UK ‘risks being a permanently divided nation’

The UK could become a “permanently divided nation” unless political leaders commit to measures to reduce poverty and improve social mobility, a major report has found.

Alan Milburn

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found there was already a postcode lottery, with some parts of the country faring far worse than others in offering educational and employment opportunities.

The commissioners warned that it would be a “mistake of catastrophic proportions” if the occupant of 10 Downing Street after May’s election failed to address the issue.

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An analysis of social mobility in England found “cold spots” in the East of England around the Wash, coastal areas in the South East and former industrial zones in the North and Midlands.

The area around the Wash was largely due to “very low educational attainment” and jobs which were more likely to be lower-skilled and lower-paid than other parts of England.

The coastal areas in the South East also suffered from poor educational attainment, the report found.

London was a social mobility “hot spot” because high educational attainment levels and a buoyant labour market have offset high rates of child poverty.

In a foreword to the report, chairman Alan Milburn, a Labour former cabinet minister and Baroness Shephard, his Conservative deputy and former education secretary, warned “there is a postcode lottery in social mobility”.

The report said that, despite the “unprecedented fiscal constraints of recent years” the commitment from politicians to reduce poverty and improve mobility “has remained undiminished”.

But “it is obvious that the progress that has been made has been too limited and too slow” and “the significant challenge of matching the economic recovery with a social recovery has not yet been overcome”.

In a message to all parties to put the issue at the centre of their pitch to voters, they warned: “Without a new approach the risk is that Britain becomes a permanently divided nation as Britain’s fiscal deficit and deep-seated changes in the labour and housing markets coalesce to make social mobility harder, not easier.”

They said that “rather than facing up to the possibility of a divided nation, politicians of all parties have ducked the challenge” of setting out how they would reduce inequality.

“There is a real risk that the enormous fiscal challenges facing the next government will persuade whoever is in 10 Downing Street after May to consign progress on mobility and poverty to the ‘too difficult’ pile. We believe that this would be a mistake of catastrophic proportions.”

The report warned that the “credit crunch generation” born after 2008’s economic crash could be the first in more than 50 years to see their “prospects for social progress actually going backwards”.