Aberconwy MP Guto Bebb spoke in a Westminster Hall debate on social mobility in Wales chaired by Bridgend MP Madeline Moon.
Chris Elmore (Ogmore) (Lab)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered social mobility in Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, in my last debate in the House before the Christmas recess, as you are our constituency and county neighbour.
Social mobility should be at the forefront of political discourse, and in Wales that should be particularly the case. Given our industrial history and the fact that nearly a quarter of all individuals now live in poverty, we are in desperate need of a social mobility revolution to ensure that every child is afforded the same opportunities in life. The widening gulf between classes means that even the brightest and most talented children can struggle in life as a result of their background. It is of deep concern to many in our nation, and until removed it obstructs any pretence that we live in a fair and just society.
We should not forget the progress we have made on this issue. Under the Labour Government, absolute child poverty was cut in half and the fight to cut child poverty further was enshrined in law, only to be scrapped by the coalition Government, who went on to change the definition of child poverty altogether in 2015. It is high time that Ministers tackled the root causes of poverty, rather than moving the goalposts to improve their weak record.
The children who were lifted out of poverty by the Labour Government grew up having led a better childhood, and as a result are more likely to succeed in life. The Labour Government also introduced more than 3,600 Sure Start centres in England and set the ball rolling for Flying Start in Wales. The benefits of Flying Start can be seen in every constituency across Wales. It improves early-years education and helps parents and families in non-working or low-income households through parenting support groups. Across the UK, the Labour Government also increased the number of young people aged 18 to 24 in full-time education by 60%.
Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)
In June 2014, the then hon. Member for Torfaen—now Baron Murphy of Torfaen—produced an influential report showing that a student from the Welsh valleys is five times less likely to apply to Oxbridge than a student from Hertfordshire, and is 10 times less likely to receive an offer. Does my hon. Friend think that is a terrible indictment of the lack of social mobility in Wales? Since then, the situation has not improved.
I wholeheartedly agree. As the only one of three siblings to go to university, I think there is a real issue with social mobility—never mind going to Oxford or Cambridge—and the impact that child poverty has on young people’s opportunities to go on to higher education or even, in some cases, further education.
Education became the greatest tool for advancing social mobility, and the Government would do well to remember that. Labour also introduced the national minimum wage—a fantastic achievement for a number of reasons, not least for its impact on social mobility. Since the foundation of the Welsh Government, much effort has been put into ensuring we make strides to improve equality of opportunity across our nation.
As a result of various initiatives introduced by successive Administrations, unemployment in Wales is falling faster than it is in the UK as a whole, and it continues to be lower than the UK average. Last week, the Welsh Government Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport, Ken Skates, launched Wales’s economic action plan, which sets out to deliver a dynamic new relationship between the Government and business as partners for growth. It will ensure that public investment fulfils a social purpose. That new economic contract will require the Welsh Government to support the conditions for growth. In return, businesses seeking direct investment must demonstrate, as a minimum requirement, growth potential; fair work, as defined by the Fair Work Board; and the promotion of health—including a special emphasis on mental health—skills and learning in the workplace. Through such strategies, the Welsh Government are committed to working with business to provide skilled jobs for people across Wales. That is particularly welcome, given the impact of deindustrialisation across Wales.
The UK Government need to take note of that kind of innovative and progressive thinking when starting to take action on social mobility across the United Kingdom. The Government finally announced the start of discussions on a north Wales growth plan, which is a good opportunity for them, as part of their negotiations, to support the communities and industries across the region with a focus on skills and jobs.
There has been considerable investment to close the education attainment gap and improve skill levels, and the Welsh Government are making tremendous efforts to increase the number of apprentices to 100,000 before 2021. To do that, they will increase investment in apprenticeships from £96 million to £111.5 million for 2017-18 alone. On top of that, they are focusing on the early years of children’s lives—the stage when we can have the most impact on improving their health, education and other outcomes later in life. In 2015, the Welsh Government launched a child poverty strategy with five key objectives to tackle the underlying causes of child poverty and provide more equality of opportunity for low-income families across Wales. It includes strategies such as free school meals, the Healthy Child Wales programme, the Business Wales services, the Wales economic growth fund, support for the work of credit unions, the Skills Gateway service, the Lift programme and many more initiatives targeted at enabling individuals from less wealthy backgrounds to access opportunities from an early age.
Recently, it was announced that there will be a fresh approach to improving prosperity in the south Wales valleys, led by the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services, Alun Davies, and driven by his ministerial taskforce. It will ensure that no communities are left behind. The “Our Valley, Our Future” plan will foster good- quality jobs, better public services and community cohesion in some of our poorest towns and villages.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Guto Bebb)
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the Welsh Government’s new policy, will he confirm that it will be a more effective use of public money than the £500 million that was wasted on Communities First?
I do not think for one second that Communities First funding was wasted. In fact, as a county councillor, I did work through some of the Communities First schemes in my county. Communities First has had positive outcomes across Wales. The Welsh Government have admitted that they now want to review how that funding will move forward, but the Minister cannot say that investing in our communities is a waste of money. It is nice to know what the Tories think of investing in communities up and down Wales.
We face real and deep challenges, but it is positive that Welsh Government Ministers are genuinely committed to addressing these complex societal issues. There are social mobility problems for us to reverse, but we should not forget that progress has been made. Unfortunately, that progress is grinding to a halt as a result of UK Government policy. The Welsh Government are working hard to increase prosperity and to help people out of poverty, but a continued agenda of cuts from Westminster and the severity of UK Government austerity is putting progress at risk. It is not simply that there is inaction on improving social mobility; there is an agenda that is taking us backwards.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, 37% of children in the UK will be in relative poverty by 2022, which represents a reversal of all progress made in the past 20 years. On top of that, Shelter said that 128,000 children will wake up homeless in Britain on Christmas day. That fact alone should bring shame on the Government. If children grow up homeless or in poverty, their chances of success in life are greatly reduced, which puts a roadblock in the way of social mobility. Unfortunately, the Government in Westminster have shown no intention of focusing on social mobility and improving equality of opportunity.
Wales’s Children’s Commissioner and her three UK counterparts recently called on the Government to take action on the roll-out of universal credit, which is plunging the poorest children into poverty and will surely leave lasting marks on their life chances. Unfortunately, the rampant roll-out of universal credit is not the only Government policy that has led to children being plunged back into poverty. The bedroom tax, cuts to tax credits and the knock-on effects of cuts to Welsh Government block grants, which are leading to cuts in children’s services and youth services across the board, are having a detrimental impact on children’s life chances. If the Government carry on with their dogmatic cuts agenda, the impact on young people, and in turn social mobility, risks leaving a generation behind. Each of those policies is hitting children hard. As a result, one in three children in the UK is now growing up in poverty, and more than 1 million people are reliant on food banks.
The “Good Childhood” report published in August 2017 by the Children’s Society highlighted the fact that children and young people’s happiness is in decline, which has implications for attainment and social mobility. I am sure I do not need to remind Members that only a few weeks ago Alan Milburn and the entire board of the Government’s social mobility commission resigned in protest at the issue being “an afterthought”.
Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab)
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the resignation—I agree that it was hugely significant—included a former Conservative Cabinet Minister, Gillian Shephard? Social mobility is not a partisan issue; it is something we all need to be worried about if we care about the future of our countries of Wales and Britain.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The baroness in question is a former Secretary of State for Education and Employment. When a Conservative of that stature says, “This is not acceptable”, and that social mobility is now “an afterthought”, it is hugely concerning, so that mass resignation was worrying.
The commission’s “State of the nation” report and its focus on Wales are what I would like to draw to the attention of Members. The commission found that the percentage of individuals living in poverty in Wales is higher than in all regions of Great Britain except London and the west midlands, and that 26% of people earn an income below the living wage. Much of that seems to be due to the UK Government’s implementation of a public sector pay cap in Wales, which has denied our hard-working public sector employees a fair pay increase in seven years.
Neil Gray (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP)
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his speech. Much of what he is saying about Wales applies to Scotland. With reference to the public sector pay cap, he will share my appetite to see it lifted throughout the UK so that the worst decade for wage growth in 210 years can finally come to an end.
I agree. The Royal College of Nursing, Unison, GMB and the trade unions across the public sector have all said that they expect the UK Government to raise the cap—or to scrap the cap, to borrow the hashtag on Twitter—because they do not see it as the responsibility of the Administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast to scrap it. I am aware that the Scottish Government have introduced some changes, but those should not be at the cost of other public services. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the emphasis is on the UK Government to step up and to give public sector workers a pay rise.
There is also reason to be concerned about higher education figures in Wales: the entry rate is 37.5%, compared with 42.5% in England. Such matters are being addressed by the Welsh Government, but with a UK Government reluctant to concede the scale of the problem and offer appropriate funding, the problems come as little surprise.
At Bridgend College in my constituency—and in yours, Mrs Moon—at the Pencoed campus in Ogmore, a huge amount of work has been done to encourage people into higher and further education. I have met truly inspiring students, many of whom are the first in their family to stay in education beyond the age of 16, and some of whom now have aspirations to study at university, including Oxford, Cambridge and beyond—to go back to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David). Thanks to the Welsh Government, Wales will soon have the most generous student finance support package in the UK, helping more people from all backgrounds to reach their full potential.
Each week, as Members, we see the true lack of social mobility as we help vulnerable people through our surgeries and casework, and all the while there are more billionaires in the UK than ever before. I have no problem with success or business; I have a problem with the widening inequality between the poorest and the richest across this country. The situation could be addressed via an increase in the block grant and, if the Minister talks about the floor or whatever, the reality is that all those things can be implemented—but the Barnett formula needs to be reviewed and changed. In case he wishes to remind me, I am well aware that throughout the 13 years of Labour government the formula was not reviewed, but I make the point strongly that in every single year of a Labour Government the block grant was increased, only to be cut and cut by the current Government.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I have nearly finished my speech, but I am sure the Minister can come back on this in his response to the debate.
If the Government here in Westminster were to reassess their block grant to the Welsh Government, that could open up opportunities to create more targeted and direct support to tackle poverty and increase social mobility. In real terms, the Welsh Government budget will be 5% lower in 2019-20 than it was in 2010-11. Cuts have consequences and we can see the impact of austerity in each and every one of our communities, no matter which party we represent in the House.
We should remember that progress has been made, and I have been fortunate enough to see the benefits in my community. Unfortunately, across Wales it is still overwhelmingly the case that a person’s opportunities in life are determined by their background. I sincerely hope that the UK Government will give consideration to the obstacles in the path of social mobility in Wales and act to make it easier for everyone in life to succeed, regardless of who they are and where they come from.
Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Mrs Moon.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) on securing the debate and on the very considered and thoughtful way in which he opened it. He covered a number of the issues, and I propose to focus my remarks on early years, vocational qualifications, and the academic sphere and our elite universities.
The early years are without doubt extraordinarily important. A lot of data suggest that by the age of seven people’s likely GCSE results can be predicted, which suggests that the biggest difference can be made in those very early years of life. In that regard, I praise the important work of the Welsh Government focusing on the early years. As the years go by, clearly that investment will feed through.
Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about Wales’s performance in the PISA—programme for international student assessment—tables? Endeavours to improve teaching and learning in Wales should be concentrated on releasing teachers to be trained, unlike some of the temporary initiatives we have seen in the past.
I do not for a moment underplay the wider challenges. I agree with the hon. Lady about a holistic approach that involves support for teaching, but at the moment I am merely remarking that all the data suggest that those early years are important to the results achieved later, in particular at age 16.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore mentioned the achievements of the previous Labour Government on child poverty, which are extremely important. It was the greatest of disappointments, to say the least, that in 2015 the UK Government chose to change the definition of child poverty, which seemed to me simply a way of escaping the problem, not facing it.
There seems to be a historical problem with vocational qualifications. Most people understand that in the post-war era the Butler Education Act 1944 created a system of grammar schools and secondary moderns, but it was never intended to be bipartite; it was meant to be tripartite and to include technical schools as well. In post-war Britain, we have not developed those technical schools as perhaps we should have done. That is not to neglect fine work on apprenticeships. In my constituency and elsewhere I have seen the work of the Welsh Government in that regard, but without doubt there is still more to do to promote apprenticeships as a career path and give them parity of esteem with academic qualifications.
Last summer I visited an ITV apprenticeship scheme. It was outside Wales, in Leeds, but none the less what I experienced there makes the point. I saw a very fine apprenticeship scheme in which people worked around television sets and so on, gaining skills that could be used in that environment or in a broader trade. The problem was that most of the apprentices told me that they had had to find the information about the opportunity themselves, on the internet; they did not hear about it from their career advisers. We need to promote the apprenticeships route at a far younger age throughout the United Kingdom.
University is not for everyone, but the fact remains that many of those in top public and private sector jobs around our country have attended Oxford, Cambridge or other universities in the Russell Group. A lot of recent statistics should alarm us. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) has produced a report showing a geographical domination of all those elite university places by students from the south-east of England. Freedom of information requests to local authorities paint a stark picture. From 2010 to 2015, eight students from the bottom eight local authorities, which includes Torfaen, received offers to go to Cambridge University. Contrast that with the top eight, which includes Surrey and Kent, where 4,800 offers were made in the same period. That division has to be dealt with. Frankly, it is not sustainable in the long term.
I worked as an Oxford University tutor and lecturer for 14 years from just after I graduated in 2001 until I was elected to Parliament in 2015. I had a great deal to do with the admissions process during that period, and I learned three clear lessons. Aspiration is of course vital. Whether we are talking about Oxford and Cambridge or about other elite universities, it is critical that people actually want to apply and are able to think, “This is something for me.” However, that is not enough in and of itself—there needs to be support around it. It always seemed to me that what marked out successful interviewees was their confidence and their ability to sell themselves. In the cases of Oxford and Cambridge, that applies to interviews, but it also applies more broadly across the university sector to personal statements and people’s ability to express what they have done.
The third lesson was about networking skills, which were always demonstrated in people’s personal statements by their extracurricular activities and work experience. People who existed in fine networks to begin with always had far more opportunities to use in the university admissions process than those who did not. We need to teach those skills right across our schools sector so that people have them at ages 15, 16, 17 and 18.
Susan Elan Jones
There are some chilling figures about that. I appreciate that it is quite a long time since I was at university, and I know that my old university, the University of Bristol, has improved considerably in this regard, but when I was there more than 70% of students in my faculty were independently educated. In one department in the faculty, that figure was 91%, which is staggering.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. On average, around 7% of each cohort goes to fee-paying schools, but that percentage is far higher at our elite universities. Why might that be? My experience was that there were never enough applicants from the state sector in any cohort. As I indicated, we have to tackle that by demystification—by making things clear by saying to people: “There are no places that are not for you if you have the talent to get there.” That sounds easy, but I appreciate that it is a huge challenge.
My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) mentioned the report of the Oxbridge ambassador for Wales, which I was pleased to play a small part in producing before I entered the House. Its author was my predecessor as Member of Parliament for Torfaen, Lord Murphy. The report, which, as my hon. Friend set out, was published in 2014, sought to address the scale of the problem and suggested a series of practical measures, which are being rolled out across Wales. We probably will not see the results of those measures immediately—we will have to see how they pan out in the years to come—but central to the report’s recommendations is the idea of having regional hubs in Wales. The skills that I have talked about—networking skills, and the ability to sell oneself in an interview and on paper—can be looked at on a regional basis. Schools can identify people who have the potential to go to our elite universities, and those people can go to hubs to be provided with that support. I firmly believe that that can make a difference. It has to, because the report highlighted that parts of Wales—incidentally, this applies not just to Wales but to other parts of the UK—are, frankly, deserts for Oxbridge applications.
We talk about university applications. Of course we want our universities to continue to be world leading. This is not about some sort of social engineering occurring at age 18; it is about the interests of our country. We must not lose some of our most talented people simply because they do not apply to universities because they think they are not for them.
Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) on securing this debate and on the considered way that he introduced it.
As chair of the all-party group on social mobility and a Member who represents a constituency that has not only a border but many economic, cultural and political links with Wales, I have two reasons for participating in the debate. As we all know, it does not matter whether someone lives in Bangor, Buckley or Birkenhead; in too many parts of this country, their place of birth can override their ability and potential, and generation after generation struggles against entrenched disadvantage that should put us all to shame. We have mistakenly and unquestioningly accepted the myth that greater economic growth leads to increased opportunity for all, despite overwhelming evidence that tells us otherwise.
Earlier this year, my APPG published a report entitled “Increasing access to the leading professions”. It looked at opportunities in law, finance, the arts, media, medicine, the civil service and politics, and found that, whatever the profession, there is a similar lack of opportunity and similar reasons for that. Privilege and opportunity go hand in hand across the board. For example, Sutton Trust research shows that three quarters of senior judges, more than half the top 100 news journalists and more than two thirds of British Oscar winners attended private schools.
The APPG recommended that there should be a legal ban on unpaid internships lasting more than a month. We found that their unpaid nature was not the only barrier: many of those placements are in London, which means that unless someone is from that area and has parents who can support them for an extended period, there is no prospect of them being able even to consider such an internship.
Liz Saville Roberts
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the excellent Speaker’s internship scheme should consider providing means for people to afford accommodation in London, so that we can reach out to people who could not otherwise gain from such paid experiences?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. We took evidence from several successful applicants to the Speaker’s internship scheme. The geographical challenges were certainly very apparent, and that ought to be fed back.
How can anyone from outside London—from the north-west of England, Wales or anywhere else in the UK—go and do unpaid placements in London for months on end? There also need to be fair, transparent and open recruitment processes for such placements, which we found are often determined by existing connections, be they family or business contacts. The same rigour needs to be applied to those placements as would be applied if they were permanent jobs, otherwise we may just ease the path for people who are already on it.
One simple change could make a big difference to improving social mobility. There is a private Member’s Bill in the other place that seeks to end unpaid work placements. However, given what we have seen so far in terms of Government action, that does not seem easy to deliver in practice. Although I understand that responsibility for social mobility rests primarily with the Department for Education, any action on unpaid internships must be taken by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. There has of course been no action, which proves Alan Milburn’s recent point that commitment to social mobility does not spread out across the whole of the Government. It needs to. Yes, it is to do with early years, schools and universities, but it also involves the world of work, housing and health. The Social Mobility Commission provided us with a wholesale national analysis of all those issues, but the Government’s response is too often constrained by Departments’ silo mentality, which is sometimes exacerbated by devolved responsibilities getting in the way.
I am sure that if I asked a group of young people from many of the constituencies represented in the Chamber what they wanted to do when they are older, they would not say they wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer or an actor. For too many young people, the very notion that they should even consider such careers is almost universally absent. They need role models, mentors and inspirers—people from their communities who have been there and done it. We need to inspire young people from an early age to aim for wherever their abilities and interests take them. We should not accept that coming from the wrong part of town means low horizons. Getting a job should mean following dreams and forging a career, not simply working to survive.
In keeping with the Welsh theme, we were fortunate to have Michael Sheen give evidence to the APPG. There is no doubt that he is an inspirer and mentor for the kids of Port Talbot. We are not going to get a Michael Sheen in every constituency, but I hope there will be others in every other town who will provide similar inspiration.
Mentorship and inspiration are important, but without academic equality they will not be sufficient. The Sutton Trust report, “Global Gaps”, looks at attainment gaps across 38 OECD countries and as a result can pinpoint how each of the devolved Administrations is performing. Unfortunately, it showed Wales performing rather poorly compared with other industrialised nations, in particular in reading and mathematics, where the skills of the most able pupils are some way behind those of pupils in comparable nations. On a more positive note, it did say that the gap between the most able, advantaged and disadvantaged pupils in Wales was relatively small compared to other industrialised nations. However, sadly, the report concludes that the situation for high-achieving pupils across the whole of the UK is “stagnant at best”.
Stagnation is a good description of where we are now. I urge all Members, if they have not already done so, to read the Social Mobility Commission’s latest “State of the Nation” report, which paints a bleak picture of a deeply divided nation in which too many people are trapped in geographical areas or occupations with little hope of advancement or progression. It talks about an “us and them” society, in which millions feel left behind. Specifically, the report talks about major changes to the labour market in recent decades, which have imprisoned 5 million workers in a low-pay trap from which there appears to be no escape. The report highlights places that offer good prospects for income progression and those that do not, showing that real social mobility is in fact a postcode lottery, with the worst problems concentrated in remote rural or coastal areas and former industrial areas—that description will be familiar to Members in the Chamber today—not only in Wales but in England.
Encouragingly, the report finds that well-targeted local policies and initiatives adopted by local authorities and employers can buck the trend and positively influence outcomes for disadvantaged residents. In short, where there is a will and strong leadership, things can be done.
This country is too closed. It is a country where too often people’s life chances are defined by where they are born and who they are born to. We are now in a world where many parents believe their children will have less opportunity than they did, and I deeply regret that. Automation and artificial intelligence will only exacerbate the problem, and we are miles away from even beginning to understand the social impact that will have. The only way we will be able to meet those challenges in the future is by intensive, long-term Government intervention, not just at the ages of five or 15, but at 35 and 50 and so on. The world of work will change more rapidly than ever before, and we need to recognise that opportunity will need to be addressed not just in our younger years, vital though that is, but throughout our lives. We have to invest in ourselves through all of our working lives, but we cannot do that without Government support.
We have heard about the geographical divide, and the APPG is looking at that, but there is also a generational divide. I do not believe that the recent election was a ringing endorsement of the status quo. What we saw was that the more young people engaged with the question of what they want from their Government, the more they turned away from the existing set-up, and who can blame them? Do they want to better themselves and study at university? Yes, there are opportunities, but they come with eye-watering debt that may never be paid off. Want to own a home? Unless the bank of mum and dad is there to fall back on, there could be a very long wait. Want to build a career in a profession doing something rewarding financially and intellectually? Those opportunities exist for the few, not the many.
The more likely experience for our young people in the job market is casual work, low pay and chronic insecurity. It is time we offered them hope. Across the years, across the Government and across the nations, we need total commitment to delivering opportunity for all.
Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mrs Moon. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for securing this important debate, and I am honoured to follow the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), who made a considered and quite inspiring speech.
To speak plainly, responsibility for social mobility lies with the National Assembly. The Welsh Government have a crucial role to play in reducing inequality in Wales, but it is also true that every decision taken in Westminster has a very real impact on people’s prospects in Wales, whether it be on social security, digital connectivity or infrastructure, to name just those areas I intend to concentrate on today. I have to return to my expertise in a former life—I was a director in a large further education establishment—and I must reiterate the integral role that education plays in promoting social mobility.
In one of the earlier speeches, early years, vocational education and higher education were mentioned. Those, in terms of funding, targets, quality of achievement and the curriculum are entirely within Labour’s remit in Wales. It is important to emphasise that in the role that we expect education to play. I have seen how the effects of the political choices made in different areas of Wales have played out, and it would be extremely disingenuous of me not to remind the Chamber of the role of Labour in that respect. However, today I intend to be “on location” and direct my arguments to the Minister.
One other thing I would like to question slightly is using Oxbridge as our measure of success. It is interesting that so many people here attended Oxford and Cambridge, but we should be building a society where someone can gain that capability and confidence without having public, or private, school education and Oxbridge university education behind them. We should be building that in Wales for our young people to achieve near to their own homes.
In the effort to champion social mobility, redistribute wealth and provide opportunity, every socioeconomic pillar must carry its load. The Government are failing to raise the people of Wales through the measures in their remit of social security, infrastructure and digital connectivity in particular. Changes to social security made by the Government will hit the poorest areas hardest. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has revealed that Westminster’s benefit cuts will trigger a rise of over 5% in child poverty in Wales, compared to 1.5% in London. Wales remains the only country in western Europe without an inch of electrified railway, and all the while Welsh taxpayers are contributing towards High Speed 2. We hear disingenuous arguments as to how HS2 will benefit us. Frankly, I have concerns about how it will affect services from Cardiff to Manchester via Crewe and services along the north Wales line as well.
Only yesterday, we read reports in the Financial Times that the Westminster Government are having cold feet over the Swansea bay tidal lagoon project—we already had that impression—which is an investment that would bring £316 million of gross value added in its construction alone. What about digital connectivity? Recently, the Westminster Government invested significant sums to improve broadband infrastructure in three of the four UK nations—but not in Wales. They found £20 million for ultrafast broadband in Northern Ireland and £10 million was found for full-fibre broadband in six trial areas across England and Scotland, yet nothing for Wales. According to Ministers, the decision on where to invest the money was based on how likely they believed it was that the investment would stimulate short-term economic growth, effectively to boost headline statistics. That is where the fundamental problem lies and where the link between social mobility in Wales and Westminster’s priority is at its weakest.
It is not the Government’s job to pick who wins and who loses in the British state; it is their job to provide equality of opportunity. There is of course a complex link between regional inequality and social mobility. Poverty in the UK is particularly concentrated in Wales, affecting nearly one in four people, while the UK poverty rate remains at 16.8%. Median weekly salaries stand at £393 in Wales, compared to £434 in England. When I hear about the employment rate, yes, I am delighted that people are in full-time worthwhile work, but I also know of people in my constituency who are holding down three or four jobs in order to make a living. There must be a question about salaries and regional inequality in the United Kingdom.
In the past 10 years of successive Westminster Governments, productivity in my county of Gwynedd has fallen by 10% while productivity in central London has risen by more than 5%. Unlike the Westminster Government, the EU recognises wealth inequality as a problem to be addressed, and attempts have been made to make up for Westminster’s neglect and to strengthen Wales’s economy by redistributing wealth. I know we discussed the effects of European structural funds. Could we take a step back and consider where Wales would be if we had not received those funds? They were there for the noble principle of addressing inequality and poverty.
The hon. Lady is somewhat unreasonable in her comments. The European structural funds were provided to ensure that GDP levels in Wales were comparable with the average of the European Union. That measure failed significantly in the Welsh context, and I want to stress that that was not the fault of the European Union. It failed as a result of the way in which the projects were designed in a Welsh context. That has been the problem.
Liz Saville Roberts
Again, what would the position of Wales have been if we had not received those funds? We may not agree on the way they were used, but I am truly concerned that we are moving to a future in which there is no principle on addressing and raising those funds.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
Liz Saville Roberts
I am coming to a close.
At a time when we are being pulled out of the European Union, the Westminster Government must stick to their promises at the time of the referendum and ensure that Wales will continue to receive every single penny that it received thanks to the EU’s redistributive wealth policies. I beg to ask the Minister to say what Wales’s fair share will be.
Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op)
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mrs Moon. You are a former social worker of course, so nobody has to tell you about the problems of social mobility in Wales. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)—I must improve my Welsh pronunciation—who is quickly becoming, like her predecessor, a very well respected Member of this House.
I wish I could stand here and say that there is a magic bullet to bring about true social mobility in Wales. Sadly, there is not. For many people living outside Wales, this year’s findings in the State of the Nation report on Welsh poverty will come as a shock. For those of us who have lived and grown up in Wales and are proud to represent constituencies there, it comes as no surprise.
According to the State of the Nation report, 23% of people in Wales live in poverty. That is almost 700,000 people, and more than half are in working households. Further research has found that children born into working-class families are significantly less likely to move up the socio-economic ladder than their peers from middle-class, financially stable households. Children living in the poorest households are less likely to enter further education post-GCSEs, are less likely to go to university, and in turn less likely to find skilled employment later on in life.
Quoting figures is all very well, but the reality is that many of our children have woken up this morning in damp, cold, sub-standard accommodation. Many have gone to school hungry and without the right equipment for school. To put it bluntly, those born into poor households are failed before they even start. Poverty is not just an abstract problem. It is not something we speak about to feel good about ourselves. It is something that affects our society. It is a drain on resources. It stretches our welfare state. It clogs up our health service. It is man-made and can therefore be changed. In all candour and in all honesty, what has gone before clearly has not worked. It is damning of every one of us in this place that nearly a quarter of people live in poverty in Wales. The decisions we make have clearly not worked. Tinkering around the edges is no longer any good. We have to have a fundamental change in the way we do things.
In my own constituency of Islwyn, which is based in the Caerphilly county borough, the attainment gap between key stage 2 and 3 pupils who are eligible for free meals and those who are not is significant. Only 28% of those pupils eligible for free school meals achieve the equivalent of A* to C GCSE in the core subject indicator. Caerphilly county borough is also middling in terms of its youth indicators for destinations for year 11 leavers, ranking 12th. Some 1.9% of students in the borough are not in education, employment or training, and it gets worse at a national level.
In Wales, 37.5% of people will apply for university compared with 42.5% in England. Added to that, in each and every one of our constituencies there is a poverty that has no measure and cannot be talked about. Mrs Moon, you know about it in your constituency of Bridgend. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) knows it as well. You walk up to the brightest child and say to their parents, “This child can go all the way to university”, and they say, “It’s not for us. You’re off your head. It does not happen to people round here.”
I can still remember—this is a true story—a careers teacher saying to me, “I have one piece of advice for you: have no ambition. Nobody from round here becomes anything, anyway.” That was the attitude then, and I fear that for so many people that is the attitude now.
Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I, too, have heard those absolutely tragic comments in my own constituency. However, it is clear that things can turn around if the right interventions are made. We have seen a remarkable turnaround in Eastern High in Cardiff and also with the fantastic investment in Cardiff and Vale College. We have seen a turnaround in results, in aspirations, in ambition. That is making a real difference in young people’s lives, thanks to the investment from the Welsh Labour Government.
I absolutely agree. In some cases we have to intervene family by family, but it is a huge undertaking in terms of human resources and financial investment. As we saw under Labour Governments between 1997 and 2010, when we have the will we can reduce child poverty, and we did. I do not want to paint a picture of my constituency as all doom and gloom. I absolutely hate it when people talk us down. How can we attract high-quality jobs when we keep telling people we are dependent on soup kitchens? In Islwyn—Mrs Moon, you will know as a member of the Defence Committee—we have General Dynamics creating high-quality, high-skilled jobs. That is the future, but we have to do three things.
The one thing we have not talked about in this debate is entrepreneurship. Our future will not depend on the public sector. If we are to create high-quality jobs, they have to come from within Wales. But I will say this. How many people in this room—will the Minister accept this?—know how to go about setting up a business and how to deal with VAT and human resources? How many people spoke to anybody in school who said to them, “Business could be the way forward for you”? Think about it. We talk all the time about academics. The most famous entrepreneurs in this country—Lord Sugar of “The Apprentice”; Duncan Bannatyne of “Dragons’ Den”—share one thing in common. Not one of them has a single qualification between them, but they all managed to build companies that employ thousands of people, bringing wealth to this country.
I have talked to the Federation of Small Businesses. Business is vital. We have 250,100 active businesses in Wales with a combined turnover of £117 billion; 95% are micro-businesses employing nine people. Large businesses make up only 0.7% but employ 38% of the workforce. We need to go into schools to encourage enterprise. We need entrepreneurs to talk to our schoolchildren. If we think that that cannot be done, just look at the viewing figures for “Dragons’ Den” or “The Apprentice”. One of the most viewed programmes at the weekend was the final of “The Apprentice”. People see business as something exciting that they can get involved in, but it cannot be on the other side of a television screen. Someone, whether it is Lord Sugar or a local entrepreneur or employer, needs to come to schools to tell people about their experiences.
We should ask ourselves about the way we teach children. It is no good saying we have a GCSE pass rate of 60%. What about the other 40%? I have to ask about the way we teach our children not only in Wales but all over the country. We know from academic studies that people learn in four different ways, yet we teach people only in one way: the teacher in front of the class teaching the kids. Some kids will flourish, but others will not. We therefore have to look at the way people learn. We have so many opportunities. In years to come, traditional exams will not be the measure.
I recently visited the Man Group, an investment company that is investing in artificial intelligence. It told me that it now wants graduates with degrees in machine learning. The graduate entry level salary for that is £60,000. Most of its graduates will have been to Oxford. We should teach kids coding and similar skills from an early age, because the future will be automation and artificial intelligence. My son Zachariah is 10 months old, and he will probably do a job that I have never heard of. We must start teaching kids the core skills in school. The issue goes back to what my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) said: we need mentors in schools, to teach people about those things.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) talked about the 1944 Butler report and the tripartite system. We have neglected technical skills. I believe that people voted for Brexit because of fear of immigration. Those migrants will not now come in. We need to invest in technical education, and that needs to come from the Government, but we need to make sure that technical qualifications involve the same level of attainment as a degree. Not everyone is academic; some people are good with their hands.
I applaud the hon. Gentleman on a fantastic speech. The attainment levels in those General Dynamics apprenticeships, which are being supported by Y Coleg Merthyr Tudful, are really quite inspiring. Does he agree that the fact that those opportunities are available in valleys communities will make the difference and show that young people can have a future in those communities?
I congratulate the Minister: I am quite shocked—I have been in the House seven years and he has never said anything nice about me before, so I can only think he must have been visited by the same Christmas spirits who haunted Ebenezer Scrooge all those years ago. The worst thing is that I agree with him. I should stop and move on.
If we are truly to tackle social mobility we need a change in our mindset. We need radical solutions. We cannot go on as we are. If one person fails we all fail. Together, if we are radical and think outside the box, we can ensure that the next generation will have better opportunities than the present one.
Anna McMorrin (Cardiff North) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), who made a passionate speech. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for securing this important debate.
Crippling austerity, welfare cuts, unfair and disorganised welfare reforms, plummeting productivity, stagnant wages and increased living costs will only increase under the Tory Government as a result of their shambolic Brexit negotiations. Is it any wonder that social mobility is suffering? Only two weeks ago, as we have heard, Alan Milburn, the chair of the Government’s Social Mobility Commission, and the entire team resigned, citing “lack of political leadership”. The findings of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, that almost 400,000 more children and 300,000 more pensioners have been impoverished in the UK since 2013, are shocking. The Tory Government should be ashamed, despite the rhetoric of the Prime Minister, who promised when she was elected to heal social divisions and bridge the gap between the classes. Her Government have done nothing to improve social mobility. On the contrary, she and her predecessors have presided over the first sustained increase in child poverty in 20 years. They achieved that by adopting anti-welfare policies, cutting in-work benefits and freezing housing and children’s benefits in an economy that is already squeezing family incomes.
The latest figures show that 30% of children in this country live in poverty: that is 4 million children, 67% of whom come from working families. That means that children do not have enough food to eat. It means parents having to decide between putting their children to bed at night either cold or hungry. That is not because their parents do not love them, or are not working long and hard enough at many different jobs; it is because of the Government. Wages are getting lower while prices for everything else get higher.
How do those children have a chance of getting out of the poverty cycle? Only a generation ago, a Labour Government provided people from low-income backgrounds with full grants to go to university. Most of them went on to become teachers, nurses, social workers and doctors. They were given good-quality training and education to provide us all with high standards of public services and a reliable, respectable career with opportunities to progress. My father spent his life teaching children, many of whom were from disadvantaged backgrounds. As a leader in outdoor education he equipped them with the skills and knowledge to gain confidence, achieve and succeed. Many of them returned years later to tell him the difference that he made, and that education made, to their lives. Now, thanks to the Government a young person must decide whether to take on up to £50,000 of debt to get a degree, knowing that there is no guarantee of a job at the end of it.
On the issue of tuition fees, is not the participation rate in England higher than in Wales and Scotland, even though until now there has been a reduced tuition rate in Wales? If the hon. Lady thinks the level of debt is a barrier to going into further education, has she made representations to the Welsh Government about their proposals to increase tuition fees for Welsh students?
The Welsh Government are keeping tuition fees at a lower level than the UK Government; I have had conversations with the UK Government about it. The Welsh Government are keeping them at a much lower level and supporting our students in Wales.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, I will not give way; I am going to continue.
Perhaps the Prime Minister’s idea of social mobility is the Conservative ideal of a select, lucky, few doing that much better than their parents while the rest fail to get on in life and are left behind. When I turn on the television or read a newspaper I see a structured class system representing a specific, small part of society. I see all those with the same names, who went to the same schools and universities and who now hang out in the same private members clubs, representing perhaps 1% of our society. I see them speaking out and trying to represent us; they deign to represent us all. It is not that children in my constituency, or people anywhere who go to local schools and universities, are not good enough. They just were not born into the right background. We are lucky in Wales that we do not have such a rigid class structure, but the entrenched class system is pervasive and prevents many from succeeding. The barriers need to be broken down. How are we to do that if many UK civil servants are from those same privileged backgrounds? It is up to the UK Government to start breaking down those barriers.
Upward mobility involves an assumption that some jobs are better than others; and in fact many jobs, available only to those able to get on with their education, are more secure, and offer better conditions and benefits. Instead of continuing with their empty rhetoric the Government should consider social equality. Our Government in Wales are pursuing that with investment in education, skills, growth and better jobs closer to home. To make a difference, I ask the Government to set change in motion.
Does my hon. Friend agree with the general point that the rigid class divisions that she accurately described are not just wrong in themselves but totally inappropriate for the modern, dynamic society that we in Wales and Britain have to create?
Yes, absolutely. Those class divisions are damaging to society and they pervade every part of life. They do not represent us. As I said, when I turn on the television to watch the news and I see reporters representing broadcasters, or when I see Foreign Office statements—all these are people from privileged class backgrounds, and those systems must be broken down. To make any difference I ask the Government to set change in motion. We must break down those barriers, lift the public sector pay cap, reverse the welfare cuts, and end austerity in all sectors. Let us deliver real opportunity and equality.
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)
I pay tribute to my colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for securing this debate. He spoke about the positive impact of Labour policies such as Sure Start and the national minimum wage on social mobility. My hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) spoke about the importance of early years education, and about the Government changing the definition of childhood poverty. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), which borders north Wales, spoke about cross-border issues that pertain to social mobility, and I pay tribute to his work as chair of the all-party group on social mobility.
The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) spoke about infrastructure, railways, the digital divide and EU funding. I will touch on some of those issues in my short speech, although hopefully there will be no repetition. My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) spoke passionately about promoting ambition and enterprise across Wales, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) spoke about child poverty, and about how we have a more equal society in Wales. I congratulate all my colleagues on their contributions.
In its report into social mobility, London School of Economics highlighted 1958 as the golden year. I was fortunate to be born in that year, and I was one of only 8% of children who, 18 years later, went on to university. Many of my close friends did not manage to go to university, although they were still successful. Some pursued careers as businessmen, some worked in construction and recruitment, and some moved away from the town, and indeed the country—one of them lives in New York, one in Sydney, and one in Amsterdam. One of my friends went on to become vice-president of 21st Century Fox in Europe, Africa and the middle east, and two of the lads from my council estate went on to become multi-millionaires. All came from humble backgrounds. Our parents were labourers, dinner ladies, waitresses, plumbers, and cleaners, but they had a burning desire that their children would do better than themselves, and most of us did.
Sadly, and increasingly, that is not the case today, and prospects do not look good for the future. The Social Mobility Commission’s latest report is a scathing indictment of the lack of social mobility in the UK, and it predicts an even bleaker future. The full report is too big to address today in the eight minutes that are left for me to speak, so I will confine my comments to issues such as transport, digital connection, leaving the EU, and regional policy, over which the Minister and his colleagues have greater influence.
First, I want to consider the question of whether work pays in the UK in the 21st century. The quantity of jobs is not the issue; it is the quality of those jobs, because they simply do not pay enough to allow workers to bring up a family. In 1997, 43% of children living in poverty were in working households, but today that figure has shot up to 67%. Overall, 57% of people living in poverty are in households with a working adult. Work should be a pathway out of poverty; it should not lead to a worker being imprisoned by poverty.
As many of my colleagues mentioned, gains were made under Labour. The national minimum wage was brought in, despite vitriolic opposition from the Conservatives. In 1996, I conducted a survey of low pay in my constituency, and found a taxi driver earning £1 per hour. Women were working 12-hour shifts through the night in care homes on just £2.50 an hour. The Social Mobility Commission points out that since 2008, young people’s wages have fallen by 16%—they are now paid less than they were 20 years ago—and a national living wage could help overcome many of the defects in our current system.
I mentioned the digital divide in a recent speech on rural Wales in Westminster Hall, because only 43% of the country is connected by 4G. Rural areas of Wales are losing out, and the majority of my constituency—indeed, the majority of Wales—is in a rural area. If we do not address the digital divide, our children and young people will not have access to a modern means of accessing information and will not be able to work remotely in our rural communities.
If we cannot take the work to the people, we should at least make efforts to take people to the work. That should be the case in Wales, but we need to update our rail system. I feel that we in Wales are being left behind—electrification proposals for the line from Cardiff to Swansea have been withdrawn, and the electrification of the north Wales line has still not been clarified. I hope that the Minister will provide some clarification when he sums up the debate. Last weekend, The Times stated that at 51p per track mile, the UK has the highest rates in the whole of Europe. That compares with 33p in Austria, 31p in France, and just 5p in Latvia.
In north Wales, the majority of unemployment blackspots are on the coast—Holyhead, Bangor, Colwyn Bay, Rhyl, Flint, Shotton. If rail prices were more affordable that would make accessing job opportunities along the entire north Wales coast, and indeed in north-west England, far easier. Enabling young people to gain access to those jobs would also lead to greater social mobility, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) who has done so much to raise the issue of rail connectivity with the Mersey Dee Alliance across the Welsh-English border. London has already benefited from excellent infrastructure projects such as the Jubilee line and Crossrail. High Speed 2 will start from London. Will it suck in more jobs to London? Should it start from Manchester so that we can rebalance our national and regional economy? I call on the Minister to do his job and ensure that we in Wales secure parity with the rest of the UK on rail investment.
My next major concern is the impact of the loss of EU structural funds on social mobility in Wales. Wales has gained £9 billion in private and public sector funding over the past 17 years. It is the only area of the UK that is a net gainer from those structural funds, and we must ensure that an equivalent to those funds is kept in place in Wales. The Minister, and Conservative Members, gave reassurances that Wales would not lose out as a result of Brexit, but I think there is a real danger that we will, and those who will suffer the most are the poorest people and those who need that social mobility.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just important that the same level of funding continues, but that it is allocated of the basis of need and not redefined for other purposes by the Government?
Absolutely. EU structural funds were allocated around Europe on the basis of need, and four of the six counties in north Wales—including the Minister’s own area of Conwy—are some of the poorest areas in Europe. As a north Walian and a Welsh MP, the Minister should be campaigning with us to ensure that Wales does not lose out.
I am afraid I have almost taken my 10 minutes, but I thank the Minister for the work that he has done on the growth deal.
Mrs Madeleine Moon (in the Chair)
Order. I do not wish to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s excellent speech, but he does in fact have 15 minutes should he require them.
Then I will give way to the Minister.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because on this occasion I was going to make a constructive point. He makes the case for EU structural funds, which I will discuss in due course. However, a strategic approach for the whole of north Wales was precluded under European structural funding, because it was confined to the four counties in the west, rather than a strategic approach across the whole of north Wales. There will be some advantages to being able to hone our own response when putting funding into north Wales.
Those funds were allocated on the basis of need for the whole of Wales. I was very fortunate in managing to persuade the then junior Minister at the Wales Office, Peter Hain, to accept European structural funds for the Minister’s county of Conwy and the county of Denbighshire. Thirteen counties had been chosen, and those two had been left out, but as a result of representations made by myself, Elfyn Llwyd, Gareth Thomas and Betty Williams, along with council leaders, we were able to ensure that those counties were included.
As a result, there are many projects in the Minister’s own constituency and county—I think Venue Cymru is one of them—that have benefited massively from that investment. The Minister quite often intervenes on other Members and pooh-poohs that £9 billion, saying we do not need it. Maybe he wants to send it back. Perhaps he should go to Venue Cymru and say, “All of this is a waste of time; we don’t really need this.” Perhaps he should consult those workers and ask them if the jobs created in his own community are a waste of time. Perhaps he would like to put them back on the dole.
My wider point is that we have benefited from the structural funds. In my constituency, we have the OpTIC research and incubation project—a £40 million strategic project that looks at the opto-electronics industry in the whole of north Wales, which comprises about 35 companies and 2,000 workers. The projects builds on that strength, hothouses new companies on the back of that and creates excellent opportunities for local people to progress without leaving north Wales. Some will want to leave, and some will want to leave the country, but we should give those young people the opportunity to be socially mobile without being geographically mobile, so they can stay in their communities.
The OpTIC project in my constituency would not have taken place if it had not been for the additional money sent into the county from Brussels. The point that many of us have made today is that we want that additional money to carry on coming to our areas of Wales, not out of favouritism but because of need—need that was recognised and rewarded by Brussels. A big dollop of jam came to us, and we do not want it to be taken away and spread thinly over the UK. We want that money where it is needed, which is in west Wales and the valleys.
On the growth fund, which I mentioned before, I am grateful to the Minister for inviting us, on a cross-party basis, to meet him, his civil servants and north Wales council leaders in the Wales Office the other week. I hope that that additional funding, which we desperately need, will be allocated or reallocated through that north Wales growth fund. I also welcome the announcement of the mid-Wales growth fund, but I do not want to see the funds that were to be allocated to north Wales halved, with the other half being sent to mid-Wales. [Interruption.] The Minister laughs, but will he give us a categorical assurance that the funding that we get for those funds will be comparable to the best England has had? Areas such as Manchester received £238 per head. I tabled a parliamentary question on the amount of growth deal funding for each of the city deals in England, which was answered yesterday. That information was not given to me, but I want to make sure that the money that we get in Wales matches the best they have had in England.
The growth deal is a perfect vehicle to make sure that that additional investment that we had from Europe is maintained, and that we are able to improve the social mobility of our young people. On the growth deal funding, what percentage will be new money? What is the balance of funding between central Government, the Welsh Government, local government and other funders? What will the likely level of funding be?
Some progress has been made on social mobility over the past 20 years, and many of those gains were made as a result of the actions taken by the previous Labour Government. The Social Mobility Commission commends the centrality of early years services, which have been embedded in the UK. It was not there in 1996; it is there now because of Sure Start and other early years programmes across the whole of the United Kingdom. The commission calls early years services
“a new arm of the welfare state”,
so that has survived. However, it mentions a lack of progress on many other fronts; indeed, there has been a retrenchment in areas such as young people’s services, work and divisions in society.
The Minister is here, and he has heard representation from Members from across Wales, and even from across the border in England. I ask him to listen carefully to what has been said, to do his job and take that back to his Government, and to make sure that Wales gets the fair deal it deserves, to make sure that we have social mobility in future.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Guto Bebb)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and to follow the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane). I want to ensure that the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) is not only congratulated on securing the debate but also has a few minutes to respond at the end of the debate, so my contribution will be somewhat curtailed.
It has been an interesting debate, and I argue that it has been at its best, and the speeches have been at their best, when they have not been partisan. I know I am guilty of being one of the most partisan Members in this place when I want to be, but I will try to respond in a manner similar to most of the speeches we have heard, rather than those with a “Money, money, money” theme, which seemed to be the message from some hon. Members. However, on the whole, the debate has been thoughtful, useful and constructive. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Ogmore, as I have said, for securing the debate and for the majority of his speech, which looked at the core issues at stake. On the whole, it was a constructive speech, although it occasionally fell into supporting the Welsh Government come what may.
The hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) made an impassioned speech on the importance of people being aware of whether they can or cannot take their opportunities for further education. While I would describe the universities in Wales as the elite universities—not least Aberystwyth University, which I attended—the hon. Gentleman made an important point about aspiration. When looking at some of those giants of recent Welsh history, who came from valley communities, slate quarrying villages and farming stock, and who actually aspired to education, we have to ask why we have lost that in the Welsh context. The hon. Gentleman’s comments are well worth further consideration by those who actually take an interest in the goings-on of this place.
I also welcome the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) to the debate. I congratulate him on his work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility, and I appreciate his interest in the cross-border work of the Wales Office. He made some really important points about the London-centric nature of the UK economy, which I subscribe to. I believe that one problem we have, not only in the Welsh context but throughout the UK, is that we have a London-centric view of the world, which needs to be challenged. The hon. Gentleman is clearly doing excellent work as part of the all-party parliamentary group system here in Westminster. I would argue that most of my constructive contributions in this place between 2010 and 2015 were made through all-party parliamentary groups, so I encourage the hon. Gentleman to carry on with his work and to keep on being involved with us in north Wales, in relation to the potential of the north Wales growth deal.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), who highlighted that many of the issues we have talked about, including educational attainment and training and so on, are devolved to the Welsh Government. That point was worth making. However, at the same time, she was quite happy to challenge me, as the Wales Office Minister representing the UK Government.
At this point, I think I need to once again clarify my point about EU structural funds. I congratulate the hon. Members for Vale of Clwyd and for Caerphilly (Wayne David), and all politicians who ensured that Wales received EU structural funds at the highest level, on their involvement at the time. I have said that on the record time and again. The point I have also made, which is still worth reiterating, is that the reason Wales achieved the highest level of EU funding intervention was to ensure that our GDP was comparable to the EU average.
That was not achieved, so before we ask for more money, we need to ask ourselves why that investment did not achieve the desired goals. It is simply not good enough for the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd to claim that the situation would have been even worse without that intervention; we need to ensure that in the future, if we have intervention through a UK Government shared prosperity fund, that intervention improves the GDP of Wales and the life chances of all people in Wales. We should be willing to learn lessons from the fact that the whole purpose of EU structural funds in Wales did not deliver the growth we were hoping for.
Liz Saville Roberts
In the spirit of planning ahead, much mention has been made of apprenticeships today. I represent an extremely rural area, where we have a shortage of skills when we are looking at developing, say, the Wylfa site. We need workplaces in which people can undertake apprenticeships. We do not have those workplaces in north-west Wales in sufficient numbers. Will the Minister commit to looking at creative ways of finding workplaces that will enable young men and women to be trained for engineering and construction in the future?
The hon. Lady makes a point that I fully subscribe to. The Wales Office stands ready to support any initiative in a Welsh context that extends the number of apprenticeship places available. We are certainly of the view that the financial contribution made by the UK Government to the Welsh Government through the apprenticeship levy has been significant, and that money should be spent.
The opportunities that exist in north-west Wales include the development of a new nuclear power station in Wylfa and the work going on in Airbus, with the apprenticeship schemes available at RAF Valley. Those schemes are strong. They are making a difference and showing young people that there is an alternative to going to university. I have seen the success stories in north Wales of Coleg Cambria and Grŵp Llandrillo Menai replicated in south Wales with Coleg Merthyr and other colleges, as a result of my role as a Minister in the Wales Office.
I highlighted, for example, how impressed I was with the enthusiasm and commitment of apprentices when I visited the General Dynamics site in Merthyr Tydfil. That is the way to show young people that educational achievement does not necessarily mean aspiring to Oxbridge. There is no reason why anybody in Wales should not aspire to improve themselves from an educational perspective, but that improvement can happen in their local communities. Opportunities should be enhanced for people to get qualifications in the workplace, ensuring that they are earning while learning.
In Wales, we have some of the better further education institutions. They are doing great work, but they should be fully supported by the Welsh Government in delivering more for the people of Wales. I genuinely thought that the comments from the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) were inspiring. Colleagues have said clearly that we need to sell the concept of going further in education. We need to sell the ability of young people to see themselves attending some of our finest institutions.
We need to be proud of the fact that we have a significant entrepreneurial spirit in Wales. How often is that sold in local schools? The biggest success in my constituency since I was elected has been Sean Taylor, a veteran who left the Army and decided to set up a high ropes training and outdoor pursuits centre. He subsequently created the Zip World business, which now employs 240 people in my constituency and the constituency of the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, 75% of whom are local Welsh speakers. Those people have had an opportunity to work, develop skills and gain qualifications while seeing that setting up a business in their community can make a real difference. I am proud to say that Sean Taylor is the type of entrepreneur who is willing to go out and explain to young people, “You can aspire to university and to a medical or legal profession, but you can also make a big difference in your community.”
I am proud to represent a constituency with one of the highest levels of self-employment. It has been said that in rural Wales, self-employment is often a case of doing anything to earn a living because of people’s pride in themselves and their community, and because no other opportunities are available. We need to make setting up a business and being entrepreneurial a key opportunity for young people to move forward in their communities. Nothing gives me greater pride than when, in my role as a Minister in the Wales Office, I meet young people who have set up businesses in my constituency and across the length and breadth of Wales.
While I thought the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) was somewhat partisan in her comments, I am happy to agree that we need to deal with the lack of social mobility. I want to allow the hon. Member for Ogmore a few minutes to respond, but before I finish my comments, I need to touch on some of the issues raised in the debate. Clearly social mobility is important for this Government. It was said in some of the most thoughtful comments by Opposition Members that nobody in the Chamber can be proud of our record on that issue. If, as the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd said, the highest point of social mobility in our history was achieved in 1958, that is a stain on all of us. If, 10 years before I was born, we reached the high point of social mobility in our communities, we genuinely need to ask ourselves what went wrong. No amount of finger pointing between Westminster, the UK Government and the Welsh Government will change anything unless we are willing to acknowledge where we have a weakness.
This debate is entitled “Social mobility in Wales”. We have agreed that education is crucial, and we need to acknowledge that in Wales we are not performing as we should. I am not going to say anything more than that, but we all acknowledge that we are not performing in Wales to the standard of the UK as a whole or the rest of our competitors in the European Union. We need to be very clear about that. When Germany found itself failing under the PISA regime, it acted, and in 10 years it managed to get itself from a very low level to once again leading. The report on PISA in Germany sent shockwaves through the German political system, and the question I ask is: why are those shockwaves not resonating through the corridors of the Welsh Government in Cardiff? We need to do a lot of work on education. It is not perfect in England, but it is certainly not as good as it should be in Wales, and Members should acknowledge that.
Members have highlighted the need to ensure that the concept of lifelong learning is understood. That is why investment in our further education colleges is crucial. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston made the crucial point that education, and certainly education in the workplace, does not end at the age of 18 or 21. It is increasingly the case that 35 to 50-year-olds are looking to retrain. As we are all living longer and expected to work longer, we have to acknowledge that we need to adapt to the workplace. One of the key things I have seen at further education colleges that I have visited in Wales is their commitment to take on apprentices regardless of their age.
Another issue that we need to be aware of is the importance of making work pay. We have seen in Wales since 2010 a significant reduction in the number of children in workless households. That is very important. The Office for National Statistics has highlighted that families in which members are in work are, on the whole, in a position to make more of their lives and have better outcomes than those where that is not the case. Interestingly, the ONS statistics also highlight that, regardless of a household’s income level, where there is someone in employment, outcomes are better. I often hear complaints from the Labour party about the type of jobs being created, but we should always take pride in any jobs that are being created and in allowing people to take care of their own future.
One thing that has come out of the debate is that poverty can be measured in financial terms. I acknowledge that. The hon. Members for Torfaen and for Islwyn and others highlighted the importance of dealing with poverty of ambition. We need to be champions within our communities, highlighting to young people that there are financial difficulties in terms of ensuring equality of opportunity, but also challenging the poverty of ambition that blights too many of our communities in Wales and across the United Kingdom.
I want to start by thanking hon. Members for their contributions, including my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for his passionate speech and my hon. Friends the Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin), for Caerphilly (Wayne David), for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) and for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), as well as the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts).
In the spirit of consensus in the room on the need to tackle social mobility in Wales, I thank the Minister for what he said. Although he made the odd political dig, which of course he is not famous for, he knows there is more to do at all levels of government, including local government, which must play a part in the Welsh and UK context.
I thank Members for their contributions. I look forward to UK Government Ministers trying to address the issues of social mobility under the functions that are still reserved to the UK Government, while we continue on all sides to try to improve and be aspirational for our young people in our constituencies up and down Wales.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered social mobility in Wales.
The debate is available to watch online at http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/cc86c506-505a-4137-a777-8c0a3ccb14ae
The transcript of the debate is also available online at https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2017-12-19/debates/9C405625-378D-4195-926B-2232D6781F0B/SocialMobility(Wales)