The fairness test
Imran Hussain, Head of Policy, Rights and Advocacy at the Child Poverty Action Group, asks: Is the Coalition meeting the Fairness Test?
A transformation has occurred in the Conservative party with major speeches from David Cameron on social justice and the commitment to end child poverty by 2020. Iain Duncan Smith has driven the agenda with analysis and ideas from the Centre for Social Justice. Party activists rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in to social action projects in their communities. Now ResPublica is influencing the party with fresh ideas and a strong moral dimension.
The Coalition did the right thing declaring ‘fairness' a defining theme and key political test for the coalition. But the Institute for Fiscal Studies' independent analysis shows cuts will hit the poorest hardest, so we must regrettably conclude the Coalition is falling short. Ministers must redress this in the spending review and next year's child poverty strategy for the fairness test to be met.
There is an economic imperative for fairness and it is a dangerous error to assume we cannot afford it while cutting the deficit. Joseph Rowntree Foundation research suggests high levels of child poverty in Britain cost the economy about £25 billion each year from social and economic consequences. We must reduce this cost to help reduce the deficit, reduce spending pressures, increase economic participation and create the circumstances for sustained economic growth.
We must also recognise the economic role of poor families as consumers. Unlike the wealthiest, their cash does not quickly leave the UK economy through overseas trips, investments or being tied up in capital. They spend it immediately in their local businesses on the things their children need. They are customers our small and medium businesses need to survive. Every pound they spend is in active circulation a long time, benefiting a succession of businesses and their employees.
Beyond the economic arguments, we have been impressed that Phillip Blond and ResPublica have revived the conservative tradition's moral imperative towards ending poverty. Our higher moral values and aspirations must not be subjugated to market forces without restraint. Politics too often gets lost in either tribalism or economic and statistical debates, abstracted to the point that moral aspiration is forgotten and systems or ideology take over. We should more often seek as our foundation the shared moral beliefs about the kind of society we want to live in and the ethic of care towards others that should be part of its fabric.
At CPAG we believe the moral dimension is crucial to current debates on fairness and poverty. We live in a society increasingly segregated along economic lines. Do any of us really want to live somewhere characterised by how disconnected our lives are from each other?
Ian Duncan Smith's work, has long addressed concern that some of the poorest are no longer integrated with the mainstream of British society. We should also recall that another Conservative hero, Adam Smith, was one of the earliest to focus on relative poverty. He described poverty as to be without “whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for a credible person, even of the lowest order, to be without.” CPAG shares Smith's concern about lack of material resources, which leave people outside the mainstream with the danger of passing a deepening isolation, alienation and resentment on to the next generation.
We need to think about those at the top too. It is ironic that when some conservatives oppose multiculturalism, they overlook the economic multiculturalism that has opened up in our society. We don't wish to punish success in our country. But we cannot let success lead to a refusal to integrate with the mainstream of British society either. That is why inequality and social inclusion, at both ends of the income spectrum, is so crucial to passing the fairness test and creating the good society.
Imran Hussain is the Head of Policy, Rights and Advocacy at the Child Poverty Action Group who co-hosted a fringe series on the Fairness Test with ResPublica, the Fabian Society, CentreForum and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation at all three party conferences.