The following is the text of my column in todays Argus newspaper: Last Wednesday whilst the Government was in the middle of debating the Queens speech and also fighting off a valiant attempt by most opposition politicians to increase public sector pay, a Government Department published an 89 page analysis of how much progress has been made on reducing social inequality since 1997. The impact of the Blair and Brown Governments followed by the Cameron and May Governments has sadly failed to deliver on many of the promises and fine words that each of these Prime Ministers has issued during their time in office. It seems unlikely that the publication of the report entitled a Time for Change was intentionally produced at a moment when the news would be buried under many other headlines; such attempts often back fire and in any case depend on having a coherent Government to achieve such an outcome; however the report was certainly not something that any recent Government could feel proud of. It is vital to ensure that the findings are well publicised as their conclusions and recommendations are far too important to sit in the dark in a Whitehall filing cabinet. The report was assembled by the Social Mobility Commission which comprises a small but well formed group of people, acting on behalf of the Government and paid for by taxpayers. Alan Milburn is the Labour Chair of the Social Mobility Commission and the Deputy Chair is Conservative Gillian Shephard, the remaining two members are not members of what might be described as the political class, although it is hard to suggest that they are not politicians. To participate in discussions and investigations into an issue such as social inequality is deeply political in nature. The findings indicate that in some areas constructive progress has been made, but in others our society is no further forward than was the case when the Blairs arrived at the door of No 10 Downing Street. The sound of ‘things only getting better’ has something of a hollow ring in the light of this report.
The report identified that child poverty reduced dramatically between 1997 and 2005 and slipped back a little until a further drop in 2009 – 2011. Since then there has been a consistent rise and although we are still better off than we were in 1997, many of the positive steps forward have now been reversed. One of the areas where there is particular concern is the numbers of children living in inadequate housing. Housing is clearly an issue for us here in Sussex as we attempt to address the issue of the cost of living being at a similar level to London costs without any of the benefits of the Capital wage uplifts. It was a matter raised by a number of people on Thursday evening at ‘The Great Debate’ which was organised by Brighton University and the Chamber of Commerce. Unfortunately Andy Winter was not at the debate as he would no doubt have been able to add valuable comments to those made by other speakers who were very aware that housing is one of the challenges that impact both in Brighton and Hove as well as the wider Sussex area. We are clearly facing challenges both nationally and locally that depends on bringing together wisdom and experience from both the public, private and charitable sectors.
Another issue that is raised in Time to Change and was included in the Queens Speech that was passed on Thursday is the need to improve our education system. As the report states: “There has been a bewildering array of almost continual structural reforms to all parts of the education system. Few have been given the opportunity to bed down…. We recommend that in future across each policy area there are ten-year targets introduced to chart progress and to ensure that public money is being spent effectively.” It is easy to see the sense in this sort of approach, particularly as we are in such a challenging environment in terms of political instability and weakness. Couple the proposals for a rolling 10 year educational strategy with the words of the Queens speech that “My government will continue to work to ensure that every child has the opportunity to attend a good school and that all schools are fairly funded” and an optimist would understandably assume that we are in a position to expect to see some meaningful improvement in the way in which our education system operates. However as with all such things the words hide a myriad of issues and by the time all of our children return to School after the Summer break we may be listening to a new leader of the Conservative Party who will no doubt add their fine words to the four Prime Ministers listed above!