It is the new Holy Grail for politicians. A desire to improve social mobility unites David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband. But yesterday the political class was warned it had become part of a new "social elite" and "closed shop" created by the refusal of Britain's professions to open themselves up to people from lower-class backgrounds.
Alan Milburn, the Government's independent adviser on social mobility and child poverty, said political parties should "get their own house in order" by choosing parliamentary candidates from a much wider social spectrum before criticising other professions for not opening their doors.
In a progress report following his 2009 study for the previous Government, Mr Milburn said medicine had not widened access in the way that the law and the civil service have begun to.
Singling out the media as the "worst offender", he said journalism has become more socially exclusive than any other profession and did not even collect data on the background of its recruits.
The former Labour Cabinet minister proposed that interns be paid at least the national minimum wage, but said legislation to enforce it should be a last resort. Mr Milburn said the Government's drive to improve social mobility, led by Nick Clegg, was well-intentioned but would remain a "pipe dream" unless the professions backed it.
He said they had a "golden opportunity" to do so because the professions will account for about 83 per cent of the two million or so new jobs that will be created in Britain in the next decade.
In the 1950s, professional jobs were open to a wide mix of people, who could work their way up from the bottom without a degree. But this did not last.
In a classic comedy sketch from 1967, a 6ft 5in John Cleese, representing the upper class, looks down on the two Ronnies, who represent the middle and working classes.
Ronnie Barker says: "I look up to him [Cleese] because he is upper class and look down on him [Corbett] because he is lower class." The tiny Corbett says: "I know my place."
Today, although only 7 per cent of people are educated at private schools, they still have a "stranglehold" on the top professional jobs, Mr Milburn said.
The "forgotten middle class" as well as those at the very bottom of the ladder miss out because they lack the right connections. So the next generation in the professions will look very similar to today's.
"The glass ceiling has been scratched but not broken," said Mr Milburn, adding that the figures in his study illustrated "social engineering on a grand scale".
They showed that:
83 of the 114 High Court judges were privately educated and 82 went to Oxford or Cambridge;
43 per cent of barristers went to fee-paying secondary schools, and a third graduated from Oxbridge;
54 per cent of top journalists were privately educated, with a third going to Oxbridge. The former Health Secretary reserved some of his strongest criticism for the politicos. He pointed out that 59 per cent of the 2010 Cabinet was privately educated, up from 32 per cent in Gordon Brown's government.
The proportion of MPs who went to private schools has risen from 30 to 35 per cent since 1997 and 13 private schools now provide 10 per cent of all MPs. About 62 per cent of House of Lords members were privately educated, with 12 private schools supplying 43 per cent of peers. Calling on politicians to set a good example, Mr Milburn said: "Parliament is unrepresentative of the people it serves. Parliament is dominated by middle-aged white men." The parties have made progress in selecting more women and ethnic minority candidates and now need to do the same for people from less well-off backgrounds, he added.
Few would disagree with his analysis. But what can be done? Mr Milburn is not in favour of legislation or quotas. His recipe is to produce an annual report showing progress, or the lack of it, to shame employers into action. "A lot of this is about shining a spotlight," he said.
With parents and grandparents worried that the next generation will not be better off, he thinks most professions will want to respond to a new public mood in favour of a more caring capitalism. "There is a 'wake up and smell the coffee' moment here," he said. "The rules of the game have changed profoundly." His 30 recommendations include more co-ordinated, universal action by schools, including a national mentoring programme; ending the "lottery" of work experience and internships through a formal kitemarking scheme; and persuading employers to recruit from a wider range of universities and regions. A surprisingly optimistic Mr Milburn concluded: "There is every chance that, like the 1950s, the next decade can be a golden era when it comes to opening up opportunities in our society.
"But that will not just happen. It has to be made. With a genuine national effort we can break the corrosive correlation between demography and destiny that so poisons British society."Reuse content