Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 300 - 319)



  300.  And the opportunity of introducing a new Integrated Child Credit would be an opportunity to do that, if they took it?
  (Professor Veit-Wilson)  It could well be, though, and remembering—and I am afraid I have to introduce a slight digression here—that, while that might be entirely appropriate for the cost of children, this is in the context of the totality of family and household expenditure and you cannot disaggregate parents' and children's expenditure in that way.

Mr Swayne

  301.  Notwithstanding the fact, as you have said, that some of the research now goes back a decade, can you, for the benefit of greater understanding and clarity, explain precisely what a government minimum income standard is and how it might differ from a minimum income that is defined, as a result of a scientific study, into expenditure patterns and arrive at a minimum income that way? What is the difference?
  (Professor Veit-Wilson)  I think there is a very important difference. When I was sent off round the world to find out how governments set their adequacy standards, I thought that I would find in each country some example of what you have just described in the latter instance, that there would be some kind of social science research which said, "In this country, this is the least that one needs to live on", and that the government would then accept that. That is not the case. There is a large body, somewhat variable in quality, of social science research around the world about the levels of income at which households manage to achieve what those societies define as minimum participation standards and adequacy standards, avoiding poverty in their terms. That is a matter of science; it is testable, replicable and refutable. It has the advantage that it is reliable in some social science terms and the disadvantage from a political point of view that it is general; it makes average generalisations. It does not lead to the kind of precise conclusion that politics generally requires. What I actually found was that in most countries different ways had been used in order to achieve what was a politically credible standard and aspiration level, something that could be compared, with a sense of "this is what a minimally decent household income should be in this country"; or, "this is what a minimally decent income for a single person should be in this country". That single person or household in some countries was a working household; in some it was a pensioner, a couple pensioner or a single pensioner; and in some it was the social assistance level for a household and varied according to the composition of the household. That standard had been arrived at after considerable political negotiation in those countries. In the countries in which there is a degree of political consensus, like the Nordic countries, that negotiation is very open. For example, in Norway, in the setting of the minimum pension annually, which is taken as their minimum income standard, there is a right for the umbrella bodies of the pensioners and of the disabled to be involved in the parliamentary discussions on the annual uprating. In the Netherlands, where the minimum wage is taken as the minimum income standard—and in each of these cases a lot of other things are measured in terms of the standard which are then set above or below it—that is set annually or more often by discussions between representatives of the trades unions, of the employers and of government. So there are different ways of doing this. What I am trying to get to, in answering your question, is that a governmental minimum income standard is something that may refer to such social science findings but it may not; it may be based on other understandings, widely achieved, of what decency levels are in this country, and it then has political credibility. That is the essence of it. Does that help to answer the point?

Mr Robertson

  302.  We considered pensions and poverty a little while ago and basically said that the Government should set a minimum level of income for pensioners. The Government responded by saying that it is very difficult actually to assess the adequacy of the benefit levels. You have developed the method of triangulation, which you did briefly mention. Could you perhaps expand on that a little and tell us how it might work?
  (Professor Veit-Wilson)  Yes. I have tried to set it out at greater length in the paper. I am certainly not going to read all that to you now. The point at issue is this: the Government quite rightly says that no one source of information is enough to achieve that kind of political credibility which it wants. I agree. We have, however, a wide range of sources of information which could be used and which could provide a foundation for political credibility. Broadly speaking, those sources of information are of two kinds. One is the findings of the various different sorts of social science research into levels of living and the levels of income at which adequacy standards, in terms of the British population's definition of them, are or are not achieved. There are the indicator standards where you go and find out what society defines as social necessities and then discover those households that suffer deprivations in those socially-defined terms and the income levels at which they do it. You do not ask them directly about what income is necessary. Asking them what is a necessary income is a different kind of approach and produces answers which may or may not be comparable. That work is currently being done by Professor Bradshaw and his colleagues[27] to see how far apart those two are and how comparable. Then there are the focus groups, like the work of Sue Middleton,[28] which she has spoken to you about already. There are other ways directly of looking at this and I have tried to list some of them in the paper. There is a whole body of indirect approaches which has not yet been used and which I think must be used. The Government has referred to some of them in the paper which you, Mr Chairman; have there, the many indicators that there are of deprivations and of exclusions right across the range, from the physiological, of things like nutrition and health, to the social, psychological and personal development, education and all the rest of it. Many of them, but not all, do correlate poor performance and poor experience with low income in the household, and that is over periods of time. What we do not know is at what levels of income that correlation takes place. Some of the correlations might have quite sharp thresholds in them, that below that level things are really bad and above that level they are all right. Some of them may be on a straightforward gradient where you have to make a judgment as to how far down this slope is bad. None of that work has been done, or at any rate not publicly, not in the arena that I know anything about. That is what would provide a basis for this process of triangulation. First of all, you have to interrogate all those databases, all the government sources of information, the household surveys, the National Food Survey and so on, as to whether there is evidence of that kind and see at what levels of household income there is, if there is, a correlation with poor performance and poor experience in the indicator terms that the Government is concerned with, and then see how they correlate. They will not all correlate on the same point because we know, for example with expenditure, that people on low incomes will spend on one thing and then, as their income grows, they will spend on another, and so we will get a gradation of those as well. That is where the political judgment starts to come in. That is where you start saying that below that level it is worse and we are not going to achieve our objectives if we do not raise incomes to that point; above that level, it is unclear whether we are going to or not and we may decide that, after Treasury constraints or whatever else, we are not going to do that. One does not exclude political decisions from this, and that is the point.

  303.  I take the point that, given the enormous amount of information that you could gather, it would require a political judgment at the end of the day, but who would you say is best to gather that information? Is there not in the presentation of that information a political bias or the possibility of a political bias at that stage as well as at the decision-making stage?
  (Professor Veit-Wilson)  I am afraid you are right, there is. Those of you who are familiar with the war-time construction of the Retail Price Index will know how that was fiddled around with for political reasons. One would hope that that kind of thing does not happen now. After saying that, I do not think that there is any a priori reason for saying that a government is less capable of doing things. Personally, I would hand the job over to something like The Office of Statistics to do, in the same way that the Retail Price Index is constructed. I do in fact say that in the paper. Others hold a different view and believe that there ought to be an independent commission or that it ought to be done entirely academically. It could also be done very much more co-operatively. It may be a good thing for academia to do the social science research, which is not politically polluted, so to speak, and for government or official sources to do the statistical and analytical research and then bring those things together.

Ms Buck

  304.  I may be wrong and misunderstanding what you are saying. The Government's approach, as set out in the "Opportunities for All" strategy, has now set policy in a cluster of indicators. It seems to me that that approach is very much going along the lines that you are suggesting and not, and I take this point, in order to focus on what you described as defining enough income to find their way out of deprivation, but saying that, in order to tackle poverty, one has to look at all of the different factors which correlate with deprivation. What do you think of that approach? Do you think that study is going in the same direction?
  (Professor Veit-Wilson)  I think it is absolutely right to concentrate on the consequences in the deprivations and exclusions but I fear that, in talking about dealing with the causes of those deprivations and exclusions, the Government is not paying enough attention to low income and what low income is causal. That is the bit on which I am focusing.

  305.  You used an interesting phrase, "enough income to buy your way out of deprivation". Can you take that a bit further? What do you have in mind when you say that? What worries me is that clearly amongst the elements that will lift people out of deprivation is the quality of their health care, their access to high quality in all forms of child care, which people are not buying out of their purchasing power, are they, by and large?
  (Professor Veit-Wilson)  Some do. Elderly people do sometimes use their money to buy private health care for these kinds of purposes, if I have understood your point.

  306.  Going back to the families, is that what you are saying?
  (Professor Veit-Wilson)  I would rather quote from Mack and Lansley's research from the mid-Eighties[29] where they say, and I quote the phrase because I think it is important: "The rich do not choose the lifestyles of the poor". What Mack and Lansley found in their survey was that people reported one or two conventional deprivations, lacking necessities as society defines them, right across the income range. Once households suffered from three or more deprivations in those socially defined terms, there was a very close correlation with low income, and Mack and Lansley were pointing in their research to an income threshold at which that became a high risk. As I said earlier, in social science it is a matter of averages and generalisations. There are still some people with lower incomes who were not deprived and some people with higher incomes who were. What I mean by buying your way of deprivation is having an income above that level so that it becomes much more likely that, if you are deprived, it is a matter of choice and not a matter of your not having enough money.

  307.  If you are going to help us with this target, then surely the point at which people can buy their way out of deprivation has got to be based on an understanding of the deprivation you are buying yourself out of; that is, broadly accepting a non-political authority. That is obviously based in a common understanding of what deprivation is. In what way does your model get us off that very complicated hook? My view is that on the one hand deprivation around health, education and child care is best provided for in common because that is by far the most efficient way of doing it, but on the other point of the scale, you then get this example that is used in DSS evidence about having a holiday:[30] is that acceptable, is that part of deprivation? Having a computer at home: now, if you do not have a computer at home, are you deprived? In what way is your model going to get us off that hook?

  (Professor Veit-Wilson)  I may have misunderstood your earlier question, I am sorry. Do I have a model? Let me take two or three points here. The first is that I did misunderstand your idea. If you mean that many of the deprivations could be met by collective provision outside the market, I entirely agree. That is not what I am addressing. I am only addressing those expenditures which are necessary out of personal, disposable income, and health might not be among them. One of the foundations of health of course is good nutrition and that is amongst them. That is the reason for my quoting Professor Townsend's research and remark in 1954[31] that it is curious that, in families with a number of children that on average do not achieve the prescribed nutrient levels, we are not told what is the income level at which families do actually achieve them. That is something we really badly need to know. The statistics must be there. He said at that time that this could be used as a proxy for a poverty indicator. It would be one of the many kinds of information I would want to use to triangulate. That is one bit of the answer to you. Does that make sense?

  308.  It does. I am concerned because I want to get the Government's approach. I am interested to hear that your understanding of triangulation is to tackle poverty by a number of different strategies, which include health care, education achievements and so forth. I totally agree with you that income is a very important and possibly under-played component of that but I want to see how your idea of triangulation took into account all those different pressures. Going back to the complex question about the attitude of society to an acceptable income, how do you deal with the kinds of attitudes toward behaviour and things like alcohol and smoking?
  (Professor Veit-Wilson)  I have actually put a footnote in the paper on that topic. I think that people's behaviour, particularly when they are poor, may often be driven by feelings and emotions and appear to them to be a rational expression of the way they feel, even if it may seem somewhat irrational to us. We need to be careful about that. We certainly should not deal only with behaviourial consequences of poverty in behaviourial terms until we have dealt with the material foundations from which they come. The thing is that the consumption of alcohol and tobacco is general across society. I think, from that point of view, that many people would argue that having enough money to be able to indulge in a small way, as many do, is part of what is normal in our society, and therefore if people are to be full citizens and not to be socially excluded, they must have enough money even to be able to do that. I do not imagine you will remember the tobacco element in the old age pension but that was a recognition of that particular need, which should, in those terms in which it was expressed then, be on top of the money element, so that people would still be able to get their tobacco, even if they did not have enough money for everything else. I am merely pointing to the social dimension of these definitions of need. We have to be very careful not to exclude people by saying, "Oh, the poor should not be able to have that". You mentioned televisions and holidays. There is an argument used in some countries, saying that social assistance is a short-term benefit and therefore there is no need for it to include an element of saving for holidays. Televisions are now widely considered to be a social necessity. If you are looking at aspects of educational deprivation, then access to televisions or computers may be a necessity in order not to be socially excluded in terms of those educational experiences. You cannot take an Open University degree without a television, for example. We have to be quite careful what sort of judgments we are making. I would rather leave that to the British population through social surveys than to make moralistic ones myself. I gather from Professor Bradshaw that drug taking does not correlate with low income but tobacco consumption to a very large extent does.

  309.  That is a very interesting point. If you are saying that you would rather leave that to the British people, to what extent do you think one can reach a consensus between public opinion and research-based policy making that accommodates those two things? Do you feel that public opinion supports the idea of a low cost system for adequate income which includes provision for alcohol and smoking, for example?
  (Professor Veit-Wilson)  I would rather separate those questions and say that what I am talking about is the establishment of a British standard of income adequacy and that the kind of decision which you are talking about is the one which Professor Robert Walker talked about in discussing the role of focus groups in helping to set benefit levels.[32] I think some of those judgments and political and social evaluations would be different for different levels of income maintenance system, than they would be for setting what is a national minimum adequacy standard, which is my primary concern. I personally would not want to be judgmental about the social assistance levels but we all know perfectly well that some people would want to be judgmental about them. I think that is very much a matter of politics. I am not going to enter into that.

Mr Dismore

  310.  Just to follow this line of questioning, and I have been listening to you with interest, it seems to me that you have still not got over the basic difficulty related to this, which is the whole question of objectivity. That is the real objection put forward to any of these various methods of trying to calculate deprivation or adequacy, that in the end people are making value judgments about what other people should have or should not have, whether it is coming from the individuals themselves, their subjective views of what they need, or from the population at large or from the Government. Is not really the issue here that of trying to find a way of getting an objective view on this and is it practical or possible to get an objective view that does rely on those various value judgments?
  (Professor Veit-Wilson)  Yes, I think it perfectly well is. If science has any kind of objectivity at all, then the aggregation of social facts by social science methods produces an objective fact as much like any other kind of objective fact. I do not really want to argue about the meaning of objectivity and subjectivity. I think where that one is difficult, and you rightly point to it, is where it is the opinion of an individual or some small group as to what ought to be imposed on the rest of society. A very large part of our commerce and indeed pure politics, operates on the basis that public opinion, collectively and reliably put together, produces social facts of an objective kind. The whole point about triangulation as a research method is that it takes many of these different forms and facts objectively and compares them with each other. In fact it gets even further away, in that way, from the subjectivity of any individual opinion. In the end, even when you are looking at hard natural science objectivity, you know very well that you will get experts in this Committee room giving you different opinions on how to interpret the facts. I cannot get away from that, any more than they can get away from it, but it does not stop us treating those facts as objective for the purposes for which they are collected. That is what I am suggesting we should be prepared to do rather more, so that we have objective facts about public opinion. Incidentally, that is both about what are necessities and what are minimum income levels. We have objective facts about nutrient intakes and all those performance indicators that the Government has in its documents there and we can interrogate those databases that there are, collecting such facts as to where there are correlations with low income. And we are making judgments then as to the degree of causality with low income, that people cannot buy themselves out of both this and that deprivation. I hope that is a somewhat more nuanced answer to your question.

  311.  I am not sure that takes it very much further because if one talks about public opinion, whether it is from a small focus group or a much larger study, in the end public opinion is itself going to be subjective, is it not? You can synthesise out of 100 people and synthesise out of 1,000 people. Effectively all you are doing is taking an average of the population that you survey.
  (Professor Veit-Wilson)  I do not think we can pursue that much further. It is widely accepted, and has been for 150 years in sociology, that the collection of a very large number of individual subjective opinions gives you a collective social fact as an objective finding which can be tested, replicated and refuted if it does not hold. I cannot say more than that. You must go to the methodologists on that one.

  312.  They are in charge of the whole concept of social science being a science.
  (Professor Veit-Wilson)  This is not, in that sense, different from the other natural sciences, actually. If you consult your methodologists, you will find that essentially we are talking the same kind of methodological language. What we are trying to get away from are the opinions of individuals, particularly of powerful individuals, about what ought to be tried, to be looked at, as the foundation of what society holds.

  313.  Let us move on. Do you think there is sufficient research already to start to put together a minimum standard based on your proposed method?
  (Professor Veit-Wilson)  I certainly think there is enough research to be able to start to look at those databases. There is no question about that. In fact, Professor Bradshaw and I have some planned.

  314.  If the Government were likely to go down that route, how do you think it should actually go about it?
  (Professor Veit-Wilson)  I think it should give us the money to do it.

  315.  Can you do it by March?
  (Professor Veit-Wilson)  I am sorry, but, no.

  316.  I suppose the follow-up question from that is: how would you persuade the Government that the creation of such a study is both possible and desirable? If you want to go for the pitch, how are you going to persuade them that they should give you the money?
  (Professor Veit-Wilson)  Partly because of the Government commitment to the abolition of child poverty; partly because of the Government commitment to the abolition of that wide range of deprivations and indicators of social exclusion right across the population age range, and its ignorance about the incomes which are necessary to attack some of the causes. It has made the commitment but it is not clear about one of its essential targets. What I am talking about is the specification of that target. Then it would have to take the political judgments about whether it has the will to do it through one of the various channels of income maintenance which it could use. You are investigating a tax credit channel. As I said earlier, we, the public, are quite unclear as to the thinking behind the income targets which are involved in that, as to whether they are substantiated by the kind of research I am talking about. I would like to see that out in the open.

  317.  If the Government were to give you the money to do this research, the Government effectively would just be giving you this stick to beat itself.
  (Professor Veit-Wilson)  I very much hope the Government is giving itself the credit of a clear target to be achieved. This Committee asked me two years ago to write a paper on performance indicators, and I did.[33] I said that what the Government gave us at that point was a set of aspirations and trend indicators but it did not give us clear targets. It did not give us achievable goals. More or less of something is a trend; it is not a goal achieved.


  318.  What is the experience in other countries? You have done more work than anyone else possibly about the political pressure that governments incur if they follow the route that you are suggesting. My sense is that, if we were able to fast-forward the work of Professor Bradshaw and yourself and you were able to have access to that in advance of a general election that may be about to occur, it is bound to put additional pressure on government because, almost by definition, the adequacy standards would go higher than the current income support rates. How do other governments in other parts of the world cope with that? It is another version of Andrew Dismore's question about the stick to be beaten with. Do other governments just say, "We are trying to get there and hang on"? What is the context in which that argument takes place?
  (Professor Veit-Wilson)  It is a complete range from complete incompetence, as in the United States, and total competence, as in the Nordic countries. If I use the word "competence", what I mean by this is that the United States has an admittedly outdated minimum income standard in the form of what it calls its poverty line. It has had a very high powered commission under the National Academy of Sciences which reviewed that two years ago, which produced a report (which I quote) and made very good recommendations. Maybe that will be implemented. There have been some steps towards implementing it in certain ways and improving the quality of the scientific bases of what was basically a budget standard multiplied by a factor to allow for other expenditures. My point about competence is that they then put this out. All kinds of things are related to it, but the States themselves do not have to pay any attention to it in the assistance that they give to people, and most of them do not pay attention to it. They certainly do not implement it to anything like the recommended levels in the income support that they give in their various forms. That is one end of the continuum. Here is a standard of aspirations used for a wide number of comparisons and for setting some kinds of Federal benefit levels, above or below, but that is not widely used to make sure that everybody has that income. In other countries, like some of the Nordic ones or in Germany, there is actually a constitutional right to receive an income adequate for human decency. Someone can go to the constitutional court over social assistance if it is not sufficient to meet that level. The recommendations there are justiciable, so to speak, and that is what I meant by "fully competent" in that sense. So there is a complete range but, nevertheless, these countries and the United States do not say, "Oh, well, we cannot possibly say what it ought to be". On the contrary, they went to a good deal of effort to say what it ought to be.

  319.  How frequently would they need to be re-based? You are not clear about that in your evidence.
  (Professor Veit-Wilson)  The Swedish official body that deals with consumer affairs produces budgets every five or so years; it re-bases them every five or six years. It updates them for inflation each year. The budgets which it has to produce, which are neither to be too excessive nor too extremely low, but "reasonable"—a Swedish word they love—are then used as the basis for a number of other measures, such as the recommendations by the Social Welfare Board to the Communes, as to the level of social assistance which they should pay. I do not know if they have yet introduced their national scale but, while they were still having local ones, the communes might or might not pay around that level. The budget recommendations are also used in the courts in setting the level of income below which people cannot have court orders made against them for debt and so on. The tax threshold relates also to this budget level, but not exactly. It is used as a standard, a comparison, to say that you should not fall too far below that. Indeed, in some countries one can go above it with some of these measures.

27   University of York. Back

28   Centre for Research in Social Policy, Loughborough University. Back

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

30   Ev HC 72-1, 13 Dec 2000. Back

31   P Townsend (1954), Measuring Poverty, British Journal of Sociology. Back

32   Journal of Social Policy, vol 16, no 2, 1987. Back

33   Not published. Back

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