Conservatives too, Mr Clegg, want a fair society with equal opportunity

Today we hear that Mr Clegg will set out his proposals and vision for a more equal and just society. Here are some of the things he could address.

The main reason too many people are poor in the UK is they do not have jobs. During the long Labour years around 5 million people of working age stayed on benefits, even during the good times. Many people were invited in from abroad to take new jobs through a liberal immigration policy.

Tackling unemployment requires a growing and recovering economy, a more sensible immigration policy, benefit reform and improved results from money spent on education and training.

Much inequality begins from school days. The rich can choose to send their children to good schools which they pay for. A select few obtain places at grammar schools, giving the children of the not so well off similar chances in life to the children of the rich. In some parts of the country there are excellent comprehensives which can be a good platform for success. In other localities people on low income are sentenced to sending their children to low performing schools where expectations are low and often self vindicating.

Central to the task of promoting greater justice must be the task of widening choice and quality in state schools serving families on low incomes. The government’s school reforms and pupil premia are designed to tackle this. It may take more than the proposals announced so far, but they are a step in the right direction. Poor performing schools often do not lack money or numbers of staff. They lack the right ambition and direction from the top. They may also be working with unsupportive parents.

Central to the aim of getting more people into work must be sensitive but firm reforms to the benefits system. I am sure Mr Clegg and I agree that our benefit system should be generous and supportive of people who cannot work owing to incapacity. We might also agree that if someone has duvet disease, the inability to get up and out in the morning to hold down a job, they need to face the reality that there will be no benefit if they turn down gainful employment.
Getting the present “availability for work test” or its successor to function well is not easy. Each different case is a judgement. Did the individual knowingly or unknowingly put off the employer from offering the job? Did the person lose the job through no fault of his own, or because he didn’t want to carry on doing it? These are difficult balances to strike.

Labour will also say poverty can be the result of low incomes in work. That is true, and that is why both main parties in power have for a long time paid benefits to people in work to top up working incomes. A minimum income protects the poor. The Minimum wage can protect the taxpayer to some extent, requiring a higher proportion of the minimum income to come from the wage packet. The Minimum wage, if set too high, will cut the number of jobs available, and force more people to be reliant on the state entirely rather than partially for their income.

The good news about low pay is for many it is a temporary not a permanent phenomenon. The best way to get a job is to already have a job. The best way to get a better paid job is to start with a less well paid one and work up. It is this spirit of self improvement which is lacking in some benefit recipients. They say if they went to work they might be little or no better off. That is to miss two points. The first is, if you can earn the money you should. The second is, if you take a not very good or well paid job it might lead to a better one. You can travel with pride and in hope if you have a job.

Recent programmes showing bosses going under cover have, I hear, usually ended in the bosses discovering the greater worth of some of their less well paid employees and giving them new duties, rewards or better jobs. You need to put yourself in the way of something better happening. I have been impressed in recent visits to local supermarkets how keen they are to establish a possible career path from shelf stacking to store manager. We need more to make those journeys.

Ending poverty may require different policies from the state. It also requires different attitudes and contributions from some who feel they are locked in benefit but may not have to be.

We will never create an entirely equal society. We will not even create pure equality of opportunity. Some are born with a better natural endowment, and others with a better inheritance. We should strive to do better, whilst recognising the limits to what benefits can do.

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20 Comments

  1. Posted August 18, 2010 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Not sure how much I can agree with you today, John.

    Yes, moving people from benefits to employment involves jobs – no rocket science required there.

    But what jobs? As the globalists have made protectionism a dirty word, more and more companies are being snaffled up by fewer and fewer owners.

    The manufacturing base is gone, with most jobs in this country being utter rubbish in the service industries paying the minimum wage and offered on part time hours or on casual contracts.

    Until the hysterical, media driven element – both in the streets and inside Parliament – stop wailing on about 'man made global warming' (which they then had to rename 'climate change' and/or 'CO2 pollution'), we're never going to manufacture anything in this country ever again.

    Oh, things will be manufactured from great big factories. Factories based in India and China where manpower is cheaper – a great advantage to the globalists but a fat lot of good to the people on benefits in Bolton who the State wants to bash with a big stick.

    Instead of wasting money on useless windmills and worrying about what the European Empire might think (they're illegitimate anyway), we need to invest in manufacturing.

    Great big whacking, dirty, smelly, polluting factories that MAKE things. Making things made this country great. Selling each other coffee in a loop will not.

    And while the bankers and the European Union take all of our money in taxes, it is distasteful that – as ever – a 'man on the street' finds his £80 a week benefits the biggest scandal to get scapegoated over.

    But it's not the biggest scandal, is it?

    The biggest scandal is who owns all of the industries, who benefits from 'climate change' (since when did the banks become eco-warriors? Ka-ching!), who benefits from globalisation ("they'll work for a 'nth' of the price in New Delhi!").

    Make stuff here, stop globalists buying the businesses concerned, have some jobs for people to do, pay them something better than £6 an hour, people will work. Sorted.

    • Posted August 18, 2010 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      'If you build it, they will come'. Yes, mostly on the money. Get out of the way of human action and we will create all sorts of 'jobs. I could fill a couple of real wealth creating places now if it wasn't for the eye watering taxation, the minimum wage laws and reg-yew-lay-shun.

  2. Posted August 18, 2010 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    "people on low income are sentenced to sending their children to low performing schools where expectations are low and often self vindicating" is the heart of the problem

    for me though there are other parts of the jigsaw that need mentioning, main one being immigration, and particularly abuse of intra company transfer visas by the large outsourcers displacing brits from the workforce, decent honest hardworking brits consigned to the scrapheap could look at what you are saying and ask whats the point when we are allowing unrestricted access to workers from outside of europe on ICT visas to undercut the UK workforce, and none of the immigration rules are policed in practise, i understand the liberals are pushing to keep intra company transfer visa system "as is" well i hope folk like you challenge it with passion

    we also have the situation where everyone can see all technical jobs are being outsourced to cheaper countries, or by tech staff here on ICT visas, and the 18 year olds have stopped choosing to do technical stuff at university. where will we be in 20 years time if we have accepted as a nation that all of our tech work is outsourced to india and others? good luck

  3. Posted August 18, 2010 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Mostly agree but the emphasis for me is not on benefits reform but tax reform and there is no sign whatsoever that anyone in Government past or present has grasped this. If the low paid are not taxed or N.I.ed it makes working more rewarding actually and perceived. It would effectively give the working lower paid a visible pay increase, which would also mitigate trade union demands. It would remove some of the benefit trap and stop the bureaucratic nonsense of one government department taking the money and the other paying it out to the same people.

    Life is simple only politicians complicate it.

    • Posted August 18, 2010 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

      A Sedgewick

      Absolutely right. Too much tax being taken, from too little earnings, too soon.

      Personal Tax allowances need to rise dramatically, this policy may then encourage some of those who are on Benefits to get a job, and help those who are trying to do the right thing, and look after themselves.

      Why are Benefits tax free, but earnings/wages are not ?.

      Why not limit the total amount of Benefits any single person/family can get.

      As far as Education goes, failing Schools usually seem to have a larger proportion of very low income (families) children present, than successful schools. This presents another problem in so much as good teachers seem to prefer to teach at well preforming schools, rather than in those who are failing.

  4. Posted August 18, 2010 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Re: "The main reason too many people are poor in the UK is they do not have jobs".

    But not the only one!

    If you restrict people to the The world of Work, then they will miss the vast majority of the opportunities that become available. Self Employment will provide most of these opportunities. OK, not suitable for every body, but there should be a framework in place for them to make that choice when they have that opportunity, unlike the people that got left behind in the 80's!

    What they need are the tools to do the Job! Access too the right type Capital, at the right time! Allowing the banks too rely on collateral and debt financing of projects and equity cannot provide, and has not provided, that opportunity.

    So, why bother getting a job?

  5. Posted August 18, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    "The Minimum wage can protect the taxpayer to some extent, requiring a higher proportion of the minimum income to come from the wage packet."

    Nope. Economies consist of people and things. Companies and governments are just convenient administrative fictions by which we try to better organise our lives. The Taxpayer ALWAYS pays the uneconomic component of the minimum wage. That bit between what the free market has judged is the price for that job and the higher minimum wage. It is redistribution mandated on the employer. It is therefore a stealth tax. (end of part 1)

  6. Posted August 18, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Part Two

    But I agree that, as you later point out, the minimum wage destroys jobs, or rather opportunity. As a statement of fact it did so in my business when I wanted to take on a trainee, from whom I could expect zero profit for at least 1 year and probably 2 and for whom I would have had to spend money on training and who was more than prepared to work for a notional payment (topped up by his parents) whilst we did the job of making him successful. Couldn't be done as I would have been flouting the minimum wage laws. Really I should have 'articled' him, and the parents would have invested in their child, but I would have still had to pay him minimum wage. The minimum wage is a disgrace.

    One of your party's worst moments during the Bliar years was (the TV image sticks in my mind) of Portillo standing up in the House of Commons endorsing the minimum wage policy. That was one of the points in time that added to my certainty that we were doomed economically , and so it has proved.

    End of the last part.

    • Posted August 18, 2010 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      LibDems & Labour always confuse earning while learning ("skivvy wages" to Labour) with a working wage. Businesses don't employ for the sake of employing people. If the profits from which to pay the staff aren't there then neither are the jobs. Set the entrance fee (the Minimum Wage) or Employment legislation too high and businesses won't/can't employ. "Atlas Shrugged" all over again.

    • Posted August 18, 2010 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

      You would have been in the position of supplying training that might conceivably have been available on a course. Perhaps you should be remunerated for doing so, in the same way as a higher educational establishment or school is.

  7. Posted August 18, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Everyone talks about a fair society without defining the word fair. I think it is unfair that my taxes support people who chose not to work and have 10 kids at the state's (my) expense. The will almost certainly think it unfair that I earn the amount that I do and want me to be penalised further by the tax system.

    The word has lost all meaning when it isn't qualified. My definition of a fair society would be a low tax, small government system with equality of opportunity and an incentive to work and a safety net for those who cannot look after themselves

  8. Posted August 18, 2010 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    "Ending poverty may require different policies from the state." No, it may require the state to get out of the way. As Reagan said, if you have a problem it is more likely that the state is part of the problem not part of the solution.

    The simple way to stop state dependency and the 'great evil' of idleness, as Labour's founders called it, is to make no unemployment allowances at all. Instead people would only be paid for work done and if they can't find a private employer they will be employed by the state, road sweeping or processing forms, or by private companies who are paid to employ them. With this, there is no incentive to stay on benefits as a useful job will always be more rewarding than a government provided one. Staying in bed will cease to be an option unless you don't want to eat. Many of the judgement issues about whether somebody really turned down work will disappear as people will resolve them for themselves. IDS's goal of making employment pay will then become much simpler.

  9. Posted August 18, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Housing is surely crucial here? What young person in their right mind would take a low paid job when to get even a basic home in most areas of the country you need to borrow 6-8x the average salary? This is the real problem.

    • Posted August 18, 2010 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

      Prof Andrew Oswald wrote a Non Technical paper on Home ownership and Unemployment back in 1999 (its on the Net).It showed how homeownership worsens unemployment: that there is a correlation between high owner-occupation and high unemployment. Its not rocket science.If you bought your Yorkshire pit cottage before the coal industry was terminated with extreme prejudice , there is no way you could sell and buy a place in an area with high wages because the house-price differential is too big.The professional political class can't see it though.

  10. Posted August 18, 2010 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    There's lots of factors here, from genes, pre-school and school quality and the fundemental natue of testing – but fundementally these reasons below are rubbish and the real is to do with about parental motivation. The thing is that Government need to target the parents with educational policy and not the children. Unfortunately its not politically correct to lecture to or control parents.

    In a great number of cases less educated people have poorer genetics. Im not saying there is an intelligence gene – but lots of genes ranging from memory, processes, language, motivation, concentration etc. There are more gene isoforms active in the brain than the rest of the body combined. – and across society all these genes vary. So you should never expect to have equal outputs from equal inputs.

    Children of less educated parents are not primed before school – and when you start school, whether or not you put into groups, the primed kids will be better educated and get more out of the lesson – and their growth will accelerate. It's also ethically wrong to hold pupils back so the others can catch up.

    School quality and class size also make a difference. Disruptive pupils are often the ones whose parents arent very well education. Putting them in special classes is a double win – because they stop the distruption and get the focus they need – so perhaps its equitable to spend double on them. Private schools to a lot better because of class size and harder work.

    The fundemental nature of testing also plays a role. When kids pass exams or do better they get moved into better streams or schools. Educational ability in streams often moves to above the average member of the group. Again its not ethical to hold kids back so streaming at a certain level is good. This also happens in employment. So that if a person gets a job because they have a slightly better grade – they then earn more money.

  11. Posted August 18, 2010 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    Yes this word FAIR is getting irritating. FAIR should mean reasonable from all viewpoints but it is being used by LibDems particularly, but also by Osborne/Cameron, to denote policies which are redistributive. Redistribution from the natural order, or free market is more often unfair than fair, and actually more often dumbs down than evens up. Hence, even with this so called centre-right governement we still seem to be on the road to EU-inspired communism.

  12. Posted August 18, 2010 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    FAIR is surely not propping up banks and debtors versus savers by a zero interest rate policy.
    FAIR isn't allowing a BoE Governor to pretend to be targetting inflation when he clearly isn't
    FAIR isn't encouraging banks to make enormous margins by lending them money at .5% and letting them lend to motgagees in an effective cartel at many multiples of that.
    FAIR isn't taxing a working parent punitively in order to support a single lad or lass on housing benefit/jobseekers etc.
    FAIR isn't penalising employers by regulations and restrictions that don't apply to our competitors in a global market
    FAIR isn't making use of your free University education to get into a position of power whereby you can deprive others of it
    FAIR isn't encouraging aspiration only to knock those who have aspired and been successful on the head with punitive taxes

  13. Posted August 18, 2010 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    As well as offering "equality of opportunity", to the poor, schools should reinstate competitiveness as a natural way of driving up educational achievement.

    The BBC aired a programme a few months back, whereby they coaxed local companies to take on local welfare recipients.

    The welfare recipients, mostly home-grown, seemed to think that they had a right not to think too hard or to try too hard.

    This is an attitude that has been instilled in at least a generation of people and we need to stamp it out.

    Yes, bring back competitive sports in schools. Bring back streaming. Encourage students to compete.

    Unless we tackle the attitude, we lose, no matter how (otherwise) good the scheme is, and no matter how much money we pump into the system.

  14. Posted August 18, 2010 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    Why doesn't the government want to open more grammar schools? Surely it is much fairer for the places at good schools to be allocated to students who score the best marks in the 11+ exam than to allocate them to students whose parents can afford a house in the catchment area or can afford private school fees.

    Also, will the government be bringing back the assisted places scheme? That enabled my parents who weren't particularly well off to send me to a private school where I got a much better educate than was available at the local comprehensive. The Labour Party abolished it in 1997 so future generations don't have the opportunity I had.

  15. Posted August 24, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Interesting blog today, I agree we do need to get people back to work and there does need to be a programme of training or awareness of how to do this. I do not like the idea of healthy individuals not working when they can. However, there are not enough jobs available unless there are more created there is nothing for people to do so cutting benefits and criticising people does not work in my opinion I want to see this country flurish and become wealthy but it does need more than bullying and rhetoric.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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