DEBATE: Is the government too distracted to deal with social mobility?
Is the government too focused on EU negotiations to deal with social mobility issues?
Alison McGovern, Labour MP for Wirral South and former shadow city minister, says YES.
In Alan Milburn’s sensational resignation from the Social Mobility Commission at the weekend, he argued that the government is too focused on Brexit to take social mobility seriously. The situation is even worse than he said – in two ways.
First, not only is Brexit filling the bandwidth of Westminster and Whitehall – it is also hoovering up the resources that could be devoted to other objectives, and forcing the Prime Minister to expend all her limited political capital on appeasing Brexiteers and the DUP. That is why there has been so little action on issues such as early years education and child poverty.
Second, we know that social mobility is determined more than ever by geography, with poorer children from big cities having more opportunities than those in more rural areas. Brexit itself will directly harm social mobility by delivering an economic hit to these struggling areas and reducing the life chances of the very children the government should be doing the most to help get on in life.
Patrick Spencer, head of work and welfare at the Centre for Social Justice, says NO.
It is true that Brexit is taking a lot of civil service capacity at present, but there are some good examples of where this government is making progress on social mobility. In education, the government has invested in 12 “Opportunity Areas” to support disadvantaged students across the UK, and 1.9m more children are in good or outstanding schools since 2010.
Last month, the chancellor announced a National Retraining Scheme to support the low-skilled and unemployed. Last week, Alan Milburn called for more investment in housing and transport – already the government has committed to building one million houses by 2020, and has put aside £31bn for a transport-focussed productivity fund.
It is also worth saying that ONS figures show income inequality and absolute poverty rates falling.
Of course, there is much more to do, and the Social Mobility Commission has done fantastic work to date.
But it is unfair to say this government is not committed to the issue.