“It is hard, and sometimes impossible, to seek a new or better job or to support your children in their education if your daily preoccupation has to be with getting by.” – Bishop of Portsmouth, 27/10/16
On 27th October 2016 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Holmes of Richmond “To move that this House takes note of Her Majesty’s Government’s plans to promote social mobility.” The Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Revd Christopher Foster, took part in the debate:
The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, in these few minutes I should like to set the concern and aspirations for social mobility—already so well introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, and other noble Lords—in the context of the challenges faced by many people, some in my own diocese, who face the daily grind and trial of simply getting by for the day or, at best, the week. The Prime Minister has referred to the need to focus on “just managing” families, and I agree with her, but surely the task is to help make it possible for them to do better than just manage, enabling their energy to be taken up not just in dealing with the everyday challenges but in improving life chances for themselves and their families, including social mobility.
The policies inherited by this Prime Minister and her new Government can be expected to have a significant impact on those towards the bottom of the income and privilege ladders, whom we surely want and ought—if I may introduce a note of morality—most to support and encourage. Those who are on benefits, and whom none of us wishes to keep reliant on them, will see income reductions in the years ahead. I am thinking most of those in work and on benefits. There will indeed be some modest compensation for cuts in working-age benefits from income tax changes and the introduction of what the last Chancellor styled the “national living wage”; nevertheless, the bottom 30% will see a reduction. The same suite of policies is expected to raise incomes for those of us in the top half of the distribution. If there is higher inflation, and even if just a temporary contraction of the economy follows Brexit, the poorest will be likely to be hit the hardest. All this has an impact by retarding social mobility. These people will need extra support to manage, not less.
It is against that background of existing policy that we engage in a debate about doing more than managing—that is, improving opportunity for social mobility. It is hard, and sometimes impossible, to seek a new or better job or to support your children in their education if your daily preoccupation has to be with getting by. As we enter a period when there will be difficulties for those on the lowest incomes, we need to ensure that economic inequality does not worsen the base from which mobility can come. Trapping people on a lower income undermines social mobility, making it more difficult to access other welcome initiatives to address intergenerational mobility.
I accept that social mobility is not only about income, but it is a major factor in, and influence on, people’s ability to access other opportunities. Having to struggle to get by and, for instance, working very long hours on low pay, reduce time and energy for parental engagement in their children’s development. An advantageous home environment is very important in a child’s early years development. Enough parental and adult time, energy and money are essential for children to access sport, non-statutory educational opportunities and community engagement, all of which should begin at an early age if mobility is to be possible.
A key finding from the Social Mobility Commission highlights areas of the country that have become social mobility cold spots, particularly coastal areas. Some are in the diocese that I serve, covering the mainland coastal areas of Gosport and Portsmouth, along with the Isle of Wight. Many of these areas perform badly on both educational measures and adulthood outcomes, giving people from less advantaged backgrounds limited opportunities to get on. Regional disparities require focused attention, and I trust that our grand aspirations lead to resourcing for hard-to-reach regions and communities and the people who live there.
I draw my comments to an end, delighted to make way for the much-anticipated maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Couttie. In our ambition to enhance social mobility, we must recognise the reality—that those just managing are those who ought to be our special focus.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Lord Nash) (Con) [extract]: …Children from many different types of families lack access to the opportunities they need to succeed, and this Government are determined to tackle that, not only for the most disadvantaged but for those parents who work but, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth said, struggle to get by—those who are “just managing”. There are social mobility cold spots up and down the country, as a number of noble Lords mentioned, where too many children start school behind, too many schools are not good enough, progress to the best universities is limited to the very few, and too many children go home to families where no one has worked or possibly ever worked. Gaps in cognitive skills by family background start off large, as early as age three, and get larger as children progress through education. Our recently launched opportunity areas will be at the forefront of tackling the causes of these gaps.