Education Secretary Justine Greening admitted the Government has a “long, long way to go” in improving social mobility, but rejected a stinging attack on ministers’ performance.
Former Labour minister Alan Milburn, the chairman of the Social Mobility Commission, has led a top-level walkout from the Government watchdog and now plans to set up his own institute.
He has claimed there is “little, if any, hope” of Theresa May achieving her much-heralded ambition of creating “a country that works for everyone”, as she declared in her first speech as Prime Minister.
Downing Street has insisted Mr Milburn’s term as the Government’s social mobility tsar came to an end in July, with the ex-MP informed of Mrs May’s plans to appoint a new chair of the cross-party commission.
Mr Milburn revealed he will not be applying again for the role, and neither will his three fellow board members, as he claimed Brexit has left ministers without the “bandwidth” to tackle inequality.
Speaking to Sky News’ Sunday With Niall Paterson programme, Ms Greening confessed she was “sorry” Mr Milburn was “taking the action he’s taking” but disagreed with his assessment of the Government’s performance.
Outlining a need to “get some fresh talent” into the commission, the Cabinet minister said: “I don’t agree that we’re not taking significant steps across Government because we absolutely are.
“And we are seeing the fruit of that effort already bearing results.
“If you look at the attainment gap, in other words the difference between how well more disadvantaged children do compared to their better-starting peers, actually that’s closing now in schools.
“So we’re moving in the right direction. But as Alan sets out today, quite rightly, there’s a very long way to go.
“We need to really make sure the fruits of these reforms are being felt in the communities where we need to see change happen the most.”
Ms Greening did not deny Mr Milburn’s suggestion she had personally pushed for his term to be extended by Number 10.
Explaining his decision to stand down and deliver a withering verdict of Mrs May’s Government, Mr Milburn told Sky News: “The Government, perhaps understandably, has focused on Brexit and simply lacks the bandwidth to be able to translate the rhetoric of healing social division and progressing social justice into reality.
“I’m afraid I’ve reached the conclusion that there’s only so much you can do to push water uphill.”
There is “no doubt” the Prime Minister has a “personal sense of social justice”, Mr Milburn said, but added: “The question in politics is not what you say, it’s what you do.”
He attacked a lack of planning, ambition and leadership from the Government.
One of Tony Blair’s closest political allies while in Cabinet, Mr Milburn was reported last year to have been leading efforts to form a campaign to reverse Britain’s departure from the EU.
Asked whether Brexit will make social mobility worse, Mr Milburn said: “It’s all too easy for people who oppose Brexit – and, by the way, personally I do – to rail against the people who voted for it.
“But there’s an interesting correlation. Of the 65 parts of the country that the commission says are the worst for getting a good school, getting a decent job, getting on the housing ladder, only five of those areas voted to Remain.
“You can feel the sense of political alienation and social resentment in those parts of the country.
“It’s understandable why people voted for Brexit.
“It’s fine to be tough on Brexit, but we’ve got to be tough on the causes of Brexit.”
Mr Milburn said there is “sense” to parts of Labour’s policies, but added: “I’m not going to endorse Jeremy Corbyn any more than I’m going to endorse Theresa May.”
Commenting on Mr Milburn’s departure, Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell suggested last month’s Budget could have been “the last straw” as he cited a lack of action on education budgets.
“I can understand the frustration that Brexit is dominating the agenda but nothing else has moved either,” he told Sky News.