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.