Baroness Tyler of Enfield (Liberal Democrat) has tabled the following question for short debate in the House of Lords:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the Social Mobility Commission ‘State of the Nation 2021: Social Mobility and the Pandemic’, published on 20 July.

At the time of writing, a date for the debate is yet to be scheduled.

Work of the Social Mobility Commission: ‘State of the Nation Report 2021’

The Social Mobility Commission (SMC) is an independent statutory body that monitors the progress of social mobility across the whole of the UK. However, it only advises on policy in England due to devolution.

In July 2021, the SMC published its annual state of the nation report for 2021 which focused on the progress made in tackling poverty, addressing inequality and improving social mobility against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. The report considered both the UK as a whole, as well as each of the four nations individually.

This article focuses both on the findings relating to the UK, to provide an overview of recent developments, and the findings and recommendations for England, as it is the only nation solely legislated for by the UK Government.

UK

The SMC found that there are signs that attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children are getting wider. It said that every critical measure of low social mobility—child poverty, income inequality, access to stable housing, unemployment for young people and gaps in school attainment—was poor in 2019 and the impact of Covid-19 is “threatening to make each of these factors worse”. It also highlighted the following key areas of concern:

  • Disadvantaged young people and children living in poverty have been hardest hit by Covid-19 and could face consequences that affect them for years. Around 4.3 million children—almost one third of children in the UK—were living in poverty as of March 2020. This is an increase of around 700,000, or 3.7 percentage points, from March 2012.
  • Although furlough schemes have kept many people in jobs, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to work in working class jobs (defined as ‘routine and manual’ jobs and includes roles such as receptionists, electricians and van drivers), which have seen some of the most significant declines in paid work in the pandemic.
  • When the pandemic hit in March 2020, only 51% of households earning between £6,000 to £10,000 had home internet access, compared with 99% of households with an income over £40,000. This was problematic as working from home requires people to have devices, internet access and the skills to engage with online working environments.
  • Between 2012 and 2020, all parts of the UK grew their share of professional jobs in the economy. In 2020, nearly half (49%) of all UK jobs were professional, while less than 30% of jobs were working class. However, those from privileged backgrounds are still 60% more likely to get a professional job (defined as ‘professional and managerial’ jobs and includes roles such as senior police officers, doctors, barristers and teachers) than those from a working class background.
  • In 2019, people from working class backgrounds in professional jobs earned about £6,000 less than their more privileged counterparts.

England

The SMC said that the number of children in poverty in England has risen by around 500,000 since 2012, “yet England is the only nation in the UK without a strategy to address child poverty”. It also argued that millions would be worse off when the temporary £20 universal credit uplift ended. Highlighting other key areas of concern, it said:

  • By autumn 2020, disadvantaged pupils in primary school were a total of seven months behind their more privileged peers. By this point, Covid-19 had already increased the attainment gap by 0.5–1 month on top of the existing gap. This is the equivalent of erasing between a third and two-thirds of the last decade’s progress on closing the educational attainment gap in England.
  • 30% of all children in England live in poverty, a much higher rate than either Scotland or Northern Ireland, but roughly equal with Wales.
  • In the north-east of England, child poverty rates have risen sharply by around 11 percentage points in five years (from 25% to 37%). They are now close to the London rate of 38%.
  • People from working class background are slowly becoming more upwardly mobile—33% of people from working class backgrounds were in professional jobs in 2014 rising to 39% in 2020.
  • But those from privileged backgrounds are also benefitting from the expansion in professional jobs. 62% of those in professional jobs are from privileged backgrounds, compared to 39% from working class backgrounds.

Recommendations

Looking forward, the SMC argued that the “country cannot rebuild itself after such an enormous shock without making sure that addressing social inequality is at the top of the agenda”. It said that its recommendations come from “a significant body of evidence” that it had produced over the last 18 months. It also argued that they are “vital not just to any recovery programme but also to fix the pre-existing problems in our society that lead to poor social mobility”.

The SMC warned that its plans “would not be cheap” and argued that it is essential that the cost of the crisis “does not disproportionately fall on the poorest or average earners”. It also said that the Government should consider the recommendations of the Wealth Tax Commission, which included calls for “a well-designed one-off wealth tax” and for the Government to reform existing taxes on wealth. To support this, it said it would initiate a cross-party working group “to explore and present credible options for Treasury”.

The SMC ‘prescribed’ the following seven key pillars for recovery under which it made specific recommendations:

  • Geography and local power: a levelling up agenda that promotes equal outcomes for people living in under-invested places, and not just strategies that improve places generally.
  • Poverty and living standards: the UK Government should make benefits more generous and account for different sized households in its calculations, starting by reducing child poverty by about a third.
  • Early years: higher pay and a better career structure for a workforce is crucial to social mobility. Expansion of the 30 hours of childcare offer regardless of education or training status.
  • Education: a bigger focus on long-term deprivation, funding targeting, post qualification access to university and a student premium for those aged 16 to 19.
  • Apprenticeships and adult skills: increase the share of apprenticeships available to people from disadvantaged backgrounds and make sure more get on to the higher levels.
  • Digital access: access to affordable broadband and digital devices for all households, as well as the skills to thrive in a 21st century world.
  • Work and career progression: ensure that all employers measure the social diversity of their workforce and focus on career progression for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, including those in low paid jobs.

In addition, the SMC said it would soon publish plans for a new measurement framework to assess social mobility over the next 30 years.

Government response

The Government has stated its commitment to improving social mobility as part of its “levelling up” agenda. In response to a recent written question on social mobility, Kemi Badenoch, Minister for Levelling Up and Minister for Equalities, said that “levelling up is at the heart of the Government’s agenda to build back better after the pandemic”. She highlighted the Government’s plans to publish a “landmark levelling up white paper” later this year.

Focusing on recent work on social mobility, Ms Badenoch also noted that:

  • responsibility for “driving forward the levelling up agenda” has recently moved to the new Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities;
  • the Equality Data Programme would “ensure that geographical and socio-economic inequality is considered, alongside other factors, when identifying barriers to opportunity”; and
  • since April, the Equality Hub in the Cabinet Office (whose overall priority is improving the quality of evidence and data about disparities and the types of barriers different people face) has sponsored the SMC, “so that it can play a wider role in tackling socio-economic inequality”.

In response to another written question on what steps she is taking to implement the recommendations made by the SMC, Ms Badenoch said:

The commission’s work is an important part of the data-driven approach within the Equality Hub in the Cabinet Office. The Hub will consider its research and recommendations, with a view to using its evidence to inform the wide-ranging programme of work across Government to level up the country.

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Cover image by Andrew Ebrahim from Unsplash.