order. I am sorry, but I am going to conclude at this point. I know only a few Members are left to ask questions, but there will be many opportunities fully to air this matter. Looking at the perspicacious Members who were standing, I am quite sure that even if I had not said that, they would anyway have found such opportunities.