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The current pattern of social mobility that is presented in the research cannot necessarily be attributed solely to the efforts—or lack of effort—of the current Government. It has been influenced by previous Governments. The right hon. Member for Darlington eloquently described his childhood. I remember growing up and the damaging social impact of many of the policies that were pursued in the 1980s and early 1990s. In many cases, the effect was felt no more harshly than in parts of Scotland and, indeed, remote rural parts of Scotland. The right hon. Gentleman represents an urban constituency and, perhaps quite naturally, did not dwell on the problems of social mobility in rural areas. In some cases, the problems are different, but they are just as great, if not sometimes greater, than in urban areas. He discussed difficulties in accessing services. It may be easier to provide services in cities and towns such as his. It can sometimes be very difficult to provide them in rural areas, which is something that often gets lost in the
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debate. In fact, it sometimes gets lost in the Government’s approach to these policy areas. We must not forget the rural dimension.

We must also consider inequality. There is an equation between rising inequality and falling social mobility. Anyone who has studied the work of Professor Richard Wilkinson will know that there is a huge amount of evidence dealing with different aspects of life that countries that are more unequal tend to have a greater degree of social differentiation and a wider range of barriers that people must overcome. Indeed, differences in concentration of power occur not just between the top and the bottom—there is a much finer degree of gradation right through the social scale. The evidence suggests that, the more unequal the society is, the more competition there is for small advances in position. They take precedence over the larger improvement in position that we are discussing in this debate.

The larger gap between the richer and poorer in the UK is one of the factors in making it harder to move from one income group to another. The right hon. Gentleman made a point about incomes, but we must also consider the role of tax. It is a shameful fact that, in the UK today, the poorest 20 per cent. of people pay a greater share of their income in tax than the richest 20 per cent do. He said that the debate is not about taking away from one group to give to another but, if we are considering the state’s role in enhancing the position of those at the bottom and assisting them, the tax system is important, nowhere more so than in the recent debate about the taxation of wealth.

The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells mentioned the social exclusion taskforce report. It showed that incomes for the poorest 2.5 per cent. of the population have actually fallen. Incomes may have risen among all the other groups, but for the poorest 2.5 per cent.—the most deprived 2.5 per cent.—they have fallen. That important fact partly explains why the measures of inequality—the Gini coefficient, to those who are in the know—show that income inequality in 2005-06 reached its highest level since 2001-02. Statistically, it is significantly higher than it was when this Government came to power.

There are two areas of policy that I wish briefly to dwell on in response to the huge range of the right hon. Gentleman’s contribution. The first is in relation to work. As he said, it is critical that we direct our work and welfare policy to the objective of getting people into work, but it is also important to help people progress in work, and to move on and up—especially those groups that are most disadvantaged in employment. I refer particularly to disabled people and lone parents—I agreed with his comments about how that group is sometimes discussed pejoratively; none the less, it is a critically important group in the context of employment—but also workless households. At the bottom level of households, there is an increasing number of two-parent households in which neither parent is in work. That creates an intergenerational phenomenon that entrenches the lack of ability that he described.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the tax credit system. There is no doubt that it has played a role despite all the administrative problems, which are
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beyond the scope of this debate. It clearly played a role in helping to make work pay, to use the Government’s slogan, but, equally, the high withdrawal rates that then kick in have hindered the ability of people to move on in work, in some cases. There is some evidence to suggest that a withdrawal rate combined with a tax and benefits system of 70 or 80 per cent. is a disincentive. That is something that must be considered in the context of work.

There is also some indication—for example, as provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation—that work-related policies help to get people into work, but those entries are not necessarily permanent. Therefore, the exits from poverty that they create are not necessarily permanent, either. People may be moving back and forth across the poverty line in a way that is not actually helping to create the social mobility that the right hon. Gentleman and I want. Job retention and progression are critical to ensuring that employment leads to genuine progression up the social ladder and to real mobility, rather than to people continually moving above and below the poverty line.

It is most important that the intergenerational issues are tackled. It is not an individual’s abilities or skills that determine their educational attainment and future earning potential. Sadly, in this country at present, it is their parents’ life circumstances. Improving educational outcomes and the aspirations of children and young people are the most important factors in breaking the intergenerational cycles of poverty that are the defining feature of the lack of social mobility that the right hon. Gentleman described.

In that context, I place a great deal of emphasis on the early years. There is evidence that educational disadvantages emerge very early in life. For example, the millennium cohort study by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education published a report earlier this month that revealed that children from disadvantaged families are already lagging a full year behind their middle-class counterparts in social and educational development by the age of three.

Early years education must be a top priority, and that should be reflected in spending decisions. It is interesting to note that some of the Government’s investment—for example, in Sure Start—has not always reached the groups that are hardest to help. I think of disabled children, for example. It is not always easy for a low-income family to take up entitlements such as 12 and a half hours of pre-school education a week.

With regard to the pupil premium, the Nordic countries are much more effective at allocating resources to schools—to the most deprived areas and to the most deprived pupils—whereas in the UK and certainly in England and Wales, the existing methods for distributing deprivation-related funding are opaque and inconsistent. That is why Liberal Democrat Members have proposed a pupil premium that would attach additional funding directly to pupils who are identified as disadvantaged, which would follow them through the primary and secondary education system.

It is important to say that the impact of disadvantage on a child’s life can be seen even before school age—almost from birth, sometimes. That is why we need to focus not just on policies throughout the education system. There was a bit of a debate earlier about the private education system. By the time that a
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child is ready to attend a secondary school in my constituency or, for that matter, Eton, the advantage or disadvantage of their family circumstances has already had an impact. We need to consider how we can ensure that at the ages of one, two, three and four, we are helping children to beat their circumstances; we must not wait until secondary school age.

I have taken up a great deal of time, but there is a great deal more to say. I hope that there will be a future opportunity to do so, because I hope that the debate will continue, that there will be discussions between parties and that the Government will take up the idea of the action plan for social mobility that the right hon. Member for Darlington described.

10.31 am

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley, and to participate in a hugely important debate. The House owes a great debt of gratitude to the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) for initiating it and not least for his brilliant speech. He counts as one of the dwindling number of true progressives in his party today. I say that advisedly, because to be progressive is not just to aspire to progress and to look for improvement, but to be prepared to tackle some received nostrums that may be difficult and to break out of those. That is the mark of a progressive.

Some of the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks may have proved uncomfortable for some of his colleagues—from some of the grunting that we heard earlier, I think that that might be the case—but that is necessary in all parties if we are to tackle deep-seated problems that have defeated us in the past. Sometimes, hearing such remarks is uncomfortable, so the right hon. Gentleman’s willingness to address the issues rigorously and clear-sightedly is to his credit and is certainly welcomed by Opposition Members.

The right hon. Gentleman’s suggestion of an action plan on social mobility is excellent. I hope that, as he suggests, that can be a cross-party endeavour. The particular suggestions that he made as part of that are radical. When it comes to school choice, my party is absolutely behind him on that. It is essential that parents and pupils are given the ability to act on their aspirations. It is not true that, as the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) said, the level of aspiration is so shot to pieces in our society that there would be no takers for that school choice. We need only look at the proportion of parents who, on behalf of their children, appeal against school admissions decisions, even in our most deprived communities, to see that there is a great pent-up demand and great frustration that that enthusiasm cannot find an outlet in terms of the school that the people want, so we should not patronise parents in any of our communities by suggesting that they are not able to exercise choice on behalf of their children.

The remarks by the right hon. Member for Darlington on subsidiarity will, as he would expect, strike a chord with Conservative Members. We have proposed a radical approach to policing, which is one of the areas that he rightly suggests cannot be left to individual choice in the way that the choice of school can be put in the hands of parents and pupils. I think
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that our proposal for elected police commissioners is a step in exactly the direction that the right hon. Gentleman recommends. If he does share our goal, as his speech seemed to suggest, I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends, in progressing our policy and fine-tuning it, would benefit from his suggestions and advice.

The right hon. Gentleman also spoke in favour of the importance of asset ownership. “Ownership works” was his phrase, and what he said is absolutely the case. It must be one of the imperatives that across all parties we should work to implement over the next few years. The right hon. Gentleman’s ideas are very substantial contributions to the debate, and the House should be grateful to him.

I am not sure that I share entirely the right hon. Gentleman’s more sanguine view that things may be a bit better in the future than they have been in recent years. Certainly I think that we have some way to go to achieve the ambition that his own party’s Commission on Social Justice recommended just 13 years ago. In its final report, it recommended that we

That is a noble ambition, but for too many people it has not happened.

Let us take just one area of social opportunity or social mobility—income. First, it would be churlish to deny that there has been some progress, especially at the middle levels of poverty. I am referring to the people around the Government’s preferred definition of poverty—60 per cent. of the median. A lot of people have been moved from just below that poverty line to just above it, and I do not in any way underestimate the importance of that for the lives of those people. However, as we have discussed, at the same time as there have been decreases in poverty measured at that level, there has been, over the past 10 years, an increase in the number of people whose income is less than 40 per cent. of the median—an increase in the number of people in severe poverty. That is a shocking statistic, a shocking finding to discover, and it suggests that the springboard to economic opportunity is at least leaving those people behind.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman recognise that the effect of labour mobility in Europe, which we all welcome, has been to bring into the UK highly able workers and that, to a certain extent, that has displaced some of the least skilled in society, so we need to focus ever more on those least well-off?

Greg Clark: I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point that a number of pressures are making things more difficult for people without skills. The right hon. Member for Darlington mentioned the fact that there will not be the same number of jobs available for people without skills; he mentioned the number in his own constituency. A number of causes result in the pressure on people at the bottom end, which must be our priority.

The issue is not just that the number of people in severe poverty is increasing. As the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) mentioned, their income in absolute terms
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is falling. The issue is not just the bottom 10 per cent., although last year their income fell from an average of £91 a week to £89 a week—a 2.2 per cent. fall. With regard to income deciles, last year the incomes of people in the bottom 30 per cent. of income groups were falling in real terms. I cited, to some controversy, Polly Toynbee’s image of society as a caravan train moving through the desert. We are finding that the people at the back of the caravan train are becoming detached from the mainstream.

We cannot accept that situation; we need to do something about it. It is the very opposite of social mobility—it is social mobility in the wrong direction—yet the Government refuse to recognise the central importance of that. They persist with the measure of poverty on which their policy is focused: the 60 per cent. level. They refuse even to publish statistics for poverty at the 40 per cent. level, which I think is very important to inform the debate. Save the Children has not recommended that that should replace the 60 per cent. child poverty target, which Opposition Members share, but we do need a more nuanced approach to the issue than the Government seem willing to take.

The right hon. Member for Darlington was right to quote Professor Amartya Sen, who says that merely correcting family income after the event through transfers of cash will never solve the problems that result in that poverty in the first place. He is wise to draw our attention to that.

As all hon. Members have mentioned, education is clearly a motor for social mobility. In some ways, I share a background with the right hon. Gentleman, because he went to a comprehensive school in Stokesley and I went to one in South Bank. There was probably 10 miles between them, although I went to school 10 years later than he did. Stokesley is in a much more affluent area than South Bank, and that should not make a difference, but the sad fact is that it does. One thing that we know from recent studies is that the chances of attending university are very much determined by the affluence of the area in which one’s school is found. Since the 1980s, for example, the richest fifth of the population has increased its participation in university education from 9 per cent. to 46 per cent., which is a fantastic increase, but the poorest fifth of the population has increased its participation from 6 per cent. to only 9 per cent.—a pathetic increase. Therefore, 90 per cent. of children from the poorest 20 per cent. of our homes do not go to university, and we must address that.

As the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey said, the further back we go from university, the more entrenched educational disadvantage becomes. What happens in the education system before the age of 10 is twice as significant as what happens afterwards, according to Blandon, Gregg and Machin. Indeed, I have seen that for myself in my own constituency. I was shocked when I spent a day in one of my local schools observing the behaviour of children in the reception class. If I saw a child who seemed to be sluggish and who was not responding terribly well to the tuition, I would say to the teacher, “Tell me a bit about that child.” Nine times out of 10, the teacher would say, “Oh well, you should understand the child’s
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home life” and add that the family had real problems with drug addiction or alcohol abuse. I would then see a child who seemed to be bright, lively and alert and who was responding to the tuition, and I would say, “Tell me a bit about that child.” The teachers would say, “Oh well, his mother and father work in the local hospital. They come from a professional background.” I was shocked by that determinism and by the way in which the professional background of a four or five-year-old’s family determined, in a way that was already visible to a complete layman, that child’s ability to progress in education. We must do something about the early years because, as Professor Feinstein has noted, poor children who display high ability at 22 and 40 months are overtaken by children from affluent backgrounds by the age of six, which shows how important the early years are.

Mr. Milburn: I am very taken by the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the sad inevitability with which children who are born into poverty will stay in poverty. Does he agree, however, that the eradication of child poverty is one of the vital stepping stones on the way towards a more socially mobile society and breaking the cycle of disadvantage and inevitability? Will he clarify his party’s position on that? I noted with interest that, in a debate in this Chamber on 6 March, the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), who is the shadow Minister with responsibility for family welfare, said that the Conservative party viewed the realisation of the child poverty target as an “aspiration” rather than a firm commitment. If the hon. Gentleman and his party are as serious as they say they are about eradicating child poverty, will they now commit themselves to what the Government are already committed to?

Greg Clark: My party has made its position absolutely clear. The chairman of our policy review, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), has said in terms that we are committed to the goal of abolishing child poverty, as defined in the Government’s way. However, we want to extend that definition and to look at aspects of social exclusion that are not covered, such as poverty at the 40 per cent. level. The right hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that these issues are multifaceted, and poverty solutions are a question not just of financial transfers, but of getting under the skin of the problems, whether by helping with the early years or bringing in effective voluntary organisations, which have a fantastic record on helping to cure some of the problems that put people into poverty. Financial poverty is often as much a symptom of other aspects of social exclusion as a cause—it works both ways. If I am critical of the Government, it is because they are inclined to think of poverty exclusively in financial terms—at least when it comes to the target—and we need to take a more multifaceted view.

I am conscious of the fact that I need to leave the Minister time to respond, but I want first to echo some of the remarks that have been made about the importance of work incentives. In my experience, no one chooses to be poor. People want to help themselves and they are as keen to help themselves progress as they are to help their families progress. However, when 1.7 million people are facing withdrawal rates of between 60 and 70 per cent.—the figure has gone up from 760,000 since 1997 and will increase again as a result of last year’s Budget—we are not providing the necessary incentives.

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