§ 2.51 p.m.
§ The Earl of Longford rose to call attention to the need for greater equality in the United Kingdom; and to move for Papers.1176
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, I rise to call attention to the need for greater equality in the United Kingdom, and to move for Papers. I am sure that for once I am speaking for the entire House when I say how delighted we are that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London is speaking in this debate, and how distressed we are to think that, at the moment, this would appear to be his swan song. In my 35 years or so here I do not know of any bishop who has made so valuable a contribution as the right reverend Prelate. I cannot believe that noble Lords, such as the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, or the noble Earl, Lord Listowel—who was here a moment ago—and others who have been here longer than me, would disagree with that. I can only express the hope that by some mysterious process he will reappear in some other guise. At any rate, whatever he is styled he will always be enormously welcome in this House.
§ There are many distinguished speakers who are to speak between now and the appointed time two and a half hours further on, and I have set myself a limit of 15 minutes, which seems to be reasonable. If I go on beyond that I hope that somebody—the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, or somebody else—will move that I be no longer heard. I have prepared a speech but other noble Lords, like myself, could, of course, speak for ever on this subject. However, I intend to speak for only 15 minutes.
§ Not long ago one noble Lord—one of the rising stars on the opposite Benches—said to me in his usual courteous fashion: "I thought the idea of equality had been disposed of some time ago". I asked him whether he ever asked himself, when he looked across at these Benches, what distinguished our basic point of view from his own; indeed, what we were doing here at all; why we did not go across and join them. He was much too prudent or polite to answer that question at the time.
§ In this country and in other democracies Right-wing and Left-wing parties usually share a number of ideals and I would include among them patriotism, liberty and the rule of law; but the concept of equality in some sense or other—equality of wealth or of income or of opportunity—is beyond doubt one of the two basic inspirations which distinguish Left-wing groups and individuals. The other, with which I will not deal today, is the vision of society where service to the community rather than the pursuit of private profit is the main economic motive. Both ideas have been expressed eloquently in this country time without number. The first, for example, in the late Professor Tawney's book under the title Equality, and the second in his book, The Acquisitive Society, which has influenced many of the older and, it may be, the younger Members on this side of the House.
§ When I speak of an unequal society as compared with an equal society I am of course speaking in terms of degree. No one of genuine distinction, except perhaps Bernard Shaw, has ever recommended complete equality of income, and as we know he made no attempt to practise it. It is therefore a question of degree. But the difference between Right and Left, although in this respect it is a matter of degree, has far-reaching practical implications. We saw the great gulf exemplified recently when we debated the effect of public expenditure cuts on the social services. On the face 1177 of it, that was an argument about a number of particular issues, a detailed discussion; but behind all that lay the fundamental question: do we, or do we not, want this more or less equality in our society? I say that, while being well aware that there are noble Lords and noble Baronesses opposite—perhaps particularly the latter—who have laboured just as assiduously as we have on this side for the under-privileged and the distressed.
§ My Lords, I submit three propositions which I hope will command a wide measure of support, even in a House where the Conservative philosophy is so strongly represented and ever more intellectually. We have a whole new race of Conservative intellectuals joining us, and it is very unlike the House that I joined 35 years ago. I suggest these three propositions: first, a society marked by a high degree of equality, other things being equal—I am sorry to stress that—is morally superior to one which is marked by a high degree of inequality. Secondly, our present British society is marked by a high degree of inequality; and, thirdly, which follows fairly obviously, that we should redouble our efforts to make our society more equal if this can be done without damage to other values.
§ I will say a few words about the first two propositions. To me it is axiomatic that the ideal of a society with a high degree of equality is morally superior to the ideal of a society with a high degree of inequality. Most of my remarks will be devoted to discussing how this works out in practice, but as an ideal that must surely be superior. Certainly no Christian or Jew would question the statement that each one of us is of equal and infinite significance in the sight of God. That in itself raises a strong presumption in favour of the proposition submitted. From the time of the Stoics, from the days of Epictetus and Cicero, the best humanists have expressed a universal creed in their own terms.
§ I come now to my second proposition, which summarises the position in this country today. Mercifully, by the timetable, if by nothing else, I am exempted from becoming involved in statistics. I will not produce a single figure and I hope no one will reproach me for that because, as Professor Robbins would say, once you introduce one figure you open the door to an infinite number of figures. No one can deny the blatant inequality which permeates our present British system. If anyone wants figures I would recommend them to read a book which I ventured to recommend to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, a book on Inequality in Britain by Frank Field, MP, who has devoted so many years to this subject. I will pick out only one thought from that book which seems to back up the acceptance of this argument.
§ I think it is clear that the reduction in inequality—the move towards greater equality—has been carried forward to nothing like the extent that is generally supposed. That I can say is non-controversial. But once we accept the idea that ideally there should be an equal society—and in our present state of affairs we have a very unequal society—we have to approach the matter and ask ourselves: what damage, if any, does movement towards a greater measure of equality inflict on other values?
§ The primacy of the family weighs so heavily with me, and I am sure with most of us here, that I would never 1178 carry my egalitarianism to a point which endangered family continuity. I would never willingly consent to an egalitarianism which meant that no one could ever hand on anything to their children. That is very far removed from any current discussions. Because I accept a limit there to my egalitarianism, it certainly does not mean that I would regard our present laws of inheritance as in any way satisfactory.
I come now to liberty:
cried Byron—if I remember rightly, though I very seldom quote anything correctly from memory—
Yet thy banner torn but flying streams like the thunderstorm against the wind".
And today Mrs. Thatcher, Mr. Steel, Mr. Michael Foot—and I am sure our Social Democratic friends, who as it were are firing from the back—are equally convinced that freedom is what they stand for. I shall go to my own grave insisting that the masses of this country are freer today than before the coming of the Welfare State. I assert dogmatically that social security, the National Health Service and the immense improvement in education have provided a freedom from want and fear and a possibility of real dignity which previously did not exist for most of them. I am sure many noble Lords around me will agree with that, and I hope that all noble Lords in all parts of the House would see the force of it. I would say the same of any extension of the social services which I can remotely envisage.
§ But I must mention a vital consideration which restrains my socialist ardour. I am speaking this afternoon as a convinced but moderate socialist. I am taking it for granted in this place that we are talking of democracies. Obviously you could have systems which, in theory at least, pursue equality without reference to what we call liberty. There are plenty of examples of that in the communist world, though it is at least arguable that equality there is not genuine. But even in a democracy you could carry a certain kind of socialism to a point where all or almost all employment was given by the state. That would not, in my opinion, support liberty. I have got nothing whatever against civil servants, but if we were all civil servants I am afraid there would not be much liberty left. That, therefore, sets a limit in my eyes, even in a democracy, to the extent to which one would carry socialism. There may be differences of opinion, as there will always be differences of opinion, among my own colleagues, as elsewhere, as to how far one should go in the direction of state ownership. I am not dogmatising about that this afternoon. I am only pin-pointing the danger and stating my conviction that there is a limit, but there is a long way to go before that limit is overrun.
And so to the ever controversial question of what distribution of income leads to the greatest production of wealth. Obviously, if there was some form of inequality which made everybody richer than the more equal system, there would be strong arguments in favour of it, not necessarily conclusive arguments, but strong arguments. Fifty years ago when I was a young man working, now I come to think of it, in the Conservative research department—it had almost escaped my memory until I prepared these remarks—I
read two sentences in The Times which have always remained in my memory:
Unfortunately, wealth is like heat. It is only when it is unequally distributed that it performs what the physicists call work".
Even our respected Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher, herself I believe endowed with an honours degree in science, could not put the point more succinctly. I believed that doctrine at the time, over 40 years ago, but for 40 years it has failed to impress me. I am not likely in these last few sentences to convert anybody to my point of view about that, if they do not already agree with me; but I should like at the very end to put that argument in perspective.
§ I would submit that the moral justification for pursuing the ideal of equality can only be refuted if the economic arguments are decisive in the other direction, and I defy anyone, economist or non-economist—even the great Professor Robbins—to say that the economic arguments are coercive on that side. I have one minute left and I will use it in this way. I said earlier that behind every administrative argument lies the central question: Are we or are we not prepared to move deliberately and explicitly in the direction of more equality? I submit that on any principle of Christian or humanistic ethics we are bound to do so. I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.6 p.m.
§ Lord Banks
My Lords, I am sure the whole House will be grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for raising this important question this afternoon. I think it is necessary that from time to time we should consider very carefully the principles on which our economic and social policies are based. And, in this context, we shall listen with particular attention to the contribution to be made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London. The noble Earl has told us that this is the last occasion on which the right reverend Prelate will address us, at any rate in his present capacity, and I should like, on behalf of my noble friends to express our regret that that should be so, our appreciation of the very considerable contribution which the right reverend Prelate has made to our deliberations, and our good wishes for the future.
We need to be clear about the aims of our economic and social policies, and that raises, in the context of this Motion, the question, is equality a proper aim? We on these Benches have long been committed to equality of opportunity. We have seen, for example, a free education system and a free health service as instruments to that end. But, despite much progress, few would deny that there is still a long way to go. It is argued by some that if once equality of opportunity is achieved then we should seek greater wealth for all which will lift up the poorest with the richest; increased wealth for all, rather than redistribution, it is argued, is the remedy for poverty. But that argument becomes more difficult to sustain in a no-growth situation.
My party, in addition to standing for greater equality of opportunity, has also stood for greater equality in the distribution of wealth. Noble Lords may recall that in Anthony Trollope's novel, The Prime Minister, which was published in 1875, the Duke of Omnium, Liberal Prime Minister in a coalition Government, 1180 during a walk in the country with a Cabinet colleague expounds his political philosophy, and he equates liberalism not with liberty and free institutions, as might have been expected, but with a slow but steady progress towards equality.
After all, John Stuart Mill, who is perhaps most famous for his Essay on Liberty, also stood for an equitable distribution of wealth. As the House is aware, a Liberal Government laid the foundations of our social security system and introduced progressive taxation, which together have done much to redistribute income, and on which all parties have built. We have sought a reduction in the extremes between richest and poorest, and a wider distribution of wealth, both in income and capital, campaigning for that under the slogan "ownership for all".
The welfare state has done much to redistribute income. So have trade union strength, full employment and economic growth, although not always to the very poorest. But in spite of this, real poverty, though reduced in extent, still exists today and may now again be on the increase. The system is far from perfect. What is more—and I hope that the noble Earl will forgive me for introducing a statistic or two—the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth tells us that the top 10 per cent. receive 25.8 per cent. of the earned income before tax—22.4 per cent. after tax—and 55 per cent. of the investment income. As regards capital, the top 10 per cent., so the Commission says, owns 60.6 per cent. of the marketable wealth, a much greater concentration with capital than with income.
In the Guardian last Sunday Harford Thomas reviewed a new book by three Danish writers on how to solve the problems facing modern industrialised society. He reported that those three insist that there should be an equal wage for all and that profits should either be ploughed back into the company or transferred to a community budget. We do not have to go anything like as far as that to recognise that the figures which I have quoted indicate that further redistribution is desirable.
Therefore, there is a strong case for greater equality of wealth in Britain today. There is also a strong case for greater equality between men and women in our country. Twenty-five proposed changes in the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts that would improve equality between men and women were put forward by the Equal Opportunities Commission in January. There is a strong case for greater equality between white and black in our country through the elimination of discrimination and the provision of greater job opportunities for the young black population.
There is a strong case for greater equality in our country between the community as a whole and those with families. In recent years the tax policies of successive Governments have worsened the relative position of families, and increased child benefit is the key remedy here. There is a strong case for greater equality between the community as a whole and the elderly and disabled, particularly the very elderly. That means no more cuts in personal social services and in social security benefits which affect these people, and the allocation of adequate resources.
There is a strong case for greater equality between the employed and the unemployed. In this country 1181 we are in danger of becoming two nations: those who have jobs and those who do not. However, I am quite convinced that a change in Government economic policies could substantially reduce the number of unemployed. But will full employment as we knew it ever return? Should we be thinking about work sharing? Should we be thinking about reductions in the working week?
As regards the redistribution of wealth, I should like to suggest three ways in which we might redistribute income. The first is through a tax credit system. That is automatically a means of redistribution, as indeed was the introduction of child benefit, which provided help for those who were not helped at all by income tax allowances because they did not pay tax. The wider application of that principle in a tax credit system would be redistributory. The second is through a national minimum earnings level. We have published details of how this would fit in with a tax credit scheme. The third way is through a great increase in profit-sharing.
I have three suggestions as to how we might spread capital. The first is by replacing capital transfer tax with an accessions tax under which the recipient of a gift or bequest would be taxed according to the size of that gift or bequest and according to the number of such gifts and bequests that he had already received. This would encourage donors to spread their wealth. The second suggestion is through a tax-free allowance for a certain amount of savings income which would be replaced later under a tax credit system, with a tax credit linked to saving available to those who saved. This would provide an encouragement for small savings of all kinds and help to build up the capital resources of those who have little at the present time. The third suggestion is through wider share ownership linked to the profit-sharing which I have already mentioned.
I recall that in the Gilbert and Sullivan opera, The Gondoliers, the Republican Marco sings these words:The aristocrat who banks with CouttsThe aristocrat who hunts and shoots,The aristocrat who cleans your boots,They all shall equal be".In political, civil and legal rights, that must be so. In wealth and possessions, as the noble Earl said, absolute equality is impossible and undesirable. But I believe that greater equality is—as the Motion implies—both possible and necessary.
§ 3.16 p.m.
The Lord Bishop of London
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for giving the House the opportunity to debate a matter which is of profound and fundamental importance to the good government of this country. I am also most grateful to him for the very kind words that he has spoken and to the noble Lord, Lord Banks, for the things that he has so generously said.
Some years ago the late Archbishop Lord Fisher of Lambeth observed that:All humans are equal in the love of God, but not in the sight of God".His epigram fell flat, though it did, indeed, bring a storm of abuse about his head, possibly because it was 1182 spoken in the unprofitable circumstances of a visit to Africa and also perhaps because it was rather too subtle for most people to appreciate. This was unfortunate, as the archbishop was drawing attention to a fundamental dilemma which faces anyone who tries to discuss the concept of equality. On the one hand, as the noble Earl has said, surely every Member of this House would agree—either on religious grounds or on other grounds—that every human being born into the world is equal to every other person by reason of the common humanity which they possess and, therefore, each has certain inalienable rights.
I am sure we would also agree—and I think the noble Earl has hinted at this—that it is patently obvious that in a sense all human beings are not equal and never will be equal. The circumstances of our birth may produce an inequality which perhaps eventually may be overcome, though it is unlikely that the child born on the streets of Calcutta will ever achieve equality with a child born in this country. Nevertheless, some have a higher IQ than others; some have more efficient technical ability than others; some can run faster, propel tennis or golf balls more effectively, move boats more speedily, perform better in the arts or have more common sense than their fellow human beings. These are inequalities which will always be present and, therefore, although the exercise of training direction may remove some of their impact, they will always be there.
Therefore, I join with other noble Lords in thanking the noble Earl for introducing this debate, because he is asking us to give thought to issues which are fundamental to the process of good government. In doing so we must take note of this fundamental dilemma that he places before us. All human beings have fundamental rights by reason of their humanity, and it is the duty of Government to protect them. But each human being is unique in certain particular capacities. How can these abilities be directed and used for the common good and not produce frustration in the individual? These are the issues which Government must concern themselves with.
First, as regards that equality which belongs to all, the general principles have been stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In its preamble it recognises the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family; it asserts that their recognition is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, and it goes on to define in detail what they are. It examines them in detail, and from that examination emerge two great principles: the principle of freedom and the principle of justice.
Each individual has the right, so far as possible, to be a free man: each individual is entitled to protection under the law. It would be impossible to examine in detail the scope of these rights, but they should always be in our minds as we examine the issues which come before this House: the threat of totalitarian régimes; discrimination on the grounds of colour or sex; the right to worship freely; to move and speak without restriction; to receive proper consideration for health so far as the whole body politic is not injured by these things. These are the basic equalities upon which civilised living can alone be founded, and we have the guardianship of them.
1183 But what of those inequalities which are inevitable by reason of individual gifts and capacities and which, by their very existence, differentiate us from one another? Here surely the emphasis in good government must be upon opportunity. What is important is that the society in which we live should ensure that every citizen has full opportunity to train and develop whatever capacities he has, and then to be able to put those abilities to good use for the benefit of society, of himself, and of his family. This means that society must protect the health and the stability of the family; must ensure that everyone has the opportunity of a good education and, if necessary, of retraining; and then, having been educated, everyone ought to have the opportunity to put to creative use the ability which he possesses.
Every one of these issues would merit a full dress debate in this House, and indeed they have frequently been given consideration here and elsewhere. I must confine myself to some simple, rather telegraphic observations upon them. The stability of family life presupposes a decent home to live in. There are few causes for inequality in our society more powerful than the differences of opportunity in the provision of housing. We have had frequent debates in the past on this subject, and I must content myself with a plea that whatever Government are in power they will put in the forefront of their thinking and their action the necessity of ensuring a strong and effective housing policy so that the shocking prospect of being unable to find accommodation, especially in the case of the young, becomes a thing of the past.
A healthy society will ensure equality of opportunity for education at all levels. I have to admit, and I do so reluctantly, that I recognise that our present system of education is socially divisive. I am a product of a public school—as are some other, distinguished Members of this House—not very far away from where we are sitting at this moment. I must accept that I enjoyed there advantages which were denied to those less fortunate than myself. I could wish that others could have had the same opportunities. Here is another vital area to which Government must address themselves. I do not think that the answer lies in the destruction of what many would regard as good, merely because it is not open to all to enjoy the benefits.
I have never been able to subscribe to the argument that, because everyone cannot have fillet of steak, all must be content with bully beef. I regret the abolition of the direct grant schools which I know, for I was a chairman of one of the best of them for 18 years, covered the complete range of social strata; and I do not think that the assisted places scheme really adequately replaces what we lost in the direct grant schools. I cannot agree, as has been said, that the right of parents to choose what education their children should have is too high a price to pay for the health of society. I know that the public schools are not the preserve of the wealthy, for I am aware of many instances where parents, many of them young, are making real sacrifices so as to enable them to pay the school fees that will be required of them.
I think it would be a tragedy to kill those independent schools by the process of slow strangulation by forbidding parents to pay school fees. I believe the answer 1184 may lie along the lines of improving the standards of the comprehensive schools to such an extent that they can compete realistically with the voluntary sector; and that there should be full consultation with the independent schools to see if there is a possibility of finding some middle path by which their right to exist is recognised, so long as they are prepared to take their place in, and make their contribution to, an integrated system of education. There is so much good, such great traditions, such excellence in our public schools, that they should not be destroyed, nor should their benefits be confined to a small section of society.
But it is of no avail to have an excellent system of education if at the end of it there are no opportunities for exercising the skills that education has implanted. I suppose that there is nothing which encourages a sense of inequality in society more certainly than the fact that some have secure jobs, some have jobs that are in serious jeopardy, and some have no jobs at all, and cannot get them. And when this insecurity is linked, rightly or wrongly, with other potential causes of inequality, such as racism, then there are the conditions for real and terrible trouble. I have no intention of approaching these social problems from a party point of view, for I do not believe that the quality of compassion belongs to any one point of view. But I do believe that it is absolutely top priority that there should be the most careful and expert examination of the effects of long-term unemployment on society.
We all want to return as soon as possible to full employment. We are told that it will be a slow process at the best, and that possibly we shall never return to the circumstances that we have known in the past. That is all the more reason to examine the effect which this state of affairs can have on the soul of the nation. What measures can be taken to meet the destructive influence which the inequalities within society caused by long-term unemployment may have upon the thinking and behaviour of our people? Many of us can remember the 1930s and what happened in countries other than our own, where evil leadership battened upon the sense of inequality and injustice among the young unemployed. We feel bound to sound a warning and plead for an imaginative understanding of the underlying causes for unrest.
One thing is certain. We must at least, at all levels of society, try to understand one another and co-operate with one another in the search for a solution. This can be done at its best among the young. So I make no apology in returning to the subject of a debate I initiated in your Lordships' House in November 1979, pleading for some form of organised youth service, which would bring young men and women together, regardless of their social standing and background, to do some useful service for the benefit of the nation as a whole. My arguments then have been powerfully re-stated by Sir Hugh Fraser in an article in The Times of 8th April. I see there is a further reference in The Times today regarding the creation of a debate about youth, which has produced a number of objections by people who say it would be impracticable; but I am glad to see that so distinguished a person as the noble Baroness, Lady David, is taking part in the discussion which is going on. I hope that the Government will not only encourage this research but them- 1185 selves initiate thought and action. For unless we can find ways of satisfying the reactions and emotions of young people who are perplexed and then angered by the injustices of which they find themselves victims, we shall be laying up for ourselves a store of terrible trouble.
There is one more point which I feel must be made. Though there must be inequalities in society, it is yet necessary that those of us who are more fortunate and upon whom providence has smiled, should not make personal capital out of our good fortune. I can never put from my mind the haunting injunction that "to whom much is given, much will be required"; or that Our Lord, having said some scathing things about those who took advantage of their privileged position, reminded them that the greatest are those who serve. It is all too easy for us to demand that Government shall remove the causes of inequality. It is required also of each individual to combat the evils that come from it. I believe that much could be done by an avoidance of ostentation and a simpler life style on the part of many of us.
I hope your Lordships will forgive me if on this occasion I end on a personal note. In a few hours' time I shall cease to be Bishop of London, and therefore a Member of your Lordships' House. I count it a very high privilege to have been a Member for twenty-one years, and to have taken some modest part in its work. I believe that this House makes an essential contribution to the good government of this country and I would oppose to the last, in so far as it may be possible for me to do so, those who seek to destroy it. I have made many friends and received much kindness, for which I thank your Lordships. I wish you well.
§ 3.34 p.m.
§ Lord Vaizey
My Lords, I should like to thank my friend the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for initiating this valuable and important debate. On behalf of the rest of your Lordships' House I should like to thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London for his speech. Every Sunday I pray in my church for Gerald, our bishop, and I shall continue to pray for him although he will be our bishop no longer and will be succeeded by another familiar friend here in your Lordships' Chamber. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London's speech this afternoon was characteristic of the wisdom and courtesy with which he has informed your Lordships' debates over many years, and on behalf of us all I assure him that whatever he says and wherever he goes he will always be listened to with affection and respect.
§ Lord Vaizey
The right reverend Prelate's references to unemployment are of particular relevance to your Lordships's House because we do, of course, have a Select Committee on the long-term consequences of unemployment, on which I have the privilege to serve and of which his brother, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester, is a distinguished member. I am sure that when our report appears it will make a landmark in the discussion of this important topic. 1186 My Lords, I am sure that from us the Bishop of London takes with him every conceivable best wish.
§ Lord Vaizey
I approach this topic with great difficulty and with some apprehension. I was a close friend of the late Tony Crosland, whose death was a terrible blow to us, and was much more of a blow to our nation. Tony Crosland argued that socialism was about equality, and for many years I was one of those who was proud to call himself a socialist. Finally, I came to the conclusion that socialism was not about equality but was about tyranny, and that all the examples we had of socialism both in the Communist bloc and in the third world were tyrannical states. The question I want to broach this afternoon is whether there is a conflict between the three great ideals of the French Revolution of liberty, equality, and fraternity. As a follower of the creed of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, I personally believe that the greatest of these three is fraternity—but I must confess that all three words loom very large in my personal creed.
I have devoted many years of my academic life to studying what equality means, and it is by no means a simple question. Some years ago, as a result of a series of discussions on Radio 3 I ventured to publish a book under the title Whatever Happened to Equality? A large number of people took part, including the then Lord Chancellor and many other extremely distinguished persons. The question of how one measures the present distribution of incomes, how one measures the present distribution of opportunities, and what one means by a shift to further equality is by no means clear.
If you take, for example, the statistics of income or of wealth, these are largely based on the returns held by the Inland Revenue. It is admitted that these returns are inaccurate; they exclude almost all low incomes, and they exclude many high incomes of those people who use the income tax system to avoid paying income tax and capital transfer tax. Therefore the question of what is the unit of income is a very difficult one. How does one add up a man, a wife and three children and compare their income with that of an old-age pensioner? Does one do a simple division and say that the family has an income of £10,000 a year, divide that by five which gives a result of £2,000, and say that is equal to the £2,000 which is paid to an old-age pensioner? I can assure your Lordships that this is by no means a simple question and in principle, in many cases, it is often an unanswerable question in statistical terms.
I have no doubt in my own mind that, loosely phrased, a society that is more equal is preferable to a society that is less equal. The evidence is odd. The higher the average national income of a country, the more equal appears to be the distribution of income and other opportunities. For example, the United States, is according to most normal criteria, a more equal country than the United Kingdom; the United Kingdom is a much more equal country than the Republic of Ireland; and the Republic of Ireland is a much more equal country than the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In other words, the higher the national income per head, the more equal the 1187 distribution of income appears to be. I confess that I am driven to the conclusion that the distribution of income is in some respects a function of the average level of incomes per capita in a society.
That is an interesting and important conclusion from research because it suggests that, whatever political system or measures one adopts, it is extremely difficult to alter the distribution of income or of other opportunities in society which might lead to greater, rather than to less, equality. I share the admiration of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for Mr. Frank Field, the Member for Birkenhead, for his brilliant recent book, and I am convinced that it would be a major step forward in social affairs in this country if an adequate system of child benefit were introduced. I believe that because it is extremely important to try to eliminate child and family poverty, and I should be glad to support the noble Lord, Lord Banks, in his advocacy of such policy, which has for long been advocated by the Liberal Party. I am not at all sure that on all criteria that would lead to greater equality. In other words, I think the case for child benefit is a case on behalf of children rather than a case for equality.
The evidence of attempts to achieve greater equality in this country is extremely disheartening. It must be said that the work of the Royal Commission, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, the work of Professor Atkinson of University College, and the work of Mr. Field, all of them distinguished experts in this matter, all suggests that under the Wilson and Callaghan Governments equality was not pursued and that society became if anything more, rather than less, unequal. I believe that to be an academic finding which, on the present state of knowledge, is irrefutable. I do not conclude from that that if one votes Labour one votes for inequality. I conclude from it that we really do not know how to go from here to there—how to go from our present condition to a more equal state.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, in a moving and important speech, said that education in this country was socially divisive, and I see that Mrs. Williams, a woman for whom I have great affection and for whom we in this House have enormous respect, agrees with the right reverend Prelate and has come to the conclusion that it is necessary to abolish the public schools. I had assumed when I served on the Public Schools Commission that we were set up in order to abolish the public schools, but the message soon came through that that was the last thing on earth the Cabinet wished to hear from that commission. They did not even want to see an integration of the public schools with the maintained sector.
What steps could be taken to make educational activities in this country more equal? Here, Tony Crosland's speeches and books are revealing and the evidence is quite clear. What does the great Stockholm Professor Torsten, who has for many years studied the impact of comprehensive schools in Sweden and throughout the world—he was responsible for the introduction of comprehensives in Sweden—say on this issue? He says in his latest book, which I received in November, that the education system in Sweden has become more unequal and not more equal as a result of the introduction of the comprehensive reform. 1188 The persistence of inequality in societies appears to be not amenable to simple-minded administrative or legislative acts.
What does equality mean? Does it mean equality of opportunity? That was what the right reverend Prelate rather rested his case on. Does it mean that we should all equally be able to take scholarships to Eton, Trinity or Christ Church? Does it mean that we should all have equality of treatment—that if we go to the local comprehensive or Eton the same number of pounds per year should be spent on us? That of itself is important and, as a matter of fact, it is almost true of our present structure; the cost of education in ILEA schools is as great as, if not greater than, the cost in many independent schools. However, we do not really believe that, because it costs more to educate a spastic or deaf child than an ordinary child, and it costs more to educate a gifted child than an average one if the gifted child is to be fully stretched.
Do we mean equality of outcome? It is quite clear—this has been said repeatedly by Professor Halsey, Mrs. Flood and other experts in this field—that equality of outcome would involve the family in social engineering of a really radical kind, of the kind which was tried in China under Madame Mau during the Cultural Revolution. One must handicap the children of gifted professional families if one wishes to have equality of outcome.
This is a complex and difficult question and we have only a brief time this afternoon to consider it, and I am conscious that I have reached the end of my time. I would only say that after many years of arduous and careful study of the question, I doubt very much whether in the short run there are many practical steps that could be taken which would actually lead to greater equality. I would favour particular actions because I believe them to be good in themselves, and one in particular would be an adequate child endowment scheme. But I must confess that over the years of my study, and particularly of the education system, I am defeated. I do not know what steps one would take, if one were Minister in a Government with all power to reform the education system, to make it more equal. I really and genuinely must say that on this question I have become a complete agnostic.
§ 3.48 p.m.
§ Lord Young of Dartington
My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, in thanking the right reverend Prelate for his very helpful speech. I wish at the outset to refer, as the noble Lords, Lord Vaizey and Lord Banks, did, to the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth which met under the distinguished chairmanship of my fellow Social Democrat Lord Diamond. Despite the difficulties, which Lord Vaizey mentioned, of grappling with the statistics on this subject, it marshalled so much evidence about the persisting inequality in our society that it is bound to be an important source book—certainly for our new Social Democratic Party as it develops its policy and, I hope, for other parties too—in trying to learn from the lessons of the past in devising some new policies which will prove more effective than previous policies have done in reducing the extent of inequality in our society.
From the seven-and-a-half volumes which the Royal Commission produced over the years, I stress a particu- 1189 larly important fact; namely, that the share of the total income going to the bottom 50 per cent. of incomes has hardly changed in the last quarter of a century. The share of the top 10 per cent. has fallen, yet the beneficiaries have not been the bottom 50 per cent., but rather the people between it. In my view, that is not a very remarkable or satisfactory result for what many people have at various times in the past spoke of as an age of equality.
The Royal Commission was put out of commission, abolished, very soon after the last general election by a Government who did not want to maintain a continuous independent review of this vital subject. I believe there is no doubt that had it continued in existence, and had it been reporting in an eighth or even a ninth volume today, it would have shown an even more unfavourable picture than it did when it was still in existence. In my view, and that of many other observers, the present Government have done more to reduce equity in our society from Brixton to Birkenhead than have any other Government which this country has had this century.
In 1979, in the first post-election Budget, taxes were reduced by some £4½ billion, and that was done largely to the benefit of richer people and very largely to the detriment of poorer people. What was then started has, unfortunately, continued with much nibbling away at the already meagre standards of many poorer sections of our population. Both the noble Lords, Lord Banks and Lord Vaizey, referred to the book by Frank Field, as did the noble Earl in opening the debate, and I agree with all of them that it forms a most important statement, and to some extent it has succeeded in bringing up-to-date, though not with the same degree of chapter and verse, the findings of the Royal Commission reports themselves.
Against the background of that analysis, what should be done? All those who are taking part in this short debate today know that to come to any conclusion on that question would take a much longer debate than we have time for, but we do have time to express some of our own individual opinions, and to some extent the opinions of the parties which we represent, if we do represent parties here today. If I may, as a Social Democrat I should like to state a view about one particular reform which seems to me crucial. Before mentioning it, going back to one of the great socialists to whom the noble Earl referred in his opening remarks. I should like to state what is the underlying belief which he and I and many others share in terms drawn from one of Professor Tawney's books on the acquisitive society. He said that there is no justification fora small class which wears several men's clothes, eats several men's dinners, occupies several families' houses, and lives several men's lives".Following on from that, the reform that seems to me to be required—perhaps even more than others—is in the tax and social security system, not considered separately, but taken together. The last grand simplification that this country saw was the Beveridge Plans, and I was very pleased to see in the recent biography of Lord Beveridge that tribute was paid to the noble Earl for the work that he did, when he was Frank Pakenham, in publicising the Beveridge Report in 1942. That work had a very important influence on 1190 the reception that the report received. Perhaps no report this century has had such a big effect on social policy. It aimed at bringing together a variety of social insurance schemes in order to abolish poverty, or want, as Lord Beveridge referred to it, by setting a minimum standard below which no one should be allowed to fall. We know that, at any rate in the terms in which he proposed it, that policy has not worked, or successive Governments have not allowed it to work.
The policy of incremental gradualism, which has been such a marked feature of our social policy, has produced one little addition after another to the basic structure without raising the fundamental underlying insurance benefit to a proper level, and has added a really amazing complex of different, new means-tested benefits, all of which involve what seems to me an unwarrantable interference with human liberty on a matter which is of great importance to many people. It is something that they would like to keep private to themselves, or, at any rate, from the tax people; namely, their own income, and how they spend it.
Quite apart from its other evils, the structure that we have is quite incomprehensible to any but the experts, and quite often even the experts cannot understand it. Certainly the people who are entitled to the benefits under the great panoply of schemes that exist cannot possibly be expected to understand what are their entitlements. That partly accounts for the fact that the take-up under so many of the schemes is so lamentably low. This nation is far from being a nation of scroungers; much more is it a nation of people who are baffled by the incomprehensibility of the social benefits system, which makes it impossible for many of them, or at least an adequate number of them, to claim their proper entitlements no matter how much they might wish to do so.
So, leading on from there, what I am suggesting is that in principle what is required is a general simplification of the tax and benefits system. The noble Lord, Lord Banks, said that he favoured tax credits, and the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, I think went at least some way to agreeing with him on that. Sometimes the term used is "tax credits", sometimes people talk about the negative income tax, sometimes about social dividends, and sometimes about a national minimum income. But in principle they all amount to very much the same thing.
Many Governments have toyed with the idea of a grand simplification under this kind of label and so far have failed to bring it off. One of the essential ideas is that it is ridiculous and costly and it involves too much interference with individual liberty to have a whole set of officials taking away money from citizens in the form of taxes and another whole set of officials handing it back to citizens, not necessarily the same people, but through an amazing series of complicated hoops. As I said earlier, this double system is becoming progressively more complicated and more onerous. If everyone received a guaranteed income that was taxable, then at any rate in principle we would again have the kind of simplification with which we started off in the years after 1942.
There are hundreds of difficulties, administrative and otherwise, about this, but in my submission they should not be so baffling that we cannot take a 1191 grip on them. If we do not produce a complete simplification involving all the social security benefits system and the tax allowance system, then at least we should be able to move towards that end, and towards a reform which had not only a strong egalitarian but also a strong libertarian bias to it.
The Social Democratic Party has existed for only a few weeks. The statement that it made at the time of its launch was only an outline one, but one of the sentences in the statement which was made said:The state should lean towards greater equality, but if it intervenes oppressively it will damage individual liberty and diminish the nation's wealth".I hope that the kind of reform that I have just been referring to (hardly even outlining in the time available) may commend itself to the noble Earl who opened this debate, and also to the House, as being in accord with that statement of policy from this newly-born party.
§ 4.1 p.m.
§ Lord Davies of Leek
My Lords, it has been a great opportunity to have this debate, but I wish it had been a fuller debate. I want to add my gratitude to that expressed to the right reverend Prelate, and I hope that somehow or other we may have the opportunity, as I have had over the last 10 years, of listening to his wisdom and to the contributions he wants to make in this noble House. My noble friend Lord Longford, who is now on this side of the House although he was once in the research department of the Conservative Party, dealt with these questions philosophically and unpolitically, but nevertheless they are of maximum importance to the problem which this great country is facing. I, too, was brought up on Tawney and others during my extra-mural work for many years. I am not agnostic about education, having been a rough practitioner in it in the toughest types of schools and having been plunged into a class of 80 in my first job in a church school—a school that I loved and a little church that we helped to keep going. We had 80 children in one class, and out of those we got a few scholarships to the grammar school and ultimately a couple, maybe, to the university.
But there is no need to be lugubrious. If we look at the progress (and I will use the old-fashioned expression) of the so-called working classes this last 30 or 40 years educationally here in Britain, we see that there are more ordinary students, like those who came from the setting of How Green Was My Valley, at the universities and at the technicolleges today than there ever were before, even proportionately. That must be taken into account; and much of the greatness that we saw in the last war came from such people. I could name a professor—he is dead now—who was a communist, who through his training was used by the Government, in a devastating part of his work, which led to the complete and successful invasion of Normandy. In other words, masses of people who had no privilege contributed to the victory over Nazism and over those who would curtail human liberty.
However, I still agree with Tawney; and I took the trouble to look up in the Library a quote from the epilogue that he wrote not long before he died, when 1192 he said that one of "the two most massive pillars of indefensible disparities" was the educational system. He said:The inequalities of educational opportunity are mischievous and a menace to the future of Britain. It is to poison their soul—it is to smite the child with the blight of inferiority".There is nothing in the world worse than pushing into the minds of the underprivileged a sense of inferiority—and thank goodness I have not got it! But we had to fight not to get it; that is the point. I do not mean arrogance or hubris. I mean, those of us who did not have the privilege knew that we could get to the light only by work.
Now the principle of equality, commonly stated, is in a conditional form. In public matters we believe that people should be treated roughly identically, in justice and with law. Nevertheless, one of the great inequalities is in the poor man getting justice in the courts today, because ultimately he cannot afford it. Our legal aid system has not been the success that we would have liked it to be; that is another avenue. In this country, thank goodness!, the right to listen exists—and I want it to exist more—in regard to the radio and television. I know there are some sins of omission in television, but, my word! it has made a great contribution to the uplift of ordinary people—a series of Shakespeare; a series of music; music that it would cost £7 a ticket to listen to at the opera or in a theatre put before millions nightly to watch. Some of the greatest films and some of the greatest events in our music and in our industry have been seen in the ordinary working-class homes as well as in the so-called middle-class and (if you like to use these horrible terms) upper-class homes every night of the week, somewhere, sometime, for all of us.
There, there is equality of opportunity, and that is one thing that has come with the technological revolution. So when we are spiking down what we are after, we are spiking down more than money—much more than money. We wanted the opportunity. My grandmother used to say, "Oh Lord, I do not ask for money—tell me where it is, and I will do the rest myself". It was an old Welsh prayer; a little wicked one, I think, but nevertheless I understood what the old lady was driving at. Therefore, I do not want to press for equality of incomes so much. The spreading and the increase of the money factor, yes; but we want to keep people above the sustenance level. We want people to have the opportunities.
What is more, we must take into account the fact that holiday brochures at the moment are absolutely loaded with applications intended for ordinary people who have been working hard all the year round to go to Spain, to go to France and, now, to go to Miami, if they are not afraid of being mugged. It is quite true, and the House has forgotten these factors. Ordinary people are moving around the world as never before. Most of my family moved around because they were in the South Wales Borderers, and were pushed around serving overseas, or somewhere or the other. Now, thank goodness! people are reaching a sense of dignity and have less inferiority than they ever had before because of this.
Let us take something else. I do not want to make a political point, but with the 1945 Government the uplift of our people was one of the finest things that we 1193 did. Because we are in an economic jam, I do not want us now to brutalise the opportunities of children by cutting to the bone educational opportunities. If we do, it will be all the worse for Britain. I remember, in 1941, the famous statement of the four freedoms:We are searching for freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear".I wrote a booklet at the time, and I consider that as important as freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear there is a fifth freedom—the all-embracing freedom for under-privileged people: freedom from contempt. That is what we must be struggling for. We can get that only by lifting up the dignity of people, and that can only come from abolishing mischievous cuts in education, and in giving educational opportunity at the roots.
The right reverend Prelate goes back to Dickensian days. You cannot have an educated child if his house is a slum. I know the military people will go for me a bit here, but I think it would be for the greater security of Britain to take some of that £5,000 billion spent on defence and say that, come what may, in the next five years we are going to have a housing programme the like of which Britain has never seen before. If some party had the courage to go to the country and say, "We are not making any vast promises, but we are going to try to wipe out the indignity of homelessness in Britain", I guarantee that it would be one of the greatest blessings that there could be towards building up equality of opportunity in Britain.
Therefore, my first step to this greater equality is freedom from contempt. I remember my noble friend Lord Longford working with Beveridge on those famous giants, the giant of want, the giant of disease, the giant of squalor, the giant of ignorance and the giant of idleness. Those are the giants behind the discontent in our society today. They are still there and they increase with unemployment. But the evils of unemployment can be partially nullified if the mind is developed. There are those of us who are lucky enough to live in nice houses and to understand lovely music, beautiful pictures and homes that are lovely. Many would consider more desirable than Bernard Shaw's arid phrase "equality of income" the ability and opportunity to appreciate the wonderful inheritence of human beings in art, music and poetry. Those are the things which give equality of opportunity.
I remember the gloomy dean, Dean Inge. I apologive to the right reverend Prelate, but he knows, or knew, Dean Inge. He was an arid old curmudgeon. One of his statements was, "It is time to stop educating the children of the poor". Yes, he really said that. I cannot understand this attitude because, to pay a tribute to the Church, the Church schools in Britain were in existence before the 1870 Education Act. I am glad the Church does not take the opportunity to follow the gloomy dean today. I hope that they will keep their schools going. The other thing is that when people are most happy they are most gullible. In the period 1808 to 1812 there were some who were giving free meals to children. The Times said of this:There is a section of the School Board for London which aims at saddling upon the ratepayers the responsibility for feeding the children sent to school without proper meals; a policy which we have contended from the first will inevitably tempt a large class of parents to starve or half starve their boys 1194 and girls in order to escape the burden to which they are legally subject and one which they are well able to bear".I will finish with a statement made by Catherine Booth, that great woman, in July 1881. In the War Cry she wrote:Oh how I see the emptiness and vanity of everything compared with the salvation of the soul! What does it matter if a man dies in the workhouse? If he dies on the doorstep covered with wounds like Lazarus—what does it matter—if his soul is saved?And there is a double meaning there. I will leave it at that. I am glad that the Church did not take that attitude. In the end, Governments and the Church itself—and, as I know, in South Wales the Methodist Church—did a lot for the uplifting of the opportunities of our people.
I pay tribute to the women of Britain, who work so hard and are underprivileged. My great-grandmother had these words on her tombstone:Here lies a woman who was never tired"—The noble Lord is watching the clock. I ought not to be stopped in the middle of a poem.
§ Lord Denham
My Lords, I hate to interrupt the noble Lord, but this is a timed debate and every extra minute that he speaks he takes from other Lords.
§ Lord Davies of Leek
My Lords, the noble Lord has added a minute to my speech, for by now I should be sitting down. But out of courtesy to the noble Lord the Chief Whip I shall not recite the rest of the little poem.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord Harris of High Cross
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for casting his Motion in conveniently wide terms. I have enjoyed and, I hope, profited from all the speeches, including the poignant speech of the right reverend Prelate, but I want to follow rather a different line of argument. I do not know the noble Earl personally enough to judge whether his amiable qualities include absentmindedness but I have a special reason for hoping that he forgets to withdraw his Motion for Papers at the end of this debate. I have been wondering what Papers we could recommend to the noble Earl to advance his education—not more Blue Books, not more Fabian tracts or official reports of which he may have swallowed too many. What other Papers would cheer the noble Earl and help to persuade him that his plea for greater equality has already gone a long way towards being fulfilled in our lifetime by the remarkable operation of private enterprise in competitive markets? My choice of Papers to put this debate into perspective would be the social commentaries embodied in the bound volumes not of Hansard but of such journals as Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping, Women's Weekly—which, I see, goes back to 1911—and all those contemporary magazines on holidays, motoring, eating out, foreign travel and other growing national pastimes.
Who now remembers the working-class world in which at least some of us were brought up? Who remembers the world of fly-papers, of gas coppers, of black-leaded grates, of mangles, meat safes, boiled milk in the summer and acres of lino—or, should I 1195 say, linoleum? Such domestic horrors have now been banished by aerosols, detergents, washing-machines, heaters of all kinds, fitted kitchens, refrigerators, deep freezes and wall-to-wall carpeting. Noble Lords can dwell on sad exceptions, but the lives of most ordinary people have been transformed in two generations. I am arguing—and I think it a fair point from the Cross-Benches—that none of this practical progress owes very much at all to politicians and Governments. The larger part of Government social spending consists in taking money from the majority of people and returning it to much the same people in cash and kind—minus heavy freight charges in both directions. While the forebears of many noble Lords here were calling for the "elevation of the masses" the practical process of improvement was being advanced by businessmen, galvanised by unequal incentives in the market, to find better ways of serving their consumers, and, at the same time, offering more rewarding employment. The whole history of liberal capitalism is one of extending the luxuries of a privileged minority ever wider to become the everyday conveniences, even necessities, of growing majorities. The tragedy, in my view, of the last 100 years is that the market worked so well that we took it for granted and began to make its operation more difficult.
It has been well said that in confronting social policy we should be inspired by love but guided by reason. My reasoning tells me that many noble intentions aired in debates such as this are likely to finish up doing more harm than good. Our concern should not be with the distracting and destructive phantom of equality. It should be with a realistic discussion of how we can revive our economy so as to afford a more humane minimum standard for those who cannot maintain themselves in the market. We would all agree—there would be no disagreement—that no one should be allowed to fall below what we judge to be an acceptable poverty level. But I want to ask why today's conception of a minimum standard is so much above what I will call the skimmed-milk standard that was applied by Booth and Rowntree in theie poverty surveys 100 years ago? The improvement owes far less to the secondhand generosity of politicians doling out other people's money than to the application of capital and labour in multiplying marketable output.
It is clear that greater equality has a powerful, emotional and even aesthetic appeal and effect on its advocates. But its danger lies in the conflict with the indispensable requirement of incentive for a free and an efficient society. My argument in a nutshell is that the disincentive cost of the British Welfare State has now become the major obstacle to the spreading of prosperity through the more effective operation of vigorous competitive enterprise. I agree with the tendency of much of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Young of Dartington. I express them in this way: our mistake in social policy has been that instead of concentrating help selectively on those in need—for example, as he said, by a reverse income tax—British policy has indulged the essentially collectivist folly of universal free services and benefits which are both inefficient to the recipient and inordinately expensive to the taxpayer as provider. That is why we now have at the same time excessive taxation going 1196 hand in hand with inadequate help for some categories of special need.
The cost and burden of indiscriminate benefits is damaging in a host of ways. I shall mention briefly four. In the first place, high taxes necessarily inflate labour costs; at the same time, they deflate the incentives to effort and enterprise. Secondly, the availability of universal services puts a premium on sloth and safety-first. Thirdly, the spreading burden of taxes down the income scale impoverishes millions of families who thereby become dependent upon multiplying state subsidies; and finally—for the moment—the narrowing or non-existent gap between taxed income from work and untaxed social benefits must increase voluntary unemployment and so reduce real output.
Sceptics will find much more interesting evidence than provided in the Diamond Report in a recent compilation by Ralph Howell, the Norfolk MP, entitled Why work? Why indeed, when taxation on a family—a man, wife and two children—starts at a wage of £41 a week compared with tax-free supplementary benefits on offer at £66 a week? Why work indeed when the head of that family would need to earn £115 a week to be better off than collecting unemployment benefit plus tax refunds? Why work indeed when the same breadwinner in a family of four earning £105 a week comes out of the tax-benefit mangle £11 better off than if he earned only £35 a week? Greater equality? My Lords, no—not unless we want, in Churchill's phrase:
Equal sharing of miseriesrather thanunequal sharing of blessings".I conclude that, instead of sliding with the noble Earl down the slippery slope of equality, we should urgently seek to reduce the half of the national income now spent by Government, to cut taxes and to widen differences of income both from work and investment. We should in my view pursue a deliberate policy of differential incentives in the long-run interests, not least, of the poor and the handicapped. If we really want to encourage employment and to enliven our economy, we need above all to free this economy from decades of self-inflicted political mutilation.
§ 4.25 p.m.
§ Viscount Massereene and Ferrard
My Lords, I agree with almost everything the noble Lord has said. I do not suppose that your Lordships are surprised at that. When the noble Earl put down this Motion, I thought he was joking to start with; but I understand that he is serious now. We are the most unrestricted democracy in the world and we have more equality in this country than any other country in the world. I am not arguing with that. It is on the whole a good thing.
What has surprised me in this debate is that there has been hardly any mention of biology. The right reverend Prelate skirted around it. I presume that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, is a product of nature; he did not appear here by parachute from some heavenly being. Therefore, he must abide by the laws of nature. I would remind him that man is governed by nature's laws and not the laws of political idealists. Nature's first law is its infinite variety. If you take a microscope, as I have done often, and look at a handful of grass 1197 out of any field, you will see that not one blade is the same as another. You get your giant trees of the forest; you get your scrawny shrubs beneath them; you get your master stag and your king wolf. You can go throughout the whole of nature and the main thing that you find is the great variety and great inequality.
The higher the species in nature—and I suppose man is the highest—the greater the variety you get, the greater the difference among members of the same species. That is a biological fact. I have often quoted here the 18th century philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau. They said that all men were born equally wise and virtuous, and all men were born free and equal. Regarding "equally wise and virtuous", I do not think history has borne that out. The philosopher said that it was only tyrannical government that made men not virtuous. However, history has not borne that out.
One is not born free, either. One is either born into a tribe or a community. We have to abide by the laws of that society. If we want to be free we have to take to the jungle and fend for ourselves. Then we would probably end up inside some animal. One is not horn equal, either. One is only equal when dead. One is equal then, I agree, so I think that will please the noble Earl. I am all for equality if it can be attained practically, but one has to remember that the great difficulty of economic equality is that no economic equality can survive the workings of biological inequality.
It is a fact of life that there are many who wish to have complete financial equality and the rewards of success without the responsibility, the work and the inconvenience that entails. Many people in fact wish to have their cake but they also want to eat it. But if you wish for equality you must be prepared to undertake the responsibility and the work. As I say, you cannot have equality with those who are more talented than yourself if you are not prepared to undertake the obligations that that entails, and many people are not prepared or fitted to do that.
Of course, it is easy to level down economically through excessive taxation, and to a great extent we have done that in this country, but it has a great danger because eventually it will drive out the country's brains and so dishearten others that they will not attempt to create wealth; and this will impoverish the people. There is a great danger in that because when we get down to real economic equality we shall get the triumph of ruthless men—men of force—who will rise up and enslave the people. And of course history has a nasty habit of repeating itself.
I quite agree that it is very important for every human being, as far as practicable, to have equal opportunity. We have tried to engineer that in our country by our education system. We have had free education in this country for at least 90 per cent. of the population and probably more; but here again you are up against biology because not all the pupils will come from the same background. Some will have been brought up in the country and others will have been brought up in industrial areas. Some teachers will be good and others will be bad. You may have the same school curriculum and exams, but you cannot make all your teachers the same. One noble Lord was saying earlier that if public schools could be incorporated into the state system that would 1198 be good. That would be all right if we had enough teachers who were up to the required standard, but I can see no practical way of achieving it.
However, we must be thankful that in this country every man is equal before the law. Of course, we get some bad verdicts from juries, but here again the biological problem enters into it and we cannot get rid of that biological problem. There are plenty of examples of men who have had very little opportunity in life yet have risen to great power and great wealth; so we cannot put too much weight on the education system. I think the biological influence is really most important.
May I say, regarding equality, that there are many instances where we could have more equality. For instance, why should a man who is earning £12,000 or £14,000 a year have a council house? There are plenty of instances of such cases where people are being supported by far poorer members of the community who are paying rates to subsidise that council house. We have many instances like that. For instance, why should workers in the nationalised industries, which on the whole are loss-making industries, have got higher pay rises—20 per cent. generally speaking—than workers in the private or wealth-producing industries, who this year on average have only had about 7 per cent.? That is a question of extremely unfair inequality and there are various inequalities like that which I should like to see altered.
My Lords, I have had my 10 minutes now but would just like to say that—
§ Lord Sandys
My Lords, I think my noble friend has reached the end of his speech and he should sit down.
§ Viscount Massereene and Ferrard
Yes, my Lords. I should just like to say that if we could get a really egalitarian society I can imagine nothing more dreary or boring and it would completely kill culture and the advancement of the nation.
§ 4.36 p.m.
§ Baroness Stewart of Alvechurch
My Lords, I should like first to thank my noble friend for giving us the opportunity of debating this subject, which I regard as a highly important one. Clearly there is a growing need for greater sex equality in the United Kingdom than is available today. Although the Equal Opportunities Commission, established in 1975, is an important body in itself, it has achieved little to date and one need only consider the composition of the other place and of the Cabinet in order to realise the high degree of sex inequality which predominates in this country. Apart from the Prime Minister, all the remaining 22 Members of the Cabinet are male, all but one of the 29 senior Ministers who are not in the Cabinet are male and all but one of the 51 junior Ministers are male. Since the total num[...]er of women MPs is only 19, one cannot expect to have a greater number in the Government as Conservatives.
If one hopes, as I do, that in years to come there will be sex equality in the political arena and that there will be approximately the same number of women as men among our MPs, clearly changes must be made in the hours of work of MPs and in parliamentary and 1199 constituency procedures. Once sex equality is accepted in the parliamentary sphere I do not think that this will be difficult to establish.
Today, sex equality in the political arena is due largely to the belief that married women cannot undertake both the responsibilities of family life and those of a Member of Parliament without neglecting one or other of these spheres. This is not an insoluble problem and if today we gave more thought to parliamentary procedure and the hours of work of MPs and their problems relating to travel, I have little doubt that both men and women could undertake the responsibilities of Members of Parliament without damage to their home lives and their children.
Once sex equality is established in the political arena, I think it will spread to many other fields of occupation now primarily occupied by men. These may include builders, decorators and bus drivers as well as poets and university professors. I would like, in conclusion, again to thank my noble friend for giving us this opportunity to discuss this matter and I hope it will be discussed in the near future by this House and the other place.
§ 4.40 p.m.
My Lords, at this stage of the debate, I do not think anyone wants to hear anything except the three winding-up speakers, particularly the noble Earl, Lord Longford, so I should like to confine myself to three points only. First, I should like to thank the noble Earl for introducing this debate, which is a particularly suitable one to introduce in this House which, I believe, is called the House of Peers. I know that that, to many people, has an unpleasant connotation. It means house of equals. All Peers are not equally equal, but I cannot think of one who is more equally equal than the noble Earl, Lord Longford.
With great respect, if he will not mind my saying so, I should like to compare him to Saint Paul, who had an answer to everything. If you say "You know nothing about Protestantism, because you are a Catholic" he can say, "I was born into a Protestant family". If you say "You know nothing about prisons, because you have never been in them", he can say "I have been in them for years more than you". If you say, "You know nothing about practical politics, because you have never been on a Front Bench", he can say, "I have been on the Government Front Bench in this House as Leader". You can go on in that way on almost every subject. He is somebody who is worth listening to. He could even boast, although he cannot speak as rapidly as the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, that he can speak second best to him. He cannot possibly diverge as widely into theology and biology as the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, has done, but he can make a good effort at it. I think he has raised an extraordinarily interesting debate and I have listened to most of the speeches.
Secondly, in case I am accused of being a party politician, I should like to say that I do not always agree with every single word that is said by the Liberal Front Bench spokesman. In general, I agree with my noble friend Lord Banks and on this occasion I agreed 1200 with everything he said. I would also agree with what a lot of noble Lords, including the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, have suggested, that this is not a question of equality, like equal triangles or, still less, like congruent triangles. No one has suggested that everyone in this House is as beautiful as any other, as verbal as any other or as experienced as any other. What has been suggested is that every Peer in this House has a right to speak for a limited time. I see that I now have two minutes left and I do not want to go beyond that. I just want to say why I am speaking at all; except that I want to wish all the best to the right reverend Prelate sitting there. The only time one turns one back on Bishops is when one is saying one's prayers. They do not seem to mind that. But we are the goats and they are the sheep.
To get back to the question, it is a matter of equality of rights. Some noble Lords have been a little optimistic in saying that we all have equal rights and equal opportunities in this country. It is perfectly true that we have more in this country than in many, but I should like to mention one class of persons—if one can call them that—as we had a debate about children the other day. I think that the noble Lord who introduced that debate would have some sympathy with me here, and would agree that it is not a subject to be discussed at this moment.
We had a debate about children in which the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, made an excellent speech, and said that we had to impose a limit. On the whole, children are people under 16. You could not call Abraham, who was one of the Children of Israel, a child, and Jacob's sons went on into old age. There is a maximum limit of 16. Is there a minimum limit? Almost everybody, including the right reverend Prelate, said that we all have a right from birth onwards. The point that I should like to make is that there are certain rights for unborn children, but only for a very limited time. There have been three efforts in another place to introduce a Bill saying that the date should be earlier, and that these children should have a certain right not to be killed off indiscriminately. I believe that such a Bill would get a large measure of support in this country; the idea is getting support in other places in the world.
If anyone suggests that a child before birth is not a person, then I should like to know what is the definition of a "person". If it is, in the ordinary legal phrase, the physical body of a human being, there is no doubt that the foetus in the womb is a physical body; otherwise, it could not be killed. There is no doubt that if it is a human being it cannot turn into anything else. I shall not go into that subject, but I can see no possible reason for denying one right which seems to be more fundamental than the right to good education or the right to anything else; that is, the right to the opportunity to be allowed to live. We talk about handicapped children, but the worst handicap would be to be handicapped out of the race altogether, before you had a chance. I throw that out as one of the ideas on which there is inequality with regard to a certain class; and that minority is, in fact, a 100 per cent. majority, because we have all been children at one time. At the risk of boring people, it is worth raising that subject from time to time. I apologise for taking more than five minutes.
§ 4.46 p.m.
§ Lord Stewart of Fulham
My Lords, I think everyone will agree that this has been a debate of great interest and we are greatly indebted to my noble friend Lord Longford for introducing it. The kind of subjects which legislatures have to discuss today are, as a rule, so full of detail and technicality that we often find we do not have time to look back and ask what kind of society are we creating; in what directions ought we to be moving? It is particularly valuable, therefore, to have a debate of this sort, and it is this House rather than the other which has the time to do that kind of thing. As was wittily said, this is, indeed, a House of Peers so let nobody be jocular at the expense of the idea of the Lords debating equality.
It seems to be agreed throughout that there ought to be in existence equality of opportunity, and agreed throughout that there ought to be equality of rights and equality before the law. But what we are urging from these Benches and what I would say, with respect, some noble Lords have not given sufficient weight to, is that if you have more than a certain degree of inequality of income you will suffer both in equality of opportunity and in equality of rights before the law. It is one thing to set up a legal aid service, but unless you put sufficient resources into it, it will still not give very much help to really poor people who are in danger of losing their legal rights. Practically every right you create must have some material resources put behind it, if there is to be anything like equality of enjoyment of those rights.
Early in the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Banks, rightly stressed equality of opportunity and I was very glad that he went on to make the point that equality of opportunity, by itself, is not enough. Excessive inequality of income can damage equality of opportunity. Take, for example, my Lords, the question of housing, which was very eloquently referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, whose departure from here we are all greatly regretting. He pointed out what a fearful handicap from birth it can be for a child to be inadequately housed. However good the education system is, that child will suffer unless the housing is reasonably adequate. Unless, therefore, you provide a limit to the amount of inequality between how the most fortunate are housed and how the least fortunate are housed, you are not providing equality of opportunity. I have given the other example of the legal aid service. Unless you pump more funds into that than are being pumped in at the moment, you will not get equality of rights before the law between the richest and the poorest. One of the objections to inequality of income is that it fights against that equality of opportunity and equality of rights upon which presumably we are all agreed.
Another evil of great inequality of income is this. Noble Lords should notice that I say "great inequality". Nobody is pretending that we want all incomes to be mathematically equal. But what I think undoubtedly is true is that the range of inequality today is far too high. If you look for any rationale behind why one person is richer than another it is often very hard to find. Great inequality is bound to create a divided and an unhappy society. It is possible today for a man to work all his working life, some 50 years, at a 1202 socially valuable service. He can be a postman or a railwayman and work for 50 years. In all that lifetime he will not earn as much money as can be made in a single day in a property deal which will add nothing whatever to the total wealth of the community. That is the kind of inequality we are talking about.
I believe, by the way, that one of the answers to the question put to us by the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey: why do we strive so hard to create greater equality but apparently do not get there? is the underlying influence of the ownership of property, in particular landed property. To my mind it is remarkable, particularly if one studies Lord Diamond's report, that the growth in inequality has not been much greater. All the work which has been done to promote greater equality has had a small result, but if it had not been done the inequalities would be very much more flagrant even than they are today. That is the effect, importance and justification of the increase in social services which we have noticed during this century, and in some cases a little earlier.
In that situation, it is no good preaching to people who earn their living, whether by hand or brain, the duty of restraint regarding the public interest. They live in a society which does not pretend to distribute wealth on principles of justice and public interest. It distributes it according to what the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, called "biological reasons". Quite what kind of biological reason causes a journalist working on the late magazine Now! to be paid £15,000 a year, a postman to be paid a very much lower wage and the Beatles to get the large sized incomes that they do, I am not sure.
§ Viscount Massereene and Ferrard
My Lords, the journalist working on the magazine Now! is paid more because, presumably, he is giving a service that few people can give. If you put a postman to work on the magazine Now! he would be unable to write articles in the same way as a journalist can. It is a question of supply and demand.
§ Lord Stewart of Fulham
My Lords, if postmen had been supplied, the magazine might be still in existence. One cannot be at all sure that there is anything just or sensible about it. In a society where there are gross inequalities, many of which (I do not say all of them) are totally unjustifiable upon any rational principle, it is no good trying to persuade people who work for their living to accept restraint and to have regard for the public interest. We live in a society in which people want to get more. That perhaps is a common and an unavoidable human weakness. But one result of our positive worship of inequality is that people not only want to have more for their own enjoyment but regard it as a virtue in itself to have more than the other fellow: the evil which the Greeks called pleiomexia, the itch for having some more. It is that which over the years has made incomes policies fail. Some people conclude from that that one ought not even to try.
When a Government say that they are not going to try to have an incomes policy, we all know what it means. It means that they will let people in private industry get as much as their muscle will obtain for them and that they will solve the problem by bashing 1203 the public servants. That kind of injustice is bound to follow in a society where people will not respond to the idea of making an incomes policy work. And they will not respond because the whole ethos of that society urges them to believe that it is a good thing to try to get more than somebody else, never mind whether you deserve it, never mind whether the public interest justifies it, never mind whether you create so much inflation that in the end you will find it is not worth it.
The evil of inequality is that it breeds on itself. It encourages people to regard inequality as something to be praised on its own account. Against this, some urge that there are such drawbacks to the idea of greater equality that we must just put up with inequality, whatever its evils. This case was argued by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of High Cross, who spoke to us about incentives. We must accept that one justification for some measure of inequality is incentive: to get people to put up better efforts, to train themselves for more skilled, more responsible work. This would be reasonable enough if, first, the degree of inequality were not intolerably great and, secondly, if there were a real relationship between how much you get and what your contribution to society is. But the plain fact today is that the largest incomes are not made by work. The largest incomes are made by the ownership or manipulation of property.
I believe that one of the things we ought to do if we are to remedy this evil is to see that a greater amount of land in this country is brought into public ownership. Three times Labour Governments have endeavoured to see that people should not make large, unearned fortunes out of land. Three times Conservative Governments have frustrated those attempts. The spectacle of people making large, unearned incomes goes on. It is no good, therefore, saying that inequality of this sort can be justified as an incentive to greater work. Inequality within moderate limits and inequality definitely related to function does make sense. What we have at present does not. It is not only, as my noble friend Lord Longford argued eloquently, immoral and repulsive to our senses. It is something which is actually injurious to society.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris of High Cross, rejoicing in our liberation from flypaper, linoleum and various other horrors of the past, ascribed all this to the virtues of private enterprise. It was plain enough towards the end of the last century when capitalism was really getting into its stride, that by itself it was quite incapable either of housing most people decently, or of providing education adequate to the needs of the society in which they were living, or of looking after their health properly. Those things had to be done by public action—that is, by mitigating the inequalities which society had suffered.
I say, therefore, that our rules for the distribution of wealth ought to be these. Let us regard equality in itself as something to work for and let us accept such inequality as is necessary—in deference to the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, necessary for biological reasons. But this means that it must be moderate in amount and closely related to function: that if A is richer than B, you ought to be able to show, first, that he is not so much richer that he lives a life so wide apart from B that they can never 1204 understand each other and, secondly, that there is some solid public reason why A should be richer than B—that his advantage is not only an advantage to him but an advantage to the public.
How can we get nearer to that goal? Partly, I think, by dealing with the laws relating to inheritance and the transfer of wealth by gift. Capital transfer tax was introduced because death duties were so often avoided. I accept, as did my noble friend Lord Longford, that it is desirable that people should be able to pass on something to their heirs, but once again there should be moderation and proportion. For a man to be born into the situation where he inherits wealth to the extent that he need not (if he does not want to) do any work for the rest of his life is neither good for him nor justifiable to society. Therefore, I think we need to strike more at the passing of great fortunes in that way. As I said earlier, we want to extend the public ownership of land and reduce the opportunities for private persons to enrich themselves in ways that do not enrich society as a whole. There are other inequalities. My noble kinswoman Lady Stewart of Alvechurch drew attention to the inequalities from which women still suffer. In particular I think we need to get rid of the prejudice against the entry of women to certain employments, because it is that more than anything else which keeps women's wages down today.
I will suggest, perhaps lightheartedly, one very simple reform which we could introduce quite speedily: let it be a rule that titles descend to the eldest child, irrespective of sex. In a generation the composition of this House would be quite considerably altered and we should then have struck a blow for equality. In general, what we are trying to create is a kind of society with a different set of values, in which, while we recognise that there will be inequalities and there will be difficulties, we do not regard the mere acquisition of wealth—and particularly more wealth than somebody else—as a benefit in itself. We can encourage people to look at the other incentives to work: the interests of public service, which for many people are almost as powerful. As R. H. Tawney, who has so often been quoted, put it:To have useful and interesting work to do and enough money and leisure to be able to do it properly is as much happiness as is good for the sons of Adam".
§ 5.2 p.m.
§ Baroness Young
My Lords, I must begin by thanking the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for introducing this debate; but before going on to answer his argument I should like to pay my tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, who made a most moving and wise speech and gave us all a great deal to think about. I know that I speak for all my noble friends in thanking him for his many important contributions in your Lordships' House and in saying that we wish him well in all that he does.
We have had a great many thoughtful speeches this afternoon and I should like to begin by stating two propositions on which I hope we might all agree. The first is that it should be the aim of the Government to ensure that vulnerable groups in our society, such as pensioners, the disabled, and the chronically sick, share in any general rise in living standards. I think it is fair to say that this has happened over the years. 1205 Between 1948 and 1980 the real value of supplementary benefit, the minimum income laid down by Parliament, has doubled. It is also true that since the war there have been similar improvements in real terms in all the main social security benefits and in addition, particularly under the last Conservative Government, a number of new benefits were introduced for groups like the disabled with the attendance allowance, pensions for the over 80s and certain widows who previously had no pension at all. The present child benefit scheme which combines the previous separate arrangements for family allowances and child tax allowances has brought about a considerable improvement in the provision for families, particularly at the lower end of the income scale, and we have given special help to one-parent families. Recent statistics have shown that in 1979, a typical family in the bottom 20 per cent. of the income distribution recovered benefits in cash or kind which increased their pre-tax income by 70 per cent.
I recognise that there are still blackspots of poverty and squalor in Britain today. Nevertheless, I hope that there will be agreement that the cause of these blackspots is often not necessarily because there is a shortage of money. For example, we all know the difficulties which many families have experienced through living in tower blocks. We all know that the problem of living a decent life in certain housing estates is not so much concerned with a standard of housing, which is often good, but with vandalism and crime, particularly burglaries and the breaking of windows, which makes life difficult for those trying to maintain good standards. This is particularly true in the case of the elderly.
The second point on which I hope there will be general agreement is that there is a need for an enlargement of opportunity, particularly for young people, both black and white, in our remaining blackspots of poverty. Here I listened with great interest to what the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of London, said, but I would say to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who wishes to call this the need for more equality of opportunity that I would not quarrel with him, provided that he is thinking in terms of levelling up rather than levelling down. However, I would emphasise that his Motion refers to the need for more equality, which is different from equality of opportunity, for it has frequently been said that the purpose of equality of opportunity is to enable people subsequently to become more unequal.
The call for more equality would be more understandable if the wealth of our country was indeed in the hands of a very small minority with the great majority of the population in real poverty—in other words, a minority of very wealthy people, the remainder of the population being very poor. But this is not the case. If we look at the distribution of income in 1972 as set out in the Royal Commission Report, incomes after tax were divided up roughly as follows: at the upper end of the scale, the top 1 per cent. of earners received 4 per cent. of income after tax; the top 10 per cent. received 24 per cent., and the bottom 10 per cent. approximately 3 per cent. of total income. These are not dramatic differences by the standards of other Western economies, nor I suspect, of many countries behind the Iron Curtain.
Turning now to the distribution of capital assets, 1206 there is of course the claim that 10 per cent. of the population own between 80 and 90 per cent. of all capital assets. But this calculation ignores pension rights, including state pensions. If pension rights are included we find that the top 10 per cent., own less than 45 per cent. of capital assets, which is a very different matter. Even this calculation is open to error because wealth is normally distributed unevenly between husbands and wives, old and young. When these distortions are allowed for, even the figure of 45 per cent. could well turn out to be an overestimate.
The truth is that over the years in Britain the very rich have tended to get relatively poorer, but both the poor or the relatively poor and those particularly in the middle ground of incomes have got richer—and more people have moved into the middle ground of incomes; and I, for one, welcome the changes which have occurred.
It must be appreciated that those who today are often described as poor because they are at the lower end of the income scale, would certainly not have been regarded as living in poverty, say, 40 or 50 years ago—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of High Cross. Thus, while one can have some sympathy with Professor Townsend's concept that poverty should be considered in terms of relative deprivation, I would not go all the way with him in saying, as he said in his recent book, that anyone is poor who cannot:participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary or at least widely encouraged or approved, in the societies to which they belong"—It seems to me that this would mean that even if standards of living of everyone in the country, including those at the bottom of the incomes scale, were doubled or even trebled, the professor would still be making precisely the same criticism as he is today. The fact is that the concept of equality is in many respects a delusion. I believe, as a Christian, in equality before God, and I believe, as a citizen, in equality before the law. But today anyone who has attempted to define equality has run into difficulties.
I am sure we all listened with great interest to my noble friend Lord Vaizey's most thoughtful speech and the difficulties that he has found, as an economist, in defining equality. I listened to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Young of Dartington, who called, among other things, for a simplification of the benefits system. But I think even he will accept that over the last years the social security system has been substantially reviewed. The contributions system has been remodelled, new earnings-related pensions introduced, child benefit introduced for all, non-contributory benefits have been introduced for the disabled and the supplementary benefits system has been reformed. We have made a significant start on simplifying the supplementary benefits system as we have spelled out claimants' entitlement by making the rules public in regulations approved by Parliament. But it is not an easy matter, as the noble Lord will know, once one begins to look at it.
The fact is that any attempt to impose an egalitarian society would in practice mean an ever-widening gap between the growing bureaucracy and the rest of the population, for the assumption underlying this demand is that people should be protected against making wrong decisions by having the state decide things for 1207 them. The fact that people make mistakes is something which must be accepted in a free society. Nor should it be supposed that there is some sort of ruling élite who would be better equipped to make decisions than the people themselves. Of course there is not; and even if there were, it would itself negate the concept of an égalitarian society because, put another way, some would undoubtedly be more equal than others.
The advocates of equality rely to a large extent on the fallacy that the profit motive is immoral because it appeals to the worst instincts of human nature, such as greed. But I believe this is a distortion of the facts, because one of the main incentives to work and to thrift is the desire to improve the living conditions of one's family—surely not an ignoble aim, and surely one central to the philosophy of both the noble Earl and myself; that is, support for the family. We should therefore accept the need for the profit motive, bearing in mind the words of Archbishop Temple when he declared that:The art of government in fact is the art of so ordering life that self-interest prompts what justice demands".Noble Lords may, of course, say that this Motion does not call for a completely égalitarian society but only for more equality, and I accept that. But if the noble Earl is dissatisfied with the present pattern of income and wealth and is calling for greater equality, he must have in mind some specific pattern of distribution which he would seek to impose in some way in place of the present arrangements. What then is the pattern of distribution which he would seek to impose on us, and how would he impose it? He referred to the book entitled Inequality in Britain, by Frank Field, the honourable Member in another place. May I say that he is someone who I view as a man of great integrity. As the House will know, he has over the years been just as critical, if not more critical, of social reform records of Labour Governments as of Conservative Governments. I have read his book with great interest. He has made the way to achieve more equality in a no-growth economy; he believes in a major redistribution of resources and a complete reassessment not only of the traditional welfare state but also of four other welfare states, which he has identified as those provided by tax benefits, by companies, by private markets and by unearned incomes. He sees poverty in relation to the wealth of the community, like Professor Peter Townsend; he sees it as relative rather than absolute.
But, my Lords, interesting as his book is, I think there are two criticisms. Even if this massive redistribution of wealth were possible, he has made no allowance at all for any alteration in the behaviour of people as a consequence of this transfer of wealth. Let me give just one illustration of this. He proposes to extend capital gains tax to owner-occupiers selling their houses. This would inevitably affect the housing market. It would certainly affect the price of houses. Many couples want to sell their house, once their children are grown up, and move to a smaller house. Yet it would be most unattractive to sell under those circumstances. The population would become less mobile, with all the attendant disadvantages to young couples. And if tax relief on mortgages was confined to those paying the basic rate it would mean that fewer 1208 people would move to more expensive houses. The fact is that to introduce this massive redistribution one must take account of the effect this would have on decisions by a number of people. And the same argument, if I may say so, seems to me to apply to the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Stewart, on the various land taxes that have been introduced, which have not had precisely the effects which their movers intended.
My Lords, this Government want to see a continuation of the social progress that has been made over the past 30 or 40 years. We believe in, and I would particularly like to comment on, the importance of child benefit, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Banks, and we are very glad that we have been able to give a commitment to uprate it each year to maintain its real value. Indeed, it is being increased by 10½ per cent. next November. But we accept that the first essential is to conquer inflation, and there is no easy or painless way of doing this. We still have a long way to go before we achieve the goal of a property-owning democracy first put forward by Sir Anthony Eden in 1950. A great deal of progress has been made. Now there are 56 home-owning families out of every 100, as compared with 30 families in 1950. We must also go on to see a considerable extension of individual share ownership of industry. The present Government have taken a number of steps to encourage this. It is a fact though that through contributions to occupational pension schemes or life insurance policies the majority of households in Britain may be indirectly investing in the Stock Exchange. But the connection is too remote for there to be any feeling of personal involvement, and unhappily there are only about 2 million direct individual investors in British industry.
My Lords, the time has come when I must conclude my remarks. I would like to say that, although I cannot accept the terms of this Motion, I believe that in a free society it is the job of the Government to encourage equality of opportunity, and included in that must be opportunities for wealth creation. I believe at the same time that it is for the individual always to act with love, thought and responsibility towards his neighbour.
§ 5.16 p.m.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Baroness did not have more time because I know she had a lot more that she wished to say. I am grateful to her for her last remarks. We all recognise their sincerity, indeed the sincerity of all her remarks, but we are particularly grateful for those. I should like to thank all those who have taken part in this debate, and I repeat my tribute to the right reverend Prelate, all the more since we have heard his eloquent speech this afternoon.
I do not want to take up the time of the House any further. The noble Lord, Lord Stewart, replied broadly to the Conservative arguments that had come up before the speech of the noble Baroness. I would say only one thing about what she said. It remains to me quite unclear whether she would like to see more or less equality—I repeat, quite unclear; I defy anyone to say whether she wishes to see more or less equality. She boasted in a discreet kind of way about what seemed 1209 to be the progress towards more equality. She certainly did not say she wanted to put the clock back—as Lord Harris clearly did—but I am bound to say, without dragging in party politics at the last moment, that the present Government have in fact stood for a policy of more inequality. No one doubts that. I am not saying it is out of any brutality or lack of compassion; it is just because they think that is what will make the economy work better. That is Mrs. Thatcher's doctrine and no one doubts this. We have not, of course, introduced such a difficult subject as that up to now, but I think we must say, when we are talking about this subject, that the noble Baroness's remarks bear no relation to the policy actually being pursued by the present Government. Having said that, I should like to thank everyone who has taken part, and particularly the noble Baroness. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.