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Ask me anything with Baroness Ruth Lister
The renowned social scientist and Labour Peer answers your questions about poverty and social security in the UK
Baroness Ruth Lister, the renowned social scientist and Labour Peer (and member of our expert contributors network) answers your questions about poverty and social security in the UK. But before we get started, a quick plug for a webinar that we’re taking part in next week:
Britain’s wealth inequality crisis | Wednesday 13 September at 1pm on Zoom
Bristol University Press, in association with the Equality Trust and the Fairness Foundation, invite you to an online discussion on the burning question of wealth inequality in Britain. What effect has Britain’s growing concentration of wealth at the top had on society and the economy? Is today’s record level of wealth insufficiently taxed? Can this private wealth pool be harnessed for the public good? Speakers: Stewart Lansley (University of Bristol), author of The Richer, The Poorer, How Britain Enriched the Few and Failed the Poor, a 200-year History; Priya Sahni-Nicholas, co-director of the Equality Trust; Will Snell, Chief Executive of the Fairness Foundation; Jessica Miles, Bristol University Press (chair).
RUTH LISTER: ASK ME ANYTHING
Is it at all conceivable that we shall ever see the end of poverty?
That’s quite a question and not one that is often asked! In theory it should indeed be conceivable in a country such as the UK, even if poverty is understood in relative terms. This would mean no one lacked sufficient resources to meet socially recognised needs and to participate in the wider society in which they lived. And we do sometimes loftily talk about envisaging a society without poverty. Indeed, taking just child poverty (the risk of which is higher than for pensioners or working age adults) Tony Blair, when Prime Minister, committed the government in 1999 to a 20-year mission to end child poverty. However, the 2010 Child Poverty Act set a target of below 10 per cent by 2020 using the then official measure of 60 per cent of median income (with a target of less than 5 per cent for combined low income and material deprivation and for a measure fixed in real terms at 2010/11 incomes, misleadingly dubbed ‘absolute’ poverty).
These targets are more realistic than that of ending child poverty and to some extent reflect experience in countries with the lowest child poverty rates. Although out of date, Eurostat child poverty indicators for 2018 show the lowest rate as being 10.7 per cent in Iceland, using the 60 per cent of median income measure. The latest figure for the UK shows 29 per cent of children living in poverty after taking account of housing costs. Worryingly, the depth of poverty is also increasing, reflected in the growing number of accounts of hunger and reliance on food banks.
Although the current state of child poverty is discouraging to say the least, experience does show that policy can make a positive difference. Thus, although Labour did not achieve its targets, independent academic analysis indicates that its policies, including child tax credits, helped to reduce child poverty significantly. And more recently, perhaps counter-intuitively, child poverty went down during the height of the pandemic largely because of the introduction of the temporary £20 uplift to universal credit. And in the US temporary improvements to their child tax credit system in 2021 resulted in what the Brookings Institute described as ‘a historic reduction in poverty in the United States, particularly for children’. But like the improvements the reduction was only temporary.
Research by the Child Poverty Action Group (of which I’m hon president) also suggests that the 2010 Act encouraged some local authorities to focus on child poverty. However, the Act was repealed in 2016 and the Westminster government is the one government in the UK to lack any kind of anti-poverty strategy, as pointed out by the Social Mobility Commission in 2021. The government has refused to include a ‘levelling up mission’ on child poverty in its levelling up strategy.
What is needed now is a comprehensive, cross-departmental strategy to reduce (child) poverty to the kind of level achieved in countries such as Iceland and Finland. That would be a more realistic goal than total elimination, though don’t underestimate how difficult it would be to achieve. And that takes me to the next couple of questions.
Why do we still have poverty when there is so much wealth, knowledge and technology which could be devoted to its eradication?
The short answer to your question is lack of political will. While, as I said in answer to the previous question, it’s difficult to conceive of the elimination of poverty altogether, with the political will it should be possible to bring it right down. But to do so requires the political will to reduce inequalities of original income both directly (anyone for a maximum wage based on pay ratios?) and indirectly through the tax-benefit system. There is a tendency in government though to assume that it’s sufficient to move people into paid work as ‘the main route of poverty’, while ignoring the growing proportion of those in poverty who have at least one earner in the household. The provision of decent, affordable housing and good-quality accessible public services is also needed. And education, often cited as key to reducing poverty, is failing to do so as the education gap widens again and the lack of a child poverty strategy makes poverty-proofing less likely in schools.
Lack of political will reflects a number of factors, notably perceptions of public/voters’ attitudes and power. Public attitudes both to poverty and those experiencing it and to the policies necessary to tackle it loom large in governments’ responses. Tory ministers in the Cameron governments deliberately encouraged negative and divisive attitudes towards so-called ‘skivers’ counterposed to ‘strivers’ in justification of unprecedented social security cuts. Before that I’m afraid Labour helped to undermine its own anti-poverty strategy by talk of ‘welfare dependency’ vs ‘hard-working families’; it tended to pursue its strategy by stealth rather than making the case up front for tackling poverty and framing it in such a way as to bring more of the public with it.
Public attitudes are not fixed. Fairness Foundation and other data suggest that the public are more open to effective action to tackle poverty than politicians often assume and that is certainly the case after a decade or more of policies that have made poverty worse.
Recent data from an Opinium survey for Fairness Foundation and others found that the group believed to have the most power are the very rich (39 per cent contrasted with 24 per cent who cited national governments). Whatever the truth of those beliefs, those with power benefit in broad terms from the status quo and they could well oppose any attempt at a radical redistribution of resources. Their power may not always be visible but it’s all the more effective for that. (See also the answer below on wealth taxes)
In contrast, poverty is marked by powerlessness, in particular lack of political power. The voices of those in poverty themselves are rarely heard. Their lack of voice reinforces what I have called the ‘othering’ of people in poverty, which can all too often be experienced as shaming and dehumanising. The involvement of people with experience of poverty in the development of anti-poverty initiatives would strengthen them. We could learn from the experience panels established by the Scottish government to involve users of the social security system; and also from participatory research initiatives such as the Changing Realities project, which has provided a platform for universal credit recipients to voice their views during and post the Covid lockdown.
One final point, which takes us to the next question, is that it is probably a mistake to treat anti-poverty initiatives as somehow separate from broader positive strategies to create a good society in which we can all flourish as to do so runs the risk of marginalisation. This would mean integrating them with policies to reduce wider socioeconomic inequality and intersecting inequalities of e.g. gender/sex, ‘race’/ethnicity and disability; and with policies to promote environmental justice.
When will politicians start to commit to a fairer set of social and economic and environmental policies for Great Britain?
Underlying this question is I think the premise that effectively tackling poverty will require such a fairer set of policies, which reflects my final thought in response to the previous question. While I don’t want to be party political in my answers, the fact is that for the most part since 2010 we have seen unfair policy after unfair policy, albeit frequently justified in the name of ‘fairness’ (often to ‘the taxpayer’). I would thus argue that a change of government is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of a significantly fairer set of social, economic and environmental policies.
Unfortunately, electoral caution and the dictates of ‘fiscal responsibility’ mean that so far Labour has made only very small steps in committing to the kind of fairer set of policies we need to transform our divided society. A recent open letter to Keir Starmer from 70 academics (myself included) argued for a transformative move from ‘an out-of-date economically and socially destructive approach towards a model which improves well-being, works in alignment with our environment and achieves social justice’. The more that Labour members, supporters and potential voters press for such an approach now, the better the chances are it will be reflected in the next manifesto and, if elected, a future programme for government.
From the perspective of poverty and social security in particular, I and others have argued for immediate priorities to include the abolition of the two child limit on means-tested support for children, together with the benefit cap which limits the total amount of benefit received, as key drivers of child poverty. The refusal to make such a commitment has dismayed many. There needs also to be a commitment to longer term reform so as put the security back into the social security system, leaving the details to be worked out once in power, possibly through an independent inquiry which includes experts by experience.
Many commentators suggest that the public is looking to Labour for a clear transformative vision of the kind of society the Party wants to see. While it may be premature to spell out in detail the social, economic and environmental policies needed to build a good society and it will be important to involve the public, especially marginalised groups, in their development, we do need a broad commitment now to a fairer set of policies as envisaged in the question.
I wonder why there are still people starving when there is enough in the country (and world) to go round. Why our children are not being educated to be good, honourable citizens instead of learning how to achieve money and power. Why there are still homeless people in Britain. Why politicians and others in influential positions are not held to account by law in the same way ordinary people are. Why it is accepted that politicians and others in influential positions are allowed to lie and mislead without any comeback. Why we don't have proportional representation. Why large organisations are allowed such influence in the way our country is run.
I’ve covered some of the ground in this multi-faceted question in earlier answers. So I’ll focus here on the proportional representation (PR) point. I’ll be drawing here on a recent report from Compass (whose board I’m vice chair of), Winner Takes All, which makes the link between voting reform and socio-economic justice. The current, first past the post (FPTP), voting system reinforces inequalities in political power. In doing so, it reduces the likelihood of governments committed to a fairer distribution of income and wealth. It has a distorting effect on which policies and ideas are taken seriously. Countries with PR tend to be more equal and show a better record on poverty. As every vote counts under PR in a way that it does not under FPTP, where many votes are in effect wasted in safe seats, members of marginalised groups could be more inclined to engage with electoral politics.
So why indeed don’t we have PR given the evidence of how unfair FPTP is in its effects? One again it’s in part because those who benefit most from the status quo make sure we stick with it. It is certainly not in the Tories’ interests to introduce PR. Unfortunately, the Labour leadership seems to believe the same is true for Labour and are averse to allying with other progressive parties in order to achieve it. This is despite an overwhelming vote in favour of PR at last year’s conference and growing support from the trade unions. Some who are not necessarily opposed to PR argue that it’s a ‘second term issue’ (assuming there is a second term) and that measures to improve living standards must take priority. It’s true that constitutional reform can be time-consuming but it shouldn’t be a question of either/or and such short term thinking is likely to mean we never get the fundamental longer-term change necessary to strengthen our democracy and to achieve socio-economic and environmental justice.
Do you think we need a permanent wealth tax on billionaires to alleviate poverty in the UK? If not, why not?
Do you have a view on the usefulness of land value taxation in restoring a degree of fairness in the redistribution of wealth (or rather the redistribution of the tax burden)?
I will take these two questions together as they both relate to the taxation of wealth. The short answers are (i) yes to some form of permanent wealth tax although I’m not sure exactly what form it should take and whom exactly it should cover; and (ii) I must admit I’m not well enough informed on land value taxation to take a firm view but I’m certainly open to it as a possible key to a fairer form of local taxation than that which exists at present. What follows are just some general observations on wealth inequality and its taxation, drawing in part on a chapter by Karen Rowlingson in a very useful recent collection, Taxation and Social Policy (Policy Press).
A recent briefing from Fairness Foundation (National Wealth Surplus) points out that wealth inequality is twice as high as income inequality and reinforces a range of inequalities both material and political. Rowlingson cites studies that indicate how the rich can exert their power and influence so that governments act in their interests. And a large wealth gap corrodes the bonds of common citizenship and democracy if rich and poor are in effect living in different worlds.
Rowlingson outlines various barriers to reform of wealth taxation, including public attitudes, but suggests that they are not as insuperable as is often argued to justify inaction. One challenge is to translate considerable public concern about wealth inequality into support for effective progressive taxation policies that would help to reduce it, as part of a more positive framing of taxation generally. Every time someone describes taxation as a ‘burden’ it reinforces the idea that it’s an undesirable imposition rather than a building block of a fairer society.
While a wealth tax is probably a longer term goal, an immediate reform we could be pressing for is the taxation of unearned income at the same rate as earned. It’s very disappointing that Labour has ruled this (together with any additional taxation of wealth or high incomes) out despite the fact that it would make the tax system fairer and raise much needed revenues for policies such as those needed to tackle poverty. We need to start a debate about how to tax wealth more fairly and effectively now. To quote Rowlingson, ‘there is no shortage of ideas for reform of wealth taxation, whether that involves an overhaul of the whole “system”, reforms of current taxes or the introduction of new ones’.
How do we tackle fairness concerns when decisions about health, access, education, finance etc are relegated to autonomous machines in the so-called fourth industrial revolution?
I don’t have an answer to this question I’m afraid, but it’s clearly of great significance for the future. There is, I know, a real concern that existing human biases, such as those relating to social class, sex/gender, ‘race’/ethnicity, will be baked into AI algorithms. Indeed, this is happening already in ways that are difficult to detect, thereby reducing accountability in the kind of decisions you ask about. Writing in the Guardian recently (6 July), Brittany Smith of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, University of Cambridge warned, with regard to social security: ‘Some governments are deploying algorithms in order to root out fraud. In many cases, this amounts to a “suspicion machine”, whereby governments make incredibly high-stakes mistakes that people struggle to understand or challenge. Biases, usually against people who are poor or marginalised appear in many parts of the process, including in the training data and how the model is deployed, resulting in discriminatory outcomes’. It doesn’t help that few women work in the field.
A briefing by the Public Law Project for a recent Lords debate on AI outlined some of the risks associated with public use of AI systems and the inadequacies of proposed plans for its regulation. One theme in the debate was the need to address ethical questions and involve civil society in the development of AI. The Bishop of Oxford, in particular, called for society as a whole to ‘ask the big ethical questions’. He continued: ‘Will these new technologies lead us into a more deeply humane future and towards greater equality, dignity of the person and the creative flourishing of all? Or will they lead us instead to a future of human enslavement to algorithms, unchallenged bias, still greater inequalities, concentration of wealth and power, less fulfilling work and a passive consumerism?’
These are fundamental issues for how we pursue fairness. Perhaps the Fairness Foundation could convene a group of people with the necessary expertise to consider the question you pose and related questions and then publish their thoughts?
Should Citizenship education become statutory in primary schools so that younger children (as well as those in secondary where Citizenship is part of the National Curriculum) have the chance to learn about our democracy, children's rights and equality - and what can we do to ensure this is made a priority in the next parliament?
Yes! I was a member of a House of Lords select committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement that recommended just that in its report (The Ties that Bind, 2018). But, as the committee argued, we need to go further and overhaul citizenship education overall. It may be part of the national curriculum in secondary schools, but we discovered that it is in a parlous state. Moreover, it is treated by Ofsted as part of character education. This, we argued, reflects a thin, individualised conception of citizenship education rather than one that emphasises political and active forms of citizenship, with an emphasis on experiential learning and the exercise of citizenship in schools and the wider community.
The Labour Party’s draft National Policy Forum document didn’t have much to say on the subject but an amendment was accepted that included ‘encouraging active citizenship’ as part of the broad curriculum that children need. It will be up to proponents of active citizenship education from primary to the end of secondary school to build on this should Labour gain power. Apart from anything else, it’s importance is the greater, with the commitment to votes at 16. A child or young person who has received engaging citizenship education throughout their school years will enter the electorate as much better informed and prepared citizens than many voters are at present.
Ruth Lister is a Labour peer and Emeritus Professor of Social Policy, Loughborough University. She is the author of Poverty (2nd edn, Polity, 2021).
Ruth’s opinions are hers alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fairness Foundation.