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That situation is very difficult to unpick, because so many different influences pull down the young people growing up in those communities. We can knock down one barrier by giving them a good education, but if we do not solve the other problems there are still many
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barriers to overcome. It makes it much more challenging for them to progress out of the social environment in which they have grown up.

A lot of practical problems are associated with areas where there are concentrations of social housing. For instance, access to private transport is significantly lower, and public transport is often not very good either. That presents a simple, physical barrier to studying, going to job interviews or to working outside the immediate area. Such areas also tend to have poorer-quality public services—not just in education, but in the provision of health, leisure facilities and the other things that children need for self-confidence and a belief in their ability to progress. For instance, it has been shown that sporting activities can have a big impact on young people’s ability to work in teams. In turn, that gives them self-confidence and improves their ability to progress, but lack of appropriate facilities can be another disadvantage for people trying to get into work.

The right hon. Member for Darlington talked about ghettos, and I have described how people in severely deprived areas are affected by practical disadvantages in terms of education, health provision and transport. Young people from such areas are more likely to have lower birth weights and to exhibit later behavioural conditions, and to begin primary school with lower levels of personal, social and emotional development. The fact that they are also likely to have higher levels of communication, language and literacy problems means that even the ones with high intelligence and great potential at an early age are held back. Even if we discount the other factors affecting their lives and concentrate on education, it is very difficult for such young people to break out of their circumstances.

I turn now to the question of broader inequality in society that the right hon. Member for Darlington raised at the end of his contribution. Social mobility is not the only problem in that regard, as increasing inequality across society as a whole also plays a part. In 1991, the richest 1 per cent. of people owned 17 per cent. of the nation’s wealth, but that proportion had risen to 23 per cent. by 2002. The gap is getting wider.

There has been a huge amount of research internationally into equal and unequal societies. We know that the more unequal a society, the more unhappy it is. We also know that unequal societies have more of almost every social problem, from a greater incidence of teenage pregnancies to higher murder rates, and that the standard of health across the community is less good. As was noted earlier, inequality also generates high levels of what could be called social jealousy or frustration.

In more equal societies, people have more chance to thrive because of their intellect, with their parents’ backgrounds being less important in that regard. However, there is a clear link between inequality and social mobility: in all countries, children born of more educated parents are more literate than those from uneducated homes—that is common sense—but the gap between children with uneducated parents and those with educated parents is much smaller in more equal countries than it is in unequal countries such as the UK. In other words, in more equal countries, the built-in disadvantage for children from uneducated, illiterate households is much smaller.

It is to be expected that in all countries there will some differential, based on parental background, in the proportion of young people who go to university and progress into the professions, but the gap in the UK is
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much wider than could normally be explained by reference to genes, upbringing and so on. All the evidence shows that bright children from disadvantaged areas are being let down by the systems that we have at the moment. In school, they are overtaken at a very early stage by their less bright but wealthier counterparts. They are less likely to go into higher or further education, and they are far less likely to enter a profession. The changes made to education over the years have not made enough of a difference.

I have five, quick suggestions about what would make a difference. The first concerns early-years education, which I have already mentioned. We need much wider availability of really high-quality early-years education that not only enables parents to work, to get trained or to pursue further education, but helps children to develop, and helps to even out some of the disadvantages that they might face right at the start of life. Secondly, we need to look at the housing mix so that we can inject more opportunity and aspiration into deprived areas and break up the deprivation cycle that is pulling people down.

Thirdly, Liberal Democrat policy is to introduce a pupil premium, which would mean that children from disadvantaged backgrounds had more money attached to them. It would follow them into whatever school they went to, which would mean that the finances were in the school to help provide additional support that might be needed. That would make such a child much more financially attractive to a school. If a school gets more money for taking such a child, it would be an incentive for it to do so. That policy might help to ensure a broader mix of backgrounds among young people in schools.

Fourthly, we need to reduce the financial barriers to higher and further education. That does not just mean looking at internships and so on; it also means considering tuition fees and the cost of going to university. For some young people, that hurdle is just too high.

The final issue is non-graduate routes into professions. I am sure that other people will talk about that, too. As has already been said this afternoon, that is not just an issue for the individuals concerned, although it is a criminal waste of human potential in a lot of cases. As a country, we need the best people to be in the top roles. We need the best people as our top soldiers, Cabinet Ministers, doctors and lawyers. If we do not make sure that those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds who show potential are able to get into those jobs, we are all missing out.

I really look forward to seeing the report that the right hon. Member for Darlington is to bring forward. Today, he mentioned a lot of practical suggestions; I hope that we will all be able to pull together behind them, because the issue is not party political. It is a matter in which we all, as citizens of the UK, have a huge stake. Fortunately, it is right at the top of the political agenda of all three parties, and I hope that we can see progress over the next 12 months.

4.12 pm

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): This is a truly uplifting debate. I was wondering what I would do in Parliament today, and I looked at the Order Paper and noticed that the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) was going to speak. He gave one of the best speeches I have heard in this place in the four years
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for which I have been a Member of Parliament. It is a great privilege to take part in this debate.

Our routes of travel may be different, but most Members of Parliament want to get this country to the same destination. I did not go into politics as a prosperous, middle-class man to ensure that other people did not enjoy my advantages. I went into politics to make sure that as many people as possible could have and enjoy the advantages that I had and continue to have. I represent a Hertfordshire seat, but Hertfordshire is not simply the sunlit leafy uplands of the home counties; there are many poor parts of Hertfordshire, albeit perhaps not as many as in London. However, there are deprived parts of the county.

When I visit the schools, particularly the primary schools, in the difficult areas, it is wonderful to see all the shiny, smiley faces of the young people—the four, five, six and seven-year-olds—who are busily learning, creating, and absorbing the information around them. They are served by dedicated, hard-working teachers, but the real sadness is that when I talk to the teachers, I find that they can already identify the young people in their care who will struggle to make a success of their lives. All that goodness and all those smiles, yet not all those young children will go on to achieve great things, although the potential is there when they are young. We politicians in this place need to make sure that we allow that potential to blossom and flower.

I had the advantage of an extremely good education. I was lucky: my parents could afford to send me to a good school, and of course I did moderately well in my exams. I am concerned, however, about the gap between youngsters who go to Eton and the best public schools in this country, and youngsters who go to difficult comprehensives, where getting an education is difficult, not because they do not want it but because the circumstances in which it is offered are difficult, with less motivated classmates and parents. For years I thought that it would be wrong in every way to discriminate against children who went to Eton; I thought that someone who got four A*s at Eton should be guaranteed a place at Oxford, Cambridge or one of the other great universities of this country. But at last I am beginning to realise that perhaps three Bs from an inner-city comprehensive may be worth more than three or four A*s from Eton. It may not always be the case, but such a child may well have more potential to go on and achieve true greatness than the child who is spoon-fed at one of our great public schools.

I do not mean any disrespect to our public schools, but I was travelling out to France and, finding myself sitting next to two wonderful young men who were teachers at Eton, I said, “What’s it like teaching these young people?” They replied, “It’s easy: they’re self-motivating; they’re programmed to achieve; they compete with each other; there’s no view in their mind that they will fail; they’re an absolute joy to teach.” Those two young men were truly charming, and I wish them every success in the world.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and is referring to a philosophy in which I have always believed. In fact, Harvard university—the alma mater both of the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property, the
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right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), and of myself—makes huge attempts in its admissions process to look not just at the kids who go to the private schools in New York or Boston. Its whole admissions policy is geared to looking at kids from Watts or Harlem to see how they have performed relative to their peer group, not to kids from private schools. Harvard takes them in with the view that, through its “greenhouse effect”, they can then go on to achieve greatness. That does not always work, but we should think about bringing that philosophy to our higher education institutions a little more.

Mr. Walker: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I totally agree with that philosophy. I should like to see more of it in this country.

We cannot socially engineer a perfect solution; it is not within our gift in this place today. However, collectively—we can have robust and passionate disagreement, but we can also come together for this purpose—we can have the very highest aspirations for the young people of this country.

I realise that we politicians are not in good odour, but I am so lucky, because in my constituency there is a wonderful young lady aged 16 who wrote to all the main political parties saying, “I’m interested in politics; I’d like to get involved,” and, thank God, we were the first party to get back in touch with her. She is a truly remarkable young woman and she comes from a loving home. I do not call it a disadvantaged home; she just comes from a home where she has had fewer advantages than I had. She is a carer to members of her family, but despite that, was also Hertfordshire’s volunteer of the year two years ago. She is the No. 1 academic performer in her school, a truly wonderful person who will go on to be twice if not three times the person I am. That is just fabulous. I want more people who have not had the advantages that Charles Walker has had to go on to be twice, three times and four times the person I am, and I want many of those people to live in my constituency.

As I said a few moments ago, this is a truly uplifting debate. It may not be well attended, but I think that the people in the Public Gallery have walked in on something very special, and it has been a real honour to take part.

4.19 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), I was not expecting to speak in this debate, but its title captured my imagination. My mother was from the south Bronx and left school in her early teens to make ties. My father was from Newark, New Jersey, and the only job he could get was breaking up the ground prior to the construction of the runway at Newark airport. Unfortunately, he died at an early age. My mother came over here and married an Englishman. I then had great opportunities that I might not have had in my previous life. Today, here I am—the hon. Member for Braintree. Social mobility has worked to my advantage, and this debate is important. I want to focus on some of the issues that have arisen in the 11 years or so since the Government came to power.

In 1997 social mobility was heralded as part of the ideological bedrock of the Government. Tony Blair himself said:

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All of us, on both sides of the House, believe that. The current Prime Minister echoes the sentiment, promising us a social mobility “crusade”.

However, the rhetoric and promises of the Government have, unfortunately, run aground on the rocks of reality. Between 1998 and 2006 the number of families living in severe poverty increased by 400,000. Furthermore, child poverty, after housing costs, rose by 100,000 between 2006-07 and 2007-08. As the full effects of the recession continue to unfurl, I expect that the situation for those already in poverty, or those teetering on the brink, will deteriorate further.

Social mobility has stalled; the class divide remains. Thousands of children are being deprived of the opportunity of a better life. The Government have claimed to be the champion of social mobility, but they have fundamentally failed to understand the problem. We do not make people’s lives better by telling them that they have a legal right to a better life, by papering over the cracks or by addressing the symptoms and not the causes. The Government need to understand that the only way to give people a better chance in life is to tackle the root causes of the problem and build pathways of opportunity out of the cycle of deprivation. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on the work that he has done on the issue through the Centre for Social Justice, which he founded.

Too many children are born with wholly unequal life chances. The best possible start in life comes with a stable family life and a stable income. As a start, abolishing the couple penalty in the tax credit system would certainly help. Child poverty is a serious impediment to social mobility. The Government have set a commendable target to halve it by 2010, but their track record suggests that they are unlikely to achieve that goal. They have already missed their 2005 target to reduce child poverty by a quarter from 1998-99 levels. Furthermore, the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that, on the basis of their current policies, the Government will miss their 2010 target as well. I say that with regret.

The inequalities that persist throughout the education system begin even before a child first enters the classroom. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) on his work on the panel on fair access to the professions. However, notwithstanding the points that he made earlier, in 2007 the Sutton Trust, founded by my friend Peter Lampl, said that despite 10 years of a Labour Government the best schools remained socially selective—hardly a glowing epitaph for a Government claiming to be the champion of social mobility.

The Conservative policy of making money available for children from the poorest backgrounds through a pupil premium and of ensuring that extra funds follow those pupils to the school that educates them, would mean that wherever they went to school, disadvantaged children would have the extra support that they need. We also need to target deprived schools, which can become ghettos of disillusionment for many who have untapped talents to succeed in life—a point admirably made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker). More money in deprived schools would pay for higher-quality teaching and ensure that help is targeted to where it is needed most. The Sutton Trust has found that the association between adults’ education and that of their children is stronger in Britain than in
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other developed nations. A decent and equitable standard of education can set a child on the right path towards a profession and give not only them, but future generations, a chance to escape the debilitating cycle of deprivation. The upward trajectory of social mobility begins, first and foremost, with education. Young people’s time at school and at home helps to shape their aspirations.

Worryingly, the panel on fair access to the professions found that professionals typically grew up in families with incomes well above that of the average family, and that only one in five young people from an average income background and one in eight from a poorer background aspire to be professionals. Young people are not being given the support and advice to direct them along the education and talent development pathways that could lead them to a better life. Already, seven in 10 young people are unhappy with the careers support they receive. We must tap this reservoir of potential in young people from lower-income homes—not just for their own sake, but for the sake of the country’s future. By 2020, there are expected to be 90 per cent. fewer unskilled jobs and 50 per cent. more professional jobs in Britain. This is an enormous opportunity finally to make some real progress on social mobility, and the Government should have seized on it long ago.

I would suggest that the Government reflect on some of our proposals if they are not to miss this golden opportunity. A massive expansion in the provision of real apprenticeships at A-level standard could create 100,000 additional training places annually, and a new all-ages careers service and a professional careers adviser in every secondary school and college would help to tap the potential out there. We have also pledged to invest £20 million by the third year of a Conservative Government to provide more than 1,000 bursaries for new university places every year. That would extend to part-time study, and could be decided on in conjunction with employers. However, it is important to remember that social inequalities can persist and continue to inhibit social mobility right through higher education and beyond. When seven in 10 of the top graduate recruiters target only 20 of our country’s universities, we can see this as a systemic problem.

We must realise that it is never too late for social mobility, but we must also be able to accept when policies simply are not working. The new deal, one of this Government’s flagship policies, has failed to get people back into work and failed to improve people’s life chances. For example, in 2008 just 29 per cent. of new deal participants had gone on into employment. For all its hype, the new deal is more of a revolving door back to benefits than a fast track to social mobility; last year, two in every five participants returned immediately back to benefits. That cannot be good. Fully one third of the participants in the new deal for young people have been on the programme at least once before, and 50,000 new deal participants have been on it four or more times. For them, the new deal offers a constant way of life rather than a stepping stone to improve their opportunities.

Welfare requires radical reform if it is to begin to be a tool of personal progress and advancement rather than a constant crutch. Every claimant able to work should be engaged in full-time activity as part of their back-to-work process, including mandatory community work for the long-term unemployed. We also need much tougher
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sanctions for those not willing to return to work. Private providers of welfare-to-work services should have the freedom to innovate and think outside the box, and be paid by the results they achieve.

It seems that the Prime Minister, who describes himself as

has forgotten where he came from. Under his Government, social mobility has stalled. Today we have a culture in which poverty of hope and poverty of aspiration still prevail. No child should be held back by their background. We need as a matter of urgency both education reform and welfare reform, to ensure that we bring about the necessary change in our society so that every child and teenager can aspire to, and achieve, their life’s dreams.

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