How to address inequality in society by redistributing incomes through taxes and benefits has long divided left and right. But equalising opportunities, commonly called social mobility, has wide political credence.
The constrained opportunities of children who grow up in less affluent households is not just an issue of natural justice but also of wasted talents. In an era of stagnant productivity and wages, poor social mobility represents an economic as well as a social cost to Britain. And Britain’s record on social mobility is among the worst in advanced countries, along with the US and Italy.
The Social Mobility Commission, which I was a member of until I resigned alongside the chair Alan Milburn in early December, sought to highlight this and to argue for policy engagement to address it.
Our latest report highlighted that Britain is not a good country to be born poor and that across the country there is huge variation in the life chances of poor children.
It revealed Britain as a divided country in what it can offer deprived children. Compared to the rest of Britain, London does well in terms of school achievement, university participation and subsequent earnings of those children born poor. But across large areas of the country the story is of poor children getting a poor education, low university participation – and low-paid jobs which cannot enable people to afford their own home.
This story of blighted life chances of poor children is not focused on Britain’s deprived city communities but often in affluent and leafy parts of Britain. While many areas across the country offer poor children little in terms of life chances, there were geographical concentrations around Somerset, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire, and in the East Midlands around Leicester and Nottingham. Here, all too often the only way to get on is to get out. This then hollows out these communities.
A loud last call
With the clear evidence of blighted lives and their economic costs, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government put social mobility at the heart of its social policy agenda. But apart from when Theresa May first became prime minister and talked about addressing unfairness in Britain and “just about managing” families, there have been few lights in the darkness of policy neglect.
The noteworthy exception have been efforts by Justine Greening, secretary of state for education, who is active and engaged with the issue and deserves praise. There have also been some positive initiatives in local and devolved government which the commission highlighted. But the absence of anything that looks like a strategy or framework – let alone resources – to shape and cajole those who can make coherent change to improve social mobility is deeply depressing.
Then the commission itself was neglected. Only four of the original ten members were left. Replacements from across society – and especially private sector firms – were supposed to have been announced by David Cameron shortly after the Brexit vote. When he then resigned, the process started all over again and, 18 months later, nothing has been forthcoming.
Alan Milburn, the highly effective chair and beating heart of the commission, decided he’d had enough. All the rest of us whose terms of office will be up over the next year, decided to stand with him and highlight this neglect by resigning.
We were always there to call for action and progressive change. By resigning, I hope we have made one last loud call.