Social Mobility Commission branded powerless by MPs

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The Education Select Committee said today that the Social Mobility Commission needs greater powers to address the UK’s social crisis.

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The Education Select Committee wants the Social Mobility Commission to have greater powers to help the most disadvantaged in society

The commission's posts have been left vacant since last December, when chair Alan Milburn and the three other members walked out in protest at the Government's failure to take tackling social mobility seriously.

In a new report on the Future of the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) the committee calls for the SMC to have greater resources and powers to enable it to publish social justice impact assessments on Government policies and to advise ministers on social justice issues, rather than just at their request as is currently the case.

Publication of the report follows evidence sessions with former members of the SMC including its chair Alan Milburn, who resigned from the post in December. Reasons for Mr Milburn’s resignation included roles on the SMC being left vacant for almost two years and his belief that the Government was ‘unable to devote the necessary energy and focus to the social mobility agenda’.

The committee, chaired by Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow, expresses concern at the ‘farcical’ failed appointments process for new commissioners, particularly given the amount of time the SMC was left with only four commissioners (from an initial membership of ten). Going forward, it recommends a minimum membership of seven members in addition to the chair.

Mr Halfon said, ‘Without stronger powers the Social Mobility Commission will do little to tackle social injustices and give the most vulnerable in society the chance they deserve to climb the ladder of opportunity.

‘The Government needs to co-ordinate the social justice agenda from the centre and should give a minister in the Cabinet Office specific responsibility to lead on this work and to ensure that the policies deliver in improving opportunities for all.

‘It’s crucial that a new body is created inside Government with the levers and powers to co-ordinate and drive forward initiatives across Whitehall and ensure social justice is delivered across the country.

‘We need a Commission which has the teeth to undertake objective assessments of the implications for social justice of Government policies and is properly equipped to hold Ministers’ feet to the fire on social mobility.

‘The Prime Minister sent a strong message when she spoke on the steps of No.10 about the importance of fighting against the burning injustice in our society, setting out a commitment to ensure our country works for all, not just the privileged few. But if we are to tackle the social crisis in our country, we must devote far greater energy and focus to the social justice agenda.’

The committee goes on to make further recommendations for changes to the SMC. Alongside the report, the Committee has published a draft Bill which would give effect to all the changes, they include:

  • Giving the SMC specific powers to publish social justice impact assessments on both policy and legislative proposals. The Government must ensure the Commission is sufficiently resourced to be able to fulfil these additional functions.
  • Empowering the SMC to give advice proactively to ministers on how to improve social justice in England, in addition to its duty to give advice to ministers on request;
  • A minimum membership of at least seven members in addition to the chair;
  • Changing the name of the Commission to the Social Justice Commission as it describes helping the most disadvantaged reach the ladder of opportunity and supporting them should they fall, whereas social mobility suggests the movement of people up the ladder of opportunity.

The committee also suggests that a minister in the Cabinet Office be given specific responsibility for leading cross-Government work on social mobility. The minister should have responsibility for a dedicated unit with a remit to tackle social injustice, provide vital co-ordination across Government and ensure effective implementation of ways to increase social mobility. The Commission could report to the unit as a way of feeding back to the Government.

Mr Halfon added, ‘Alan Milburn, Baroness Shephard and the other Commissioners at the SMC did great and necessary work in highlighting the islands of social injustice that exist in our country. It’s vital that the SMC is not now left to whistle in the wind.’

Commenting on the committee’s report, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said, 'Tackling inequality and promoting social justice should be top of the Government’s list.

'A social justice commission needs teeth and a remit to advise ministers as well as the ability to carry out impact assessments of draft, or current, legislation. The Education Committee’s report exposes that the Government has been paying lip service to the promise of reducing inequality. The Government has not been properly held to account for the link between its own policies and the increases in poverty. If this Government is serious about tackling injustice it will, as a minimum, commit to adopting the committee’s proposals about the commission.'

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