Education committee wants reform of social mobility commission

MPs have told the government to beef up its social mobility commission and appoint a “minister for social justice” to help tackle inequality in education.

The parliamentary education committee has published its report into the commission, which was thrown into chaos last year after all four of its members abruptly resigned.

MPs said the commission should be given the power to publish impact assessments on social justice in legislative proposals.

The commission should be able to advise ministers proactively, rather than just when requested to, as is currently the case, and MPs also suggested it change its name to the  “social justice commission”.

The commission made headlines in December when its four remaining members – including its chair Alan Milburn – resigned.

Milburn complained that six roles on the commission had been left unfilled for almost two years, and expressed concern that the government was “unable to devote the necessary energy and focus to the social mobility agenda”.

The report was commissioned in January after Milburn discussed his resignation, alongside former commissioners Baroness Shephard and Dave Johnston, with the committee.

Milburn told the MPs that it took almost a year for the government to decide that none of candidates who had been recommended to fill empty positions on the commission were deemed suitable, even though they included “a former minister of the crown, people who have worked at Downing Street, very senior people from the world of education”.

The report insisted the membership “should not have been allowed to dwindle to the point that it did” and described the appointments process carried out by the government as “wholly unacceptable”. It should never fall below a quorum of eight.

The report argues that a “better-resourced” social justice commission should work “in tandem” with a body inside the government to “coordinate action and implement solutions” in social mobility.

“We recommend that a minister in the cabinet office be given specific responsibility for leading cross-government work on social mobility,” the report said. “The minister should have responsibility for a dedicated unit with a remit to tackle social injustice, provide vital coordination across government and ensure effective implementation of ways to increase social mobility.”

Robert Halfon, the chair of the education committee, said “far greater energy and focus to the social justice agenda” is required “if we are to tackle the social crisis in our country”.

“We need a commission which has the teeth to undertake objective assessments of the implications for social justice of government policies and is properly equipped to hold ministers’ feet to the fire on social mobility,” he added.

Commenting on the report, joint general secretary of the National Education Union Kevin Courtney said the commission needs “teeth and a remit to advise ministers” as well as the ability to carry out impact assessments of legislation.

He added: “The education committee’s report exposes that the government has been paying lip service to the promise of reducing inequality. The government has not been properly held to account for the link between its own policies and the increases in poverty.

“If this government is serious about tackling injustice it will, as a minimum, commit to adopting the committee’s proposals about the commission.”

The committee has also published a draft bill which would initiate all the changes it recommends in its report.