On 25th January the House of Lords considered the Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill at its Report Stage. The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler,spoke to amendments he had co-sponsored with Baroness Lister of Burtersett, to replace Social Mobility definitions with those of ‘Life Chances’. The amendments were not put to a division, but withdrawn after the debate. The Bishop’s speech and those of others are below.
The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I support this amendment. Yesterday, I spent a delightful evening with a small number of academics after preaching at Evensong in an Oxford college—Worcester College. It was a very pleasant evening. However, as I sat there, I kept coming back in my mind to today’s debate because I was reminded of the extraordinary privilege of being in an Oxford college and the elite nature of it. This is not to criticise it or put it down; I had the privilege of studying in a private hall in Oxford when I trained for my ordination. However, I found myself thinking about the vast number of children and young people I meet in schools and colleges around the north-east, and have met in other parts of the country over the years, for whom such privilege is not their aim. Most of those I meet do not talk or think about being socially mobile. They do talk, however, about wanting a decent home and growing up and finding a good job on a decent wage. They also talk about having a stable, loving family through their childhood and wanting to create stable, loving families in the future. Those are the hopes and dreams of most of them. I believe that we have a lot more work to do on aspiration levels. I would love more of them to dream that one day they could go to Oxford or Cambridge, and that they can be significant players in their own communities and transform them, because that is where most will do it. Of course, we all know people who make huge impacts on their local community because they believe in it.
Social mobility is simply too narrow a focus. I absolutely support the move to the term “life chances” as a better expression of a broader base on which to think about these matters. I am not a great sociologist, but I went back to Max Weber, who was the first person I could find who talked about life chances and who introduced the concept of social mobility. In that, he talks quite clearly about social mobility being only one of the factors. He also talks about social stability, social cohesion and social integration. These are at least as significant and, for large numbers of people, they matter as much as, if not more than, social mobility.
Life chances around worklessness, educational attainment and, indeed, income are a broader-based way of assessing poverty. They will tell us more about the health of society than simple social mobility. Changing the name of the commission will absolutely reflect more closely the intention of the Government and offer a way of monitoring progress and feeding into it through the commission’s work. It matters and it would be nice to have a commission with a title that children themselves recognise, understand and could talk about and debate in their schools. How much they would, I do not know, but the idea of a title that they relate to is very valuable. This is intended to be helpful. To call the commission the Life Chances Commission fits absolutely with what the Government are aiming at and will help serve that aim better than the simple, narrow focus of social mobility.
Lord Freud: These amendments seek to rename the reformed commission as the Life Chances Commission, rather than the Social Mobility Commission, and to amend the duties placed on the commission to promote and improve life chances instead of social mobility. The two concepts—social mobility and life chances—are different although there are, of course, areas of overlap between the two. The Prime Minister’s speech earlier this month demonstrated the importance this Government places on improving children’s life chances. The statutory measures of worklessness and educational attainment and the Government’s life-chances strategy will drive action that will make the biggest difference to children’s life chances. Together, they will provide transparency and enable anyone to hold the Government to account.
The Government also place great importance on improving social mobility and providing equality of opportunity for all citizens. Our proposals for the reformed commission will enable it to have a single-minded focus on social mobility and play a crucial role in its scrutiny and advancement. That is about ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to realise their potential in life, regardless of their background. Perhaps those in Oxford do not need quite as much looking after as others. The commission will also have a new duty to promote social mobility in England, enabling it to engage with a wide range of partners, including government, business and the third sector. This will be crucial to tackling the institutional biases and cultures that prevent individuals fulfilling their potential. Through our new statutory life-chances measures and strategies and the reformed Social Mobility Commission, the Government will drive action and enable scrutiny on these two vital issues. I therefore urge noble the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.
Baroness Lister of Burtersett: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lords who have spoken. I feel slightly embarrassed; I am supposed to be the sociologist but it was the right reverend Prelate who quoted Max Weber. I had better go back and read my old sociology textbooks. I still do not feel that the Minister has given a true explanation. He seems to be making a distinction: the way he and the Prime Minister see it, life chances are about children’s life chances, while social mobility is about everyone—children and adults. However, children become adults and I see life chances as being about the whole life course, from cradle to grave. If that is the case, and the distinction lies in the commission’s focus being more on what is happening to adults, that worries me even more. Let us remember that this started life as a child poverty commission. In the Welfare Reform Act 2012, it became the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission and some of us were a bit worried about that at the time. Were we not right to be worried? Now it is not just child poverty that has been dropped, but children, too. Apparently it is not now supposed to be interested in children at all. I am not so much puzzled now as quite worried about what this means for the commission, because the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has produced very valuable reports about what is happening to children in this country. The Government no longer have a statutory obligahttp://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201516/ldhansrd/text/160125-0002.htm#16012522000139tion to report on children in poverty, other than in relation to worklessness and educational attainment. We do not know what will happen to the Child Poverty Unit. It is as though children—and children in poverty—are just disappearing.
I am less puzzled than really upset about what has happened here. The complete shift of focus away from children in this commission is disgraceful. I am not going to push it now, for obvious reasons, but I hope there may be some other way that we can come back to this, though I do not know at what point this can happen or what scope there will be for the commission to try and expand its remit. I find what the Minister is saying quite extraordinary. As he himself has said, we want to focus on what matters: he is saying that children do not matter. I leave it there and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 15 withdrawn.
Amendments 16 to 23 not moved.