Alan Milburn: Tide of economic growth is a 'failure' if social inequality is not tackled

Chairman of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission said all parties must have a plan to close the gap between North and South

Labour politician and former Cabinet Minister Alan Milburn
Labour politician and former Cabinet Minister Alan Milburn

The man tasked with leading a charge to eradicate poverty said the next Government must do more to close the gap between the north and south.

Alan Milburn, chairman of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, said “a tide of economic growth” alone that does not lift people from poverty would be a “failure” for this region.

The former cabinet minister also said if disparities between rich and poor are to be eliminated, politicians must focus on a ten-year ambition to move people from low pay to living pay, and not just into work from joblessness.

“I hope that [the next Government] would make beating poverty in the North East a priority for action,” the former Darlington MP said.

“If the economy recovers but our society doesn’t that isn’t a success. Its a failure. A growing economy is good news but much more needs to be done to close the gap between the North and South.”

He took aim at politicians who he says have no plan to tackle poverty created by the labour market.

He said: “Public policy has been too slow to catch up with these profound changes in the labour market. It is still working on the old assumption that a tide of economic growth will cause all boats to rise.

“That has not been the experience of our country for over a decade. Economic growth has become decoupled from earnings growth at the bottom end of the labour market especially.

“The decades-long public policy effort to move people from welfare to work, while it has increased employment, has failed to increase earnings and failed to provide low-income families with opportunities for pay progression.

“We believe it is time to turn over a new leaf. Getting people off welfare into work must continue but there should be a new and equal priority given to moving people from low pay to living pay.”

He added leadership was required by the Government, but also local authorities and businesses.

“A far bigger national effort will be needed if progress is to be made on reducing poverty and improving mobility,” he said. “That will require leadership at every level. Government cannot do it alone.”

In a lecture for Newcastle Citizens’ Advice Bureau in the city’s West End, he said improving the skills offer was key to boosting pay. He said: “Our region has the highest rate of unemployment in the country and, shamefully, almost 10% of young people here are not in education, employment or training. A job remains the best safeguard against being poor. But it is not a cure for poverty. Too many of the jobs that are now being created are low income and high insecurity. They are a dead-end, not a road to social progress.”

He added that London’s authorities have done a better job of reducing education inequalities. He said: “Here in Newcastle 37% of poor children fail to achieve the expected level in reading, writing and maths at age 11. Across this city only 34% and across our country only 38% of children on free school meals get good exam results aged 16, compared to 65% of other children. This is not innate. Low ability children from wealthy families overtake high ability children from poor families during primary school. Perhaps unsurprisingly children in the most deprived parts of the country are still 20% less likely to attend a good secondary school than those in the least deprived areas.

“Nonetheless, in recent times educational inequality has started to narrow. Progress has been most startling in London where pupils on free school meals now have attainment at the age of 16 which is 50% higher than free school meal students in North East England or indeed the rest of the UK. London used to have the worst state schools in the country. Today they are among the best. That not did happen by chance. A decade of effort to raise standards and recruit good teachers has paid off.

He added: “In 2011/12, only 55 poor children from the North East got in to a Russell Group university. It is clear that universities - and not just schools - need to redouble their efforts to ensure they are genuinely open to all those with talent and potential.”

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