Whatever happened to social mobility? One of the most disturbing themes to emerge from the grammar schools debate and the current rash of Blair retrospectives is the discovery that even under a supposedly progressive Prime Minister, our society is holding too many people back rather than propelling them forward.
And the reasons behind this reveal many deep-seated differences between the thinking of Cameron’s Conservatives and that of Brown’s Labour party.
Social mobility is falling. Someone born into the poorest quarter of society 50 years ago had a greater chance of working their way up to a higher economic group than a young person today. And it’s getting worse. We have expanded the number of people in higher education. The number of young people in the richest fifth of society who complete a degree has increased from 9 per cent in 1981 to 46 per cent today. Yet among people in the poorest fifth, the increase has been from 6 per cent taking a degree to a pathetic 9 per cent today.
The people at the bottom of our society are being left further and further behind. Despite a decade of growth and falling unemployment there are over 400,000 more people in severe poverty than when Labour came to office. And the most recent figures released by the government show that the incomes of the poorest are actually falling year on year. We know that poverty rates have not budged among disabled people, often the poorest due to the double whammy of difficulty in finding work and the costs invariably caused by disability. No wonder the chief executive of Barnardo’s called the latest poverty figures a ‘moral disgrace’.
The attitude of the parties to this problem of stalled social mobility is revealing. Labour still thinks that a big problem needs a big target, and that hitting the target requires a big transfer of taxpayers’ cash, organised by the state — usually with breathtaking incompetence. Despite the revelation that people on the lowest incomes are falling further behind the mainstream, the government declines even to report figures on people in severe poverty — insisting that the poverty line is 60 per cent of median household income. The weapon to hit the target is tax credits, which have succeeded in moving many people from just below the official poverty line to just above it.
The emerging Conservative approach to promoting social mobility is based not on crude targets and transfers of cash, but on building frameworks in which people can move from dependency to independence. The lasting gains in the battle against poverty will only be made by helping people to help themselves and each other, not by a token boost in their income from benefits to take them from just below a poverty line in the sand to one just above it.
What are the essential elements of that framework? We see four aspects which we would like to see the Cameron approach embody in the field of social policy.
First, people must be free once again to make decisions that are good for them and good for their families. We need to get rid of the multiple disincentives that trap people in poverty. There are 51 different benefits, all with various bewildering sets of rules as to how much work you are allowed to do. Incapacity benefit allows claimants to work for 16 hours per week or earn £86 per week, but should they be in receipt of housing or council tax benefit, they are penalised the moment they earn more than £20. And 1.7 million people lose between 60p and 70p of every pound they earn — more than twice as many as ten years ago — with that number due to rise again as a result of the Chancellor’s latest budget. For many people on benefits, the safest thing is simply not to work. If the complexity doesn’t get you, the clawbacks will.
Second, we should recognise that while money is an important factor in people’s wellbeing, it is by no means the only factor. It is paradoxical that a Labour government should define poverty in exclusively financial terms — 60 per cent of the national median income. A Cameron Conservative approach to addressing poverty regards poverty as multifaceted, and solving it can’t be done without addressing the problems of our wider society. People do not choose to be poor. Very often they have become trapped in dependency because of real problems, such as poor education, family breakdown, and sometimes dependency on alcohol or drugs. We need to tackle the root causes, not just treat the symptoms, and they can never be solved simply by transfers of cash by the state. That is why Oliver Letwin — admittedly in terms that do not trip off the tongue — talks about ‘socio-centric’ thinking rather than ‘econo-centric’ thinking.
Third, we should recognise that we will not make progress on poverty through announcing government targets and a blaze of monthly ministerial initiatives. Instead, our task must be to create an environment in which local communities, charities, social entrepreneurs and private enterprises can apply themselves over the long term to establishing what works in helping people deal with the problems that trap them in poverty; to be rewarded fairly and dependably for the results they achieve; and to be allowed to take risks in return for results. Across the country there are inspiring examples of voluntary groups and social enterprises who are helping transform the lives of individuals and communities. But all too often they face daunting bureaucracy, chaotic funding arrangements and government agencies that regard them as threats to their empires, rather than sources of innovation and creativity.
Finally, we should establish asset-building as a key objective of Conservative policy. Building assets is central to advancing social mobility. Whether it is personal assets such as a great education, or material assets such as a home, a pension and a buffer of savings to fall back on on a rainy day — assets build deep-seated confidence, which is an important foundation for personal security, and through that, the wellbeing of society. Successful Conservative governments have made social mobility a reality by helping people build assets — whether in extending home ownership, encouraging personal pensions and savings, promoting wider share ownership or expanding higher education.
To have governed for a decade and seen the poorest grow in number and fall further and further behind the mainstream is little short of a disaster for a government whose moral purpose was to advance social justice. After ten years, Tony Blair has admitted ‘we need a radical revision of our methods for tackling social exclusion’. He is right. The enduring solutions to Britain’s social problems lie not in big government, but in healthy communities, strong families and in harnessing the dynamism and enthusiasm of individuals to improve their personal situation.
Greg Clark MP is shadow charities minister. Jeremy Hunt MP is shadow minister for disabled people.