Examination of Witness (Questions 300
WEDNESDAY 17 JANUARY 2001
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 rememberingand I am afraid I have to introduce a slight
digression herethat, 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.
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 standardand in each of these cases
a lot of other things are measured in terms of the standard which
are then set above or below itthat 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?
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
to see how far apart those two are and how comparable. Then there
are the focus groups, like the work of Sue Middleton,
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
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
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
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:
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
(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.
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
(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 loveare
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.
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