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Social Mobility – The New Lie: ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria pauperibus’.

Time for some classical logic?
Mobility Commission: A tactical withdrawal or simply running away?

The very public resignation of all of the board members of the Social Mobility Commission was painful to watch. The events today have highlighted the profound discomfort that many of us have about the state of our nation and our sense of fair play and equality. We are watching the country stagnate as able talent is set aside on the grounds of being ‘disadvantaged’. We are truly living in a poorer place. Alan Milburn and colleagues finally seem to have woken up to the reality that there is no will within Government to address a deep-rooted problem that affects the whole of the UK. Why they waited till right up to the end to run away, or execute a tactical withdrawal, is disturbing. Indeed, it is now apparent that the UK Government never took Social Mobility seriously. Instead, the Social Mobility Commission appears to be there to cover up the real intentions of a crudely drawn social agenda that has been ‘coloured in’ by loans and fees that subjugate the poorest through debt for most of their working lives.

Is social mobility a serious aim of Government?

It is obvious that the Commission has been under-resourced from the outset. Despite this, a small team has produced much over the years to embarrass governments. They surely have worked very hard. That they have failed in their mission is perhaps explained by them not really being expected to succeed in the first place. They became lost in the ‘long grass’ they were sent into to find a ‘solution’. Originally allowing for “up to ten commissioners” its web site (1) currently states that, in addition to Alan Milburn and Gillian Shephard; “There are 6 other commissioners from business, academia and the voluntary sector”. Yet, as of yesterday, there were only two other commissioners backed by only eight staff. This has been the case for a long time and it is pitiful support for such an enormous challenge. There are many more and better resourced commissions covering resources from forestry to security cameras. Our human resources deserve better. Early in 2016 the Government advertised for four other commissioners to help. This has not been followed through since April 2016. The future of the Commission now seems to be in doubt and comments today by the Education Minister, Justine Greening (coincidentally appointed in July 2016) that the government was doing a "massive amount” fails to convince or reassure. It merely exposes the extent of the neglect since there has been ample time to appoint more commissioners. One can only conclude that the Government has been dragging its heels.

Roots of confusion:

The Social Mobility Commission goes back some years and has its roots in the Child Poverty Act 2010, and latterly the Welfare Reform Act 2012 ‘Life Chances’ and Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. Originally called the ‘Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, it changed emphasis later to become ‘The Social Mobility Commission’.

Its current remit is very constrained in being expected to:

· Promote social mobility in England;

· On request, provide advice to Ministers about how to improve social mobility in England;

· Report on the progress being made towards improving social mobility in the United Kingdom.

This remit largely constrains it to the borders of England and its problems. Indeed this confusion is reflected in a major report from June of this year ‘Time For Change: An Assessment of Government Policies on Social Mobility 1997-2017’ that shed light on the massive challenge for England and Wales (2). The very recent detailed report ‘State of the Nation 2017: Social Mobility in Great Britain’ was a stinging attack on the inequalities that persist in Great Britain (3). Although part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland was omitted. Perhaps looking under the Northern Ireland social inequality rock is going too far. The confusion regarding the geographical boundaries of the Commission’s remit indicate a reluctance to address what is a UK wide problem. This must be sorted out first surely.

Problem: Social Mobility. Solution: Equality for all.

The so called problem of social mobility is not easily defined. Thus a solution seems elusive to those that show little understanding of what the Commission has revealed. Instead of concentrating on ‘Social Mobility’, as if there might be a simple solution, the focus should be on positively seeking out to offer equal chances to all of our citizens. This means ensuring ‘equality of opportunity’ at every level. That is simpler to understand and to resolve. Mobility will then take care of itself. Why should anyone accept that they can be deliberately held back by their circumstances rather than their abilities; where ‘doing your best’ will not be good enough; where you must also pay for, and then live in debt, for being offered a chance to ‘succeed’.

The constraining factor in the end is resource. The gap in resource is easy to understand for someone who grows up in a household with not much to play with; few toys, no books, little internet access, no encouragement, not much food and few clothes and feeling cold in the winter. The notion of equality not mobility lies at the core of the issue. Promoting social mobility to a generation without equality of resources is like deploying urine in a gale.

The government has invented a New Lie for the people of an unequal and divisively ‘poor country’. The government thinks we are gullible enough to believe that it is easy to understand.

‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria pauperibus’.

With due respect to the citizens of Northern Ireland, now facing a political and social catastrophe engineered by the UK Government, the last word goes to Alan Milburn:

“The country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one. There is a stark social mobility lottery in Britain today”.


Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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