Ministers have rejected claims from the outgoing chair of the social mobility commission that the government has given up on making Britain fairer.
Justine Greening, the education secretary, and Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, used a round of interviews on Sunday to plug government social justice policy announcements that they claimed disproved Alan Milburn’s assertion that Brexit, and lack of willpower, had caused the government to abandon this agenda.
Government sources even hinted that pique might be partly to blame for Milburn’s outburst, saying he only announced he was quitting after being told he would not be automatically reappointed after his five-year term of office ended.
But Milburn, a former Labour health secretary, said Greening wanted him to be reappointed but was blocked by others in government.
Confirming that he and the other three commissioners, including the Conservative former education secretary Gillian Shephard, would all be standing down, he told the Andrew Marr Show he had concluded there was “little, if any hope, of progress being made towards the fairer Britain” that Theresa May talked about when she became prime minister.
He added: “The government, probably for understandable reasons, is focused on Brexit and seems to lack the bandwidth to be able to translate the rhetoric of healing social division and promoting social justice into reality. So I’m afraid I reached the conclusion that there’s only so long that you go on pushing water uphill.”
Greening said Milburn had done a “fantastic job” as commission chair. She would not be drawn on the claim that she fought to keep him, but said it had been decided there was a need for some fresh blood on the commission, which is responsible for monitoring progress on social mobility.
Rejecting Milburn’s central claim about social mobility being sidelined as a priority, Greening claimed the government was implementing “a transformational series of policies to drive equality of opportunity”. As examples, she cited changes to technical education, rising school standards and better mental health provision.
In an interview on ITV’s Peston on Sunday, Hunt said Milburn was wrong about the government being “paralysed by Brexit” and that the “national living wage” was leading to big wage increases for the low paid.
The commission was set up by the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government, originally as the social mobility and child poverty commission. It lost the child poverty half of its title when the post-2015 Conservative majority government scrapped the Child Poverty Act.
Nick Clegg, who was Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister in the coalition and was instrumental in setting up the commission, said Milburn’s resignation was “a huge setback to the social mobility cause”.
Clegg tweeted: “When I set up the social mobility commission I told Alan Milburn that his job was to tell truth to power. Looks like this government doesn’t want to listen.”