Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Appendix 3


  1.  What characteristic must a governmental minimum income standard have in order to satisfy any government? The respected US semi-official review of what is there called a "poverty line" (Citro and Michael 1995) concluded that a MIS must be (1) publicly acceptable, (2) methodologically defensible and (3) administratively feasible—in other words, they must be politically credible. To emphasise the essence of political credibility in all MIS, how they are set in those European countries which have them[24] is outlined below (from Veit-Wilson 1998). The methods used varied widely between countries and across the various tiers of the income maintenance system (see appendix 2). But in each case political credibility was achieved by consensus over the technical or negotiating methods and the conclusion.

  2.  In each country in which it is practised, the setting of MIS in the first place is not necessarily a simple matter. It may take considerable methodological effort or political negotiation to achieve the necessary credibility and desirable consensus. In the UK, where the governmental approach to responsibility for poverty has alway differed from that in the countries mentioned below, the basis of MIS must lie in what is valued in this society and what the UK Government and its opponents respect as incontrovertible fact. We have no tradition of political consensus as in the Nordic countries, or reliance on statutory obligations to provide a minimum income respecting human dignity, as in Germany. Even EU obligations and charters which do set out such obligations in principle give no guidance on how to achieve them.

  3.  In the UK, the conventional "discourse", the idiom of persuasion, is "the scientific facts" as expressed by the experts. The various governmental collections of data on such matters as incomes and households, on consumption and domestic finances, on health and mortality, all command respect. They may be contested but they are the common currency of debate. To meet UK requirements of political credibility for the foundations of a MIS, we must look in this statistical field and its counterparts reporting on other social problems. We must examine the empirical evidence collected by reputable scientific methods and analyse the official statistics. To construct MIS, relevant evidence may come from the various sources referred to in the body of this paper, such as primary dedicated research (various types of empirical poverty surveys) or secondary analysis of existing data collected on social problems, on individuals and households, their life experiences, deprivations and exclusions, and their incomes and other resources over time.

  4.  Aggregation of the range of relevant evidence through triangulation of such data sources is therefore indispensable for public acceptance and methodological defensibility in the construction of a MIS for the UK.


Official sources

  5.  In Sweden, public confidence in the work of the Swedish official consumer organisation, which quinquennially sets "reasonable" (corresponding to "modest but adequate") household budgets used as the MIS, ensures political credibility. A range of benefits and other official income provisions such as the tax threshold and court procedures are based more or less directly on these budgets.

Minimum wage

  6.  In some countries (France and the Netherlands) where governments were responsible for setting the minimum wage, it was treated as the MIS and was set periodically, taking account of increases in the cost of living and earnings, on a base originally accepted by the unions and employers (France) or by tripartite negotiations between the employers, trades unions and government (Netherlands). Both methods had political credibility. The lowest level of unskilled full time wages has often been taken historically in industrialised countries as a comparator of incomes for a "family wage" for a stereotypical household.

Minimum pension

  7.  In Norway and Finland political credibility is achieved by the intensive annual political negotiation of the level of the minimum pension taken as the MIS until virtual consensus is achieved. A range of other benefits is calibrated against the minimum pension.

Social assistance

  8.  In Germany, where the government is concerned chiefly with the level of social assistance, the MIS was based in the early 1990s (until it was suspended) on intensive politically-negotiated formulae drawing on official household income and expenditure statistics. It is statutorily required to provide a level of living for human dignity, a matter which is contestable in the administrative courts.


  O Blume (1970), "The Poverty of Old People in Urban and Rural Areas", in P Townsend (ed), The Concept of Poverty, Heinemann, London.

  J Bradshaw et al (1998), Perceptions of Poverty and Social Exclusion 1998: Report on preparatory research, Townsend Centre for International Poverty Research, University of Bristol.

  J Bradshaw (ed) (2001), Poverty: the outcomes for children, Family Policy Studies Centre, London.

  J Bradshaw and R Sainsbury (eds) (2000a), Experiencing Poverty, Ashgate, Aldershot.

  J Bradshaw and R Sainsbury (eds) (2000b), Researching Poverty, Ashgate, Aldershot.

  C Citro and R Michael (eds)(1995), Measuring Poverty: A new approach, National Academy Press, Washington DC.

  D Gordon et al (2000), Poverty and Social Exclusion in Britain, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York.

  C Howarth et al (1998), Monitoring poverty and social exclusion: Labour's inheritance. Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York.

  C Howarth et al (1999), Monitoring poverty and social exclusion: 1999. Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York.

  T D Jick (1983), "Mixing Qualitative and Quantitative Methods: Triangulation in Action", in J V Maanen (ed), Qualitative Methodology, Sage, London.

  J Mack and S Lansley (1985), Poor Britain, Allen and Unwin, London.

  S Middleton et al (1994), Family Fortunes: Pressures on parents and children in the 1990s, CPAG, London.

  S Middleton (1998), Agreeing Poverty Lines: The development of consensual budget standards methodology, CRSP 2223, Loughborough University.

  H Parker (ed)(1998), Low Cost but Acceptable: a minimum income standard for the UK: families with young children. The Policy Press, Bristol.

  H Parker (2000), Low Cost but Acceptable: a minimum income standard for the UK: Single people and couples aged 65-74 years. The Policy Press, Bristol.

  M Rahman et al (2000), Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2000, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York.

  M Shaw, D Dorling, D Gordon and G Davey Smith (1999), The Widening Gap: Health inequalities and policy in Britain, The Policy Press, Bristol.

  P Townsend (1954), "Measuring Poverty", British Journal of Sociology, 5/2, 130-37.

  P Townsend et al (1997), Absolute and Overall Poverty in Britain in 1997: What the Population Themselves Say: Bristol Poverty Line Survey, Bristol Statistical Monitoring Unit, University of Bristol.

  J Veit-Wilson (1989), "The Concept of Minimum Income and the Basis of Income Support." In: House of Commons Social Services Committee, Minimum Income: Memoranda laid before the Committee, House of Commons Paper 579, HMSO, London, pp 74-95. (NB: many misprints!)

  J Veit-Wilson (1998), Setting adequacy standards: How Governments define minimum incomes. The Policy Press, Bristol. ISBN 1-86134-072-9.

  J Veit-Wilson (1999a), "The National Assistance Board and the `Rediscovery' of Poverty." In: H Fawcett and R Lowe (eds), Welfare Policy in Britain: The Road from 1945, Macmillan, London, pp 116-157.

  J Veit-Wilson (1999b), "The Tax Threshold: Policy, Principles and Poverty." Twentieth Century British History, 10/2, 218-234.

  J Veit-Wilson (1999c), "Poverty and the adequacy of social security." In: J Ditch (ed), Introduction to Social Security: Policies, benefits and poverty. Routledge, London, pp 78-109.

24   Omitting Belgium which used social research findings as a tacit MIS. Back

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Prepared 27 February 2001