Theresa May’s vow to tackle “burning injustice” was branded an “empty promise” as it emerged vital roles on a social mobility watchdog may sit vacant for up to a year.
HuffPost UK has learned interviews for the high-profile chair of the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) have still not been carried out, despite government receiving 21 applications for the post.
No appointment is anticipated until the end of May - some six months after chairman Alan Milburn walked out as chairman, alleging the PM was allowing the SMC to “dwindle on the vine”.
The watchdog is short of at least five other commissioners, but recruitment cannot take place until a new head is installed - meaning the SMC may not be at full strength for as long as 12 months.
HuffPost UK contacted the Department for Education for comment, but it has failed to respond to the request.
A spokesman for the SMC said: “There is currently a Cabinet Office public appointments process in train to appoint a new chair and the expectation is that there will be an announcement on the chair by the end of the May. Following appointment of the Chair, the process to appoint Commissioners will commence.”
The PM and her Education Secretary, Damian Hinds now face allegations they are sidestepping scrutiny and have “downgraded” the issue of social mobility.
Ex-Labour health secretary Milburn resigned in December, along with his Tory deputy Baroness Shephard. As part of a bombshell letter, the duo castigated the PM for failing to build a fairer Britain and presiding over a Government overly-focused on Brexit.
“If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately.”
The SMC was created by David Cameron in 2012 to heal the yawning class divides in Britain by championing social justice and monitoring key indicators and progress or lack thereof.
It had ten commissioners in 2015, but by mid-2017 just three or four remained as the SMC’s attempts to replace those lost were met with “blank walls” from May’s administration, Shephard said.
The Commons Education Select Committee has previously called for an “urgent” speeding-up of the process.
Labour MP Lucy Powell, who sits on the committee, said “the Prime Minister’s actions speak louder than words”, adding: “Action to tackle social mobility has been downgraded on her watch.
“Whilst it took just a few weeks to appoint a new chair for the Infrastructure Commission when the previous chair resigned, it could conceivably be a year before we see a fully revitalised Social Mobility Commission. It’s just not good enough.”
When May took over from Cameron, she put social justice at the heart of her maiden speech on the steps of Downing Street.
She vowed to close social divides across the country, adding: “If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise.”
Cameron appointed Milburn in 2012 and asked him to report directly to Number 10.
Discussions “went into the void” when May took power and “got worse” after the General Election, Milburn told the education committee in January.
Robert Halfon, the Tory chairman of the education committee, echoed Powell’s call for action, saying: “The SMC should be a number one priority for the Governnment as indicated when the Prime Minister gave her burning injustices speech on the steps of Downing Street.
“In our report, the committee identified the urgency of having a properly staffed Social Mobility Commission with teeth.”
“That means fighting against the burning injustice that if you’re born poor you will die, on average, nine years earlier than others.
“If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white.
“If you’re a white, working class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.
“If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately.
“If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man.
“If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand.
“If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.
“But, the mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone means more than fighting these injustices.
“If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise.”
Theresa May, June 2016
Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said the growing scale of child poverty, currently standing at 4.1 million or almost a third (30%) of all children, and projected by the Institute for Fiscal Studies to rise to 5.2 million by 2022, showed there was a desperate need to tackle inequality.
She said: “On becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May spoke of improving the life chances for the most disadvantaged in society on the steps of Downing Street.
“However, the failure to appoint a chair and other senior leaders to the Social Mobility Commission so many months after Alan Milburn’s resignation, indicates that this was an empty promise.
“It is clear that the Government must do much to tackle inequality and promote social justice.”
Shephard told MPs in January that ministers refused to accept SMC recommendations for recruitment despite candidates being of a “very high calibre”.
In the wake of the disastrous appointment of controversial journalist Toby Young to the Office for Students, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner warned the Department for Education must tread carefully.
She said: “So much for the Prime Minister’s promises to tackle the ‘burning injustices’. Given education ministers’ record on public appointments, it is hard to have much faith in this process.”
She added: “They are dragging their feet in replacing an independent-minded Social Mobility Commission, it is hard to escape the suspicion that they are desperate to avoid being held to account on their own promises.
“With even a Tory-led select committee demanding a Commission ‘with teeth’, I warn them now that another government crony simply will not command confidence or respect.”
In June, the Commission warned that without radical and urgent reform, the social and economic divisions will widen even further and threaten community cohesion and economic prosperity.
Its “state of the nation” report also highlighted that young people in poor towns were offered fewer opportunities, that the rich-poor divide was widening, and intergenerational unfairness was a growing concern.
Dr Lee Elliot Major, the chief executive of the highly-respected think tank the Sutton Trust, meanwhile said Hinds, the Education Secretary, must appoint the right person for the job.
He added: “Socially mobility in the U.K. has stalled and we urgently need his successor to continue in this vein.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “This government’s commitment to social mobility and ensuring every young person can fulfil their potential has never been clearer. We are spending £72m on our Opportunity Areas programme, prioritising resource in areas facing some of the greatest challenges, and in December published a comprehensive social mobility action plan which we are delivering.
“The Social Mobility Commission is an important part of this ongoing work and now that we are midway through the appointment process, we look forward to recruiting and announcing the new Chair shortly.”