Magazine article The Spectator

Social Mobility Should Be the Tory Priority

Magazine article The Spectator

Social Mobility Should Be the Tory Priority

Article excerpt

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. …

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