Prime Minister Theresa May must create a ‘social justice minister’ to focus the Government on tackling yawning inequalities dividing society, MPs warn in a new report.
Despite pledges on the steps of Downing Street to tackle “burning injustice”, May is losing her grip on the social mobility agenda, Robert Halfon, the Tory chair of the Commons’ Education Select Committee says.
His committee urges her to appoint a new Cabinet Office minister dedicated to social justice who will health-check policy and monitor Whitehall to ensure everything possible is being done to heal the class divide.
The Social Mobility Commission (SMC) should get new powers to “hold ministers’ feet to the fire”, the report adds. MPs also voice concern at the “farcical” failure to recruit new Commissioners after social mobility tsar Alan Milburn resigned last year.
It comes as new Government figures reveal privately-educated pupils are increasingly more likely to be accepted on to the prestigious Civil Service Fast Stream than comprehensive students, despite a fall in applicants from privileged backgrounds.
Milburn’s final piece of work for the SMC in November, the 2017 ‘State Of The Nation’, report also painted a familiar picture.
It underlined how London was “increasingly looking like a different country from the rest of Britain”, while there was a £6bn underspend of Government cash in the North. Children growing up in deprived towns or on free school meals were also found to be far less likely to make it into top professions.
Just days after it Milburn resigned, however, telling May she was failing to heal social divides because her Government was consumed by Brexit. His and five other positions on the Commission remain vacant.
Halfon said the body’s work cannot be left to “whistle in the wind”.
He 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.
“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.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, adds: “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.”