On Tuesday of this week I was in the house of commons listening to the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, launching a new government strategy to improve social mobility.
He claimed it was their flagship social policy objective and the aim was to give everyone a fair chance. His foreword to the strategy document entitled ‘Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility’ states: “…tackling the opportunity deficit – creating an open, socially mobile society – is our guiding purpose.”
Of course improving social mobility is a laudable ambition and one that I very much support. But I am afraid Mr Clegg’s rhetoric does not match his government’s actions.
The truth is, rather than making social mobility easier, the Tory-Lib Dem government is actually erecting barriers to social mobility. For example, the decision to abolish Education Maintenance Allowances will make it much harder for young people from families living on low incomes to undertake post-16 education. In the last academic year alone well 650,000 young people were in receipt of EMA.
Of course it is post 16 education that acts as a gateway to higher education. But even if students are able to acquire the necessary qualifications to get a university place, many are now saying the cost of securing a degree is prohibitive. This is because Nick Clegg and other Liberal Democrat MPs broke their pre-election pledge and voted with the Conservatives to force through the tripling of tuition fees.
Furthermore, contrary to the government’s claims that tuition fees in most universities will only exceed £6,000 in exceptional circumstances, the truth is two-thirds of them want to charge the full £9,000. And the fees for the university in my home city of Derby, which isn’t one of the most fashionable ones, will range from £6995 to £7995.
It is therefore clear that the government’s policy on tuition fees is in complete disarray and contradicts Nick Clegg’s claim that: “Fairness is a fundamental value of the coalition government.”
But it isn’t just further and higher education opportunities that are being eliminated by this government. In the last ten months the decisions they have taken has seen youth unemployment soaring to a record high and yet they have abolished Labour’s Future Jobs Fund. Moreover, the government’s decision to cut tax credits that supplement the incomes of people earning modest salaries is yet another barrier to social mobility. Tax credits help people to stay in employment, which in turn enables access to promotion opportunities thereby reducing and ultimately eliminating the need for tax credits to augment earnings.
The government is even undermining the support given to the very youngest children to enhance their future prospects by closing Sure Start children’s centres across the country. These centres support parents as well as the children and contribute greatly to the goal of social mobility.
The government has also dropped Clause One of the Equality Act, which would have legislated to ensure all public authorities play their part in narrowing the gap between rich and poor. In the end it is actions that speak louder than words, and the measures to which I have referred were put in place by the previous Labour administration to assist social mobility. Of course there was a need to go further, but the systematic destruction of those measures by this Tory-Lib Dem government reveal how hollow Nick Clegg’s words really are.
He might sound plausible when he talks about his commitment to social mobility, but as Harriet Harman said in the House of Commons on Tuesday, “He may be a man on a mission, but with him at the helm, it’s mission impossible.”