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Labour Reigniting the Social Justice Bill

The Labour party moved away from any consensus on Social Mobility at a meeting in Birmingham today. Jeremy Corbyn and Angela Rayner reaffirmed their commitment to a National education Service and proposed to replace the failed Social Mobility Commission with a Social Justice Commission. This is not a new idea as it was proposed by the Education Committee in Parliament in May of last year. However, with the current government ditching it at the start, it is now firmly in the hands of Labour. Augar gets no mention and it will be lost in a change of government.  

While the establishment gathered at Horse Guards Parade this morning with the Queen to watch the Trooping of the Colour, storm clouds were gathering to the north in Birmingham. The conference ‘Tackling Disadvantage in Education’ was well in swing and promised major changes in a new government. Organised as part of the plan for a National Education Service, Jeremy Corbyn and the Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Rayner used it as a platform for reinforcing the Labour manifesto commitments. Jeremy Corbyn confirmed Labour’s stance on no university fees, maintenance grants, free childcare, free school meals and lifelong education. These are major commitments. However, there was nothing revealed about how it would be paid for. Comparisons to the founding of the National Health Service in 1948 could only mean more National Insurance, tax overall and more progressive tax for individuals and businesses. But there are now enough people affected by disadvantage that the plans have a real chance of lifting off in a changed regime. There is no longer a battle for a ‘centre ground’ and the Conservatives have created this situation themselves.

Social Justice Commission proposed.

The Stockport accent of Angela Rayner resonated across the hall as she championed the idea of social justice from the very real perspective of personal experience. She must send a cold chill down the spines of the established privileged and rightly so.

The Labour plan to establish a Social Justice Commission is not a new one. The idea emerged from the cross party Education Committee in parliament back in May of last year (discussed by TEFS 24th May 2018 ‘Justice for the Social Mobility Commission: A fresh start?’). The Conservative committee chair, Robert Halfon made the case in a 10 minute motion proposing a Bill for a Social Justice Bill. His speech in parliament is well worth a revisit (a video is on TEFS linked here) and it has strong echoes of the current Labour commitment. The fact that the government ditched this in favour of re-starting the Social Mobility Commission had its own echoes of past failure. Now the Labour Party has split from any consensus on Social Mobility and put open water between them and the current government.

Where is the Social Mobility Commission now?

When the government re-established a Social Mobility Commission it came over a year after all of the previous commissioners had resigned in 2017
; citing inaction of the government. They had failed to appoint a full compliment of commissioners since 2015 and did not seem to bother that they had no reason for this. It was painful to watch as reported by TEFS In December 2017. With the new commission established, it was with some hope of change that we anticipated action at last when met for the first time in December 2018. However this fell flat from the outset. The reality is now very different and it seems to have stalled. The sudden release of its delayed, and somewhat fiercely critical report, ‘State of the Nation 2018-19: Social Mobility in Great Britain’ in April is a final and comprehensive attestation of failed government policies (See also report by TEFS 30th April 2019).

Much of the report would have been compiled before the new commission got going and it presented the government with a major embarrassment. The fact that the commission does not appear to have had a scheduled monthly meeting since January, and still has declarations of interests going back to 2016 on its www site, smacks of inactivity (heavily criticised by TEFS 22nd March 2019 ‘Social Mobility Commission: Where are they?’ and 12th April 2019 ‘Social Mobility Commission – “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”). Perhaps they are going the way of the previous incarnation because they, like their predecessors, had revealed the stark reality of the situation in the UK to a blinkered government.

What of Augar now?

A notable omission of the recommendations of the Augar Review of Post-18 Education and Funding today hints at a completely different approach by Labour. Indeed a commitment to no university fees would suggest this. However, Augar had to come up with a funding plan and his approach will nevertheless have attracted the attention of Labour.

In contrast to Augar, Labour’s policy is to remove tuition fees and fund this by increasing National Insurance and Corporation Tax in a National Education Service. (see TEFS 30th April 2019 Augar stirs up the system: The ripples will go far beyond his remit). But Augar’s proposals could be seen as paving the way for further fee cuts and a more progressive graduate tax system. In extending repayments for 40 years, this takes in most of a graduate’s working life to retirement. Augar states that “This would bring the system closer to other state contribution systems such as national insurance, but borrowers would still be protected by the other features of the student finance system, in particular the income-contingent basis of contributions and the termination of payments once the loan is cleared.”

This is not so far away from a graduate tax.

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


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