FAIRNESS: what should we do to reduce inequalities in health, education and prosperity?
This is in many ways one of the weakest sections of the paper, taking a very narrow view of fairness with none of the deliberation of different definitions that was found in the Tax Commission and I have already made my comments there. So instead, and because I’m massively behind schedule on this project, I thought I’d just run through the specific questions:
4.3.4 This is in some ways an inevitable result of focusing on the most vulnerable groups in society, and needing to target limited resources and priorities – as any political party has to do. A significant question for us, then, is whether this policy package is adequate to address the barriers to freedom and social mobility identified in Chapter 2, many of which derive from social class – poor education, poor health standards, low pay. Do we believe the balance of our antipoverty strategies, focused on pensioners and the causes of poverty, is appropriate?
Firstly, I would seriously question that the Lib Dems have a strategy to reduce pensioner poverty. Notwithstanding any changes that will no doubt now be made as a result of the Turner Report, the fact remains that the Lib Dem’s commitment to poor pensioners was limited to the over-75s and those people whose circumstances meant that they did not make full contributions in their lifetime to warrent a full pension (in the form of the introduction of a Citizen’s Pension). While I don’t dismiss either of these, our strategy to pensioners was aimed squarely at attracting relatively affluent pensioners; notwithstanding the paperwork, our policies don’t make poor pensioners any better off than they would be if they we in full receipt of the Pension’s Credit – it is pensioners whose assets exclude them from this who benefited from our policies. Add to that our commitment to scrap council tax (again, only affecting pensioners who are relatively well off – poor pensioners get CT benefit) and free personal care (irrelevant if you don’t have assets), and what emerges is a sop to the middle classes. Until the party’s leadership is willing to acknowledge this, we aren’t going to get anywhere.
I have a counter question to the working group: why should a first term Lib Dem government target resources towards asset-rich, cash-poor pensioners where there is a more urgent need to help asset-poor, cash-poor pensioners?
As for the causes of poverty, I’m not convinced that party has much to say on this either. Preventative health and quality education is fine and dandy, but what are we saying about housing, communities, families? What are we doing about giving people a stake in their future? Labour’s baby bonds may be a meaningless sop, but they wouldn’t be if instead of scrapping them we were committed to backing them up with real resources.
Do we need more attention to the short-term problems faced by adults living in poverty? If so, does this require more attention to policy on benefits, wages, or other areas of policy?
Interesting to note that this question doesn’t bringe up the possibility of tax cuts. Yet a lot of the real problem here would appear to be that people find themselves having to choose between benefits and getting a job (in fairness, I think Vince Cable gets this and expect to see some real progress in this area).
Is existing policy adequate to address the growing pensions crisis?
The Turner Review and David Laws’ response is a strong basis for progress on this and I’m not proposing to go into it now. But this isn’t the real crisis. The crisis is that the country’s assets are being bought up by investors and families which is leading to a situation where we are creating a new underclass whose only crime was not to be in the right time and the right place in the 80s and 90s. That’s where your long term poverty is going to come from in the next century if we do nothing about it. The privileged, landed-class may be a lot larger than it was 200 years ago, but it is still stopping social mobility.
4.3.5 Underlying all this is the tension between freedom and equality touched on above in para 4.3.1. How unequal a society are we prepared to tolerate? What liberties should we be curtailing – for example,though a higher tax rate for high earners – to reduce inequalities that restrict othersâ€™ freedom?
Was the reduction in the total burden of local taxation we envisaged adequate to address the impacts of moving from Council Tax to Local Income Tax?
Again, covered (but I thought we wanted to increase the overall burden of local taxation; we just wanted it to be fairer?).
4.3.6 A fair society is also one in which discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability is not tolerated. The current government has a reasonably good record in trying to make such forms of discrimination illegal, but there is still a long way to go – for example, in ending inequalities in pay between men and women (womenâ€™s hourly pay rates are 82% of those of men). Perhaps most pressingly, overt racism seems to be on the rise following the series of terrorist incidents since 2001. How can we deal with these problems and create a society which is genuinely a fair one for all its members?
This is big concept stuff! I have to say, I think we’ve got much of this covered already. We have anti-discrimination laws on the basis of race, sex, disability status and now age. Labour are generally good at this sort of thing, even if they do go to far as they have done with religious hatred.
Ultimately, you can’t legislate to make people love each other. All you can do is create opportunities for all, promote enlightenment values and reduce anxieties and ignorance wherever they can be found. But there is no easy answer; indeed, I’m not convinced this paper should be overly concerned at finding one.