Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What's fair?

This Labour conference has been a massive improvement on last year's nonsense...but that's not hard.

I particularly liked two things about Gordon Brown's speech. Firstly, it seemed much more authentic. A lot of the self-inflicted damage of the past year has been when Brown has tried to be something that he is not. He's a decent, serious man who is trying to help people and does so to the best of his ability.

Secondly, and most importantly, the new policies are good. Long after all of this year's party conference speeches are forgotten, people will be helped by things like free prescriptions for cancer sufferers, expanding free childcare, health check ups for the over 40s and making sure more children have computers and internet access.

On the other hand, I don't think the attack on Cameron for using his kids as props was very clever, and I think there is a problem with this new emphasis on 'fairness'.

The problem with talking about 'fairness' is that there is no real common understanding about what it actually means, beyond 'we are in favour of nice things and against nasty things'.

For example, I found it really jarring when Brown talked about 'fairness' and then went on to mention the right-wing rubbish around welfare reform and introducing a migrant charge for public services. There will be other people who think that sounds fair enough, but think it is unfair that some sick people get free prescriptions and others don't, or that the government seems to care about poor children, but not poor adults. And many others whose personal experience of public services is that they were treated anything but fairly.

Brown's definition of 'fairness' is about creating 'rules that reward those who play by them and punish those who don't' - separating the 'deserving' from the 'undeserving'. But one thing that we should have learned from the last eleven years is that the greater the effort that a government makes to target extra help to the 'deserving' and not the 'undeserving', the more widespread the feeling is that the results are 'unfair'.

We made social housing available only for the most deserving, the result is huge resentment about how it is allocated and people stuck on waiting lists for years. Tax credits were carefully designed and micro-targeted to make sure that they rewarded hard work, and thousands of people ended up with massive overpayments. And we're now planning welfare reforms which are based on cutting the benefits of those who don't follow the rules, even though the government's own research says that this won't help more people get jobs.

In contrast, we raised benefits for all lone parents, whether they were working or not, and child and family poverty fell and the number of lone parents who got jobs increased massively. Sure Start doesn't turn away parents who 'don't play by the rules' and is popular and successful. Undeserving and deserving alike get better healthcare from the NHS. The minimum wage helps all low paid workers, and the winter fuel allowance doesn't just go to those older people who have 'played by the rules'.

The policies which don't try and pick out who plays by the rules and who doesn't, but instead which help as many people as possible are the ones which got the biggest cheers from today's conference, and are the ones that will stand the test of time and which Labour can build on. And the reason for that is that this is the best, and fairest, way for governments to act.


At 7:50 am , Blogger Cassilis said...

I agree with much of this but there's a muddle here.

It's true that making efforts to distinguish the 'deserving' from the 'undeserving' can exacerbate feelings of 'unfairness' - but that's a problem of political positioning. It's a superficial thing all politicians must address and successful ones do it very well.

But am I right in reading into this that you reject the very idea of fairness and your answer is not to even try? Simply help as many people as you can regardless or merit or need?

Surely not Don...?

At 8:56 am , Blogger donpaskini said...

I think sorting the deserving from the undeserving is more than a problem of political positioning, but something which tends to lead to bad policy outcomes.

So in the specific case of new government policies, the implication is that, where possible, it is fairer to make new services universally applicable, and not worry if some undeserving people benefit from them, rather than build in masses of additional complexity to over target them.

Obviously this is not always possible, but it is a good rule of thumb and general approach.

So the tests for who gets help from, say, free bus passes should be simple (all people over a certain age) rather than complicated (all people over a certain age who worked for x number of years before retiring and who can demonstrate that they would use public transport, and who are too poor to own a car).

That's even though it would arguably be 'fairer' on Brown's definition to restrict free bus passes to people who have contributed during their working life, and who can prove that they actually need to use the bus.

At 11:19 am , Blogger Cassilis said...

That entire argument hinges on the phrase "rather than build in masses of additional complexity to over target them" - the assumption being that that complexity costs more than the money 'lost' to the undeserving that would otherwise be saved. It's a flawed assumption since it's perfectly possible to target resources effectively (even if the Tax credit system demonstrates it's not something Labour can do well)

A few examples to illustrate the point - yesterday Gordon Brown offered free nursery care to tens of thousands of CEO's and City traders raking in millions a year (and believe me they'll take advantage), the local surestart reading group my wife attends with our son is exclusively attended by 4x4 driving, middle class mothers who have absolutely no need of the support it provides.... and so on, and so on.

At 11:41 am , Blogger donpaskini said...

I think it is a good thing, though, that Sure Start and free nursery care are open to people on higher incomes. They're helping to pay for it, after all, through their taxes.

It's not the people at the top who lose out when these services become excessively targeted (they can always pay for services privately), it is the people on the borderline - the ones who would really appreciate or make good use of the service but are denied it because they are just the wrong side of the earnings line or don't quite meet the criteria, or who have to plough through thick booklets of rules to find out if they are entitled, who lose out.

And this, I think, is rather unfair.

At 11:05 pm , Anonymous Stephen said...

Shit, and I thought that the phrase 'undeserving poor' belonged to the Edwardian era. Good to see that under Brown's leadership Labour has acquired the moral judgementalism of a pre-Great war Tory.


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