12 June 2019
Nadhim Zahawi responds to debate on inequality and social mobility

Nadhim Zahawi responds on behalf of the Government to an Opposition Day debate on inequality and social mobility.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)

I welcome the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government. I was sorry to hear the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) accuse the Government of not responding to the report of the UN rapporteur. That is not true; they have responded. I was also sorry to hear her exploit Allie, an 18-year-old, in an attempt to weaponise this issue, when we have heard really thoughtful contributions from other colleagues. Labour employs the politics of division; it was sad to see that today.

I thank colleagues who have spoken, including the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening), the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins), my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), and the hon. Members for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), for Leigh (Jo Platt), for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin), for Glasgow East (David Linden), and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders).

Many of the contributions this afternoon were about the long-term issue of delivering social mobility. As Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for children and families, I will naturally focus in my speech primarily on the work of my Department. You will not be surprised to hear, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I believe that one of the most effective means of reducing inequality is education. As someone who came to these shores unable to speak a word of English, I know at first hand how education can change lives and truly open doors. Everyone has the right to a good education, regardless of their circumstances.

Social mobility, tackling inequality and social justice are rightly critical priorities for my Department and of course my Government as a whole. That is why, for the Social Mobility Commission, we have recruited a fantastic chair in Dame Martina Milburn, along with a board of commissioners each with a unique experience of social mobility. I will say a few words about their vital work.

At the end of April, the commission published a comprehensive “State of the Nation” report which shines a light on where Government, businesses and employers can continue to raise the bar for everyone living in this country.

Neil Gray

Will the Minister give way?

Nadhim Zahawi

If I have time at the end, I will happily take an intervention.

We welcome the commission’s thorough analysis and its efforts to promote social mobility and social justice across the United Kingdom, and we have therefore awarded it £2 million to undertake further work on that agenda. Indeed, despite some claims to the contrary, social justice is already an intrinsic part of the commission’s role. It is already concerned to help the most disadvantaged in society and to ensure that someone’s background does not determine future chances in life.

This Government share the view that everyone should have the chance to fulfil their potential. That is why we are taking action across the whole of Government in order to make real progress.

Emma Hardy

Will the Minister give way?

Nadhim Zahawi

I will at the end if I have time. I have a lot to get through. I will try to respond to the hon. Lady and to other contributors to the debate, and I will happily take interventions at the end if possible.

Making progress means building a strong economy, achieving record levels of employment and reforming the welfare system so that it supports people into work. Now, 665,000 fewer children grow up in workless households, the support of an income making them less likely to grow up in poverty. The UK’s national living wage is growing faster than similar or higher minimum wages in other OECD countries, such as Belgium, France or Germany.

David Linden

Will the Minister give way?

Nadhim Zahawi

I will try to take some interventions at the end. I want to get through my remarks and to address some of the questions asked of me.

In 2014, we extended benefits-related free meals to cover further education—not something that the Labour party had contemplated—and introduced universal infant free school meals, benefiting a further 1.5 million infant pupils. In 2018, we introduced new eligibility under universal credit, and we estimate that by 2022 more children will benefit from free school meals than under the previous benefits system. Such efforts are targeted at the root causes of poverty and disadvantage.

Improving this country’s education system starts in the early years—Martina Milburn focused on that in her report. We have already made progress in closing the gap that emerges between disadvantaged children and their peers: 71.5% of children achieved a “good level of development” in 2018, up from 51.7% in 2013. Despite that very encouraging progress, far too many children still start school behind their peers, in particular in language development, which a number of colleagues mentioned. We have set out an important ambition to halve, by 2028, the proportion of children finishing their reception year without the communication and reading skills that they need.

To tackle that, this year alone the Government will spend about £3.5 billion—yes, Mr Deputy Speaker, you heard me right—on early education entitlements, which is more than any previous Government have spent. Our early years social mobility programme, backed by more than £100 million of investment, includes: a professional development programme for early years practitioners, who will shape those little ones to make the most of their lives as they become adults; and work with Public Health England to train 1,000 health visitors to identify speech, language and communication in families who need that additional help. We will soon launch a home learning environment campaign, because what happens in the home in the earliest years has a huge impact, and there are many opportunities to help parents to support their children to learn—to have the confidence to help their children to learn better and faster. I look forward to working with hon. Members across this House to ensure that we make the most of the very significant potential of that campaign to help disadvantaged children.

This Government have focused on raising school standards because we know that what happens in our classrooms is critical to reducing inequality. There is nothing moral or decent about crashing an economy and leaving the most vulnerable people behind. That is why we are targeting extra support at the areas of greatest challenge and least opportunity in order to raise standards and attract great teachers to our primary and secondary schools. This has helped to ensure that, as of December of last year, there are 1.9 million more children in good and outstanding schools compared with when we came into office in 2010, representing 85% of children, compared with just 66% in 2010. That is partly down to our reforms.

I am pleased to say that this Government have also made significant progress in closing the opportunity gap with regard to education. The difference in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has fallen across all stages of education. Commenting on the changes we have made to the system, including the pupil premium, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which has been mentioned a number of times today, said:

“A system that was substantially skewed…towards the better off is now, if anything, skewed towards the least well off.”

It also said:

“Reforms since 2010 are likely to have increased total funding in favour of pupils from poorer backgrounds.”

Our efforts do not stop there, when school comes to an end. To tackle inequality, everyone must have the right level of ongoing support to help them on a path to a skilled job, be it via university or a more practical, technical path. That is why widening access in higher education to ensure that an academic route is open to all is a priority for this Government, as shown in the recent report by Philip Augar.

Neil Gray

Will the Minister give way?

Nadhim Zahawi

I have said that I will at the end when I have a bit of time.

In 2018, 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds were proportionally 52% more likely to go to university than they were in 2009. Higher education providers have committed to spend £860 million in 2019-20 on measures to improve access—up significantly from £404 million; in fact, this is more than a doubling since 2009. This Government have also embarked on a long-overdue overhaul of technical education, backed by significant investment. Over 1.7 million people have started an apprenticeship since May 2015. Alongside this, we are introducing T-levels, which will offer a rigorous technical alternative to academic education, available to all.

On children’s social care, this Government take the view that all children, no matter where they live, should have access to the support they need to keep them safe, provide them with a stable and nurturing home, and overcome their challenges to achieve their potential. This Government are committed to improving outcomes for children in need of help and protection. That is why, owing to the work of my Department, my officials and all our teams, and of course all the brilliant social workers on the frontline, our children’s social care reform programme is working to deliver a highly capable, highly skilled social work workforce, with high-performing services everywhere and a national system of excellent and innovative practice.

It is both an economic and moral imperative that we ensure that the skills system works for all—my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney spoke eloquently about why the system really matters—and that it does so up and down the country. That is why we are taking action in every region, at every stage of a young person’s life, to close the opportunity gap. We are targeting extra support at some of the poorest areas of the country through our £72 million opportunity area programme and £24 million for Opportunity North East.

Members made a number of points that I would like to address. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden asked how many academies are in debt. I will be happy to respond to her question in writing, but I can say that the reforms of the last eight years show that autonomy and freedom have allowed the best leaders and teachers to make the right decisions for their pupils to reach their full potential.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East rightly held us to account for our own behaviour in this place. There really should not be any unpaid internships. I remind colleagues of the care leaver covenant, which all Departments have signed up to, meaning that we offer 12-month paid internships to those most vulnerable children who, through no fault of their own, have had to be taken into care.

The hon. Members for Mitcham and Morden and for Bradford South attacked the Government about what steps they would be taking to support children who live in food insecurity. I remind them that we are supporting more than 1 million children with free school meals and investing up to £26 million in school breakfast clubs, providing approximately 2.3 million children aged four to six with a portion of fresh fruit or vegetables each day.

Siobhain McDonagh

Will the Minister give way?

Judith Cummins


Nadhim Zahawi

The hon. Members for Battersea, for Oldham East and Saddleworth and for Bedford talked about the national living wage and the inequality—[Interruption.] I am trying to address the issues that—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Lindsay Hoyle)

Order. Let me say to those on the two Front Benches that if the Minister wishes to give way, that is his choice, but I do not need somebody next to him chuntering that the shadow Minister only gave way once. Let us continue.

Nadhim Zahawi

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was trying to address some of the issues raised.

The issue of inequality was raised by the hon. Members for Battersea, for Oldham East and Saddleworth and for Bedford. Our policies are highly redistributive. This year the lowest-income households will, on average, receive more than £4 in public spending for every pound they pay in tax—