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Milburn to Milburn: All Change for the Social Mobility Commission?

Milburn to Milburn: All Change for the Social Mobility Commission?

11th July 2018

Dame Martina Milburn is the Government’s preferred choice for chair of the Social Mobility Commission and was grilled by the Education Select Committee this week. This is a crunch point for the commission as it seeks to reboot after the resignation of Alan Milburn.

The government has been at pains to emphasise that they will not make a final decision about the appointment until receiving feedback from the committee, although Damien Hinds referring to Alan Milburn as ‘her predecessor’ already might somewhat undermine these protestations.

We are not used to this kind of process in Britain; it feels reminiscent of the American confirmation system for executive appointments, although there is of course no actual veto. The committee’s questioning was suitably varied, ranging from philosophical to practical to competency based throughout the session.  The revelation that Dame Martina had only applied for the position after being telephoned by the Secretary of State led to a difficult line of questioning about her willingness to publicly criticise the government. Dame Martina responded by saying that her leadership style was more collegiate and thoughtful like Gareth Southgate, but was prepared to go public with concerns when necessary, and highlighted that the commission is subject to freedom of information. This seemed to somewhat concern Lucy Powell who emphasised her belief that the work of the commission should generally be public, holding the government’s feet to the fire on social justice issues.  

Key for committee members was this question of being a ‘crusader’ for social justice with the commission having real teeth, not just behaving like a think-tank (not that there is anything wrong with being one of those!). It is on this point that there is likely to be continued controversy.

A key point to come out of the hearing was a specific commitment that Dame Martina that commissioners will come from ‘around the country, made in response to a question from James Frith MP. Regional inequalities, skills cold spots and the asymmetric devolution of education policy are set to be a key part of the programme for the APGSE for the coming year.

Dame Martina also agreed to the suggestion that apprentices should be employed amongst the secretariat for the commission and that there should be current apprentices as commissioners. This would certainly represent a marked change from the composition of the previous commission.

It is no secret that it has been a rough few years for the commission, which was set up by the coalition government in 2010. Alan Milburn (no relation to Dame Martina) famously resigned stating that ‘the government seems unable to devote the necessary energy and focus to the social mobility agenda.’ He has since particularly singled Theresa May out for criticism, suggesting the situation had worsened since her ascendency to the Prime Ministership. He reiterated this speaking this week at the launch of the Social Mobility Employers Index, sponsored by the City of London. Lucy Allan, a Conservative member of the committee, seemed to largely concur with this, saying that the commission had been allowed to ‘wither on the vine’.

This point is underlined by the Education Select Committee’s recent report entitled: The future of the Social Mobility Commission. The report argues that the commission should be empowered to produce social justice impact assessments for domestic policy, across departments. Robert Halfon specifically asked about this recommendation, and Dame Martina stated that she strongly agreed with the aspiration, but the funding and capacity issue remains ever-present, with the commission having an annual budget of only around £600,000.

What the committee did not address is the question of where the commission sits in government. At present, it sits within the Department for Education, but Alan Milburn has suggested that it should actually sit under the Cabinet Office, emphasising the cross departmental nature of social mobility work. The Cabinet Office describes itself as taking the lead in certain critical policy areas; surely social mobility is a critical policy area? The commission theoretically reports directly into the Prime Minister, so perhaps it would make sense for them to sit in the ministry responsible for supporting the Prime Minister.

The appointment process is yet to conclude, but has already highlighted the discrepancy in the different views as to what the commission’s purpose is and even what is scope should be.