We need a shared national mission to solve UK poverty, says Helen Barnard.
The Social Mobility Commission’s report, out today, paints a damning picture of two decades of national failure to create a country and an economy that work for everyone.
It warns that 20 years of public policy has delivered too little progress and that social and economic divisions in British society are set to widen. The report looks at early years, schools, young people’s training and work. It rates policies in these areas red, amber or green to show how successful action has been. None of these life stages are given a green rating; early years and schools are amber, young people and working lives are red. Rising child poverty, persistent educational inequalities and low pay are singled out as central problems.
The new report shows that successive governments have failed to take decisive action to fix these underlying causes of poverty. Our research shows that it is possible to solve these problems and enable everyone to have a decent and secure life, but it requires governments to work with employers, businesses and communities. Together, we need to take radical action to redress three of our biggest failures.
1. We have failed to give young people the skills they need to succeed in the labour market.
Despite years of feverish policy-making, our education system continues to fail those from low-income backgrounds. Two-thirds of those on free school meals do not get good GCSEs, making it very hard for them to get further training or a decently paid job. Change requires us to focus on three neglected areas:
- Improving the quality of early years childcare: which means better qualified and better paid staff.
- Continuing professional development for teachers; good teaching is the single biggest driver of success for low-income pupils.
- Better quality apprenticeships (not just more of them).
2. Too many people are stuck in low-paid jobs with few chances to move up.
Rising employment has been the UK’s major success story in recent years. Rises in the minimum wage have seen pay rise at the very bottom, but one in five people are still stuck on low pay and most of those in poverty now live in working families. Our plan to solve poverty highlights three steps to change this:
- Work with businesses to improve productivity in low-pay sectors like retail and hospitality.
- Overhaul our adult skills system so that it supports people in low-paid jobs to get training and improve their situation.
- Reboot Universal Credit to enable people in work keep more of their earnings and ensure benefits keep up with inflation.
Stubborn geographical inequalities make it much harder for people in some areas to get on.
3. Some cities and regions in the UK lag far behind the rest of the country.
For example, in greater Birmingham and Solihull, one in five of the workforce wants a job or more hours. Some areas of the country are still struggling with the impact of earlier deindustrialisation, while others have not been able to make economic growth benefit everyone.
Last year’s Brexit vote placed a spotlight on the anger and dissatisfaction of those who have benefited least from economic growth over the last two decades. Negotiations will take up a huge amount of Government activity over the coming years, but it is vital that politicians do not ignore the underlying problems faced by the 14 million people living in poverty in the UK today. Our research showed that some of the main drivers of the vote were low incomes, lack of skills and living in places with few opportunities to find good jobs.
In too many of these places there is still little prospect of better times. With prices rising, wages stagnating and benefits frozen, those who are already struggling to make ends meet will find it harder to afford the essentials, let alone save or invest in their future. It is now up to Metro Mayors, local authorities and the UK and devolved Governments to make the goal of inclusive growth a reality across the UK. This could be achieved by securing at least the equivalent level of funding for struggling places as we leave the EU, and giving communities the powers they need to ensure this money provides the most benefit for struggling areas.
Today’s report reinforces the message of recent elections – now is the time for real, deep-seated change across the UK. The risk is that the next few years are spent in political turmoil and stalemate, leaving untouched the burning injustices uncovered by our research and in the Social Mobility Commission report. This Thursday we hold an event with the Spectator examining lessons from the last seven years and discussing the Conservative Route to fighting poverty over the next few years. Across the political spectrum and the whole country, we need a shared national mission to solve UK poverty, and create a country which truly works for everyone.