Annual Beveridge Lecture delivered by Claire Tyler at the Social Liberal Forum Conference - 4 July 2015
May I start by saying what a great honour it is to have been asked to deliver this year’s Beveridge Lecture. I’m conscious that I’m following in some rather illustrious footsteps – Nick, Steve and Tim have all stood here before me – Tim – you set the bar very high indeed in your excellent and wide ranging lecture last year.
I think it is entirely appropriate to be revisting Beveridge at a conference entitled ‘Rebooting Liberalism’. It’s neither regressive nor intellectually lazy to be looking to the past as we seek to move forward. Far from it - we are fortunate to have an incredibly strong intellectual tradition within the party and in seeking to both clarify and communicate exactly what we stand for, we could do much worse than draw on the ground-breaking work of one of the grandfathers of modern Liberalism.
Because, for me, one of the clear lessons from General Election is that, for the public to understand what we really stand for and what our purpose in politics is, we have to spell out much more clearly what being liberal means, both the sort of society we are seeking to create and the notion of individual empowerment – in short our values – and that’s where I am going to start today. We need to be braver in saying that a philosophical focus on the freedom of the individual isn’t the same as being pre-occupied with self or insularity. On the contrary it’s about enabling every single member of society to flourish and reach out to each other, strengthening social relationships and communities, demonstrating fairness and compassion towards others, rejoicing in difference and diversity and, at the same time, extending individual freedoms. In fact, I think we’ve already done a pretty good job of distilling our beliefs into three key words – liberty, equality and community – the very first line of the preamble to our constitution.
As far as communicating our values goes, I think we’re quite clear on liberty. We’ve made our mark as the party of civil liberties and universal human rights, making equal marriage a reality and blocking measures to curtail our rights to privacy online. We’ve also been traditionally strong on community – from the community politics of the 1970s and out thirst for local campaigning to being passionate advocates of devolution and localism. For us local activism and local government will always be the bedrock of our party – right now we badly need to rebuild from grassroots upwards – this will be a key part of our ” Re- booting”.
It’s our second value that I think we’ve had more trouble communicating – our commitment to the redistribution of power and yes wealth where’s it’s needed and the realisation of a more equal society. What I will try to articulate today is why these goals are so central to modern liberalism. That equality matters not just in and of itself, the overwhelmingly strong moral case that we are all born equal, but in how we advance the cause of equality too. Now of course, other values are hugely important to us such as our internationalism and stewardship of the environment but they outside the scope of this lecture which focuses, as Beveridge did, on social policy.
My contention is that we need to say clearly that high levels of inequality are at odds with a society in which everyone is free to develop their talents and fulfil their potential. High levels of inequality are bad for our health too, as Wilkinson and Pickett articulated so powerfully in The Spirit Level showing that societies with the largest discrepancies between the rich and the poor tend to have higher levels of crime and exhibit much less trust and social cohesion.
Back in 1942 Beveridge recognised the importance of building a society in which everyone is able to realise their potential. His five giant evils encapsulated the major ” unfreedoms” found in 1940s Britain- to borrow a word used by the philosopher and economist Amartya Sen. They continue today with poverty, ill health, inadequate education and poor living conditions and a degraded environment holding too many of our fellow citizens back in life. Beveridge should also be celebrated for making the case that state intervention to realise the social good does not have to be stifling and authoritarian. Like Beveridge, we need to be bold in expressing our commitment to social justice and the use of liberal means to realise it.
You sometimes hear the claim that there’s an inherent tension between a dual commitment to freedom and equality, that any state intervention involves the sacrifice of liberty. This was the view of the classical liberal, the work of Locke, Malthus and Ricardo, a view that privileges the right of the individual to a life free from state interference. As social liberals, I’m pleased to say we’ve progressed from this line of thinking. Simply being left alone isn’t enough to achieve genuine freedom – laissez faire economics and a minimal state isn’t going to end homelessness, social isolation, sex or race discrimination or exploitation in the work place. So we need a more ambitious idea of what freedom entails, the sort outlined by Thomas Green and Leonard Hobhouse, which sees real liberty as a positive freedom - the ability both to make choices about the sort of life you want to live AND contribute to the common good. When viewed in this way, it becomes clear what a glaring obstacle inequality is to real liberty – your birthplace, family wealth and social class, should never be the main determinants of your opportunities for progression in life.
What emerges is a very persuasive case for an active, enabling state which equips people with the tools they need to realise their own goals. A state that acts to level the playing field and create the conditions required to allow everyone to flourish, irrespective of background, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. A state that actively gives a voice to those without power and challenges vested interest in whatever shape or form they come. The reforming liberal government elected in 1906 recognised this, Beveridge recognised this and it’s up to us to make the case today as a radical, progressive force in politics.
In essence there are two key themes to today’s lecture. First, that social justice and equality matter and must motivate us as Liberals – I’ve touched on that already. Second, that looking at individual wellbeing provides a new way of approaching the social problems we face today and a framework for developing new solutions. Wellbeing refers to our own subjective experience of life – our happiness, fulfilment, the sense to which we have control over the direction of our lives and the capacity to achieve our aspirations. In this sense I feel it is an intensely liberal concept. It also fits very well with a concern for social justice, for there is a very significant portion of the UK population for whom pursuing the good life, as they conceive of it, is simply not a possibility. I have in mind people lacking financial security, education or skills, a sense that they are safe from violence and abuse, a good state of physical and mental health, adequate housing, access to open space or even knowing where their next meal is coming from. It is my belief that the state has a very clear role in enabling each and every one of us, but particularly the most disadvantaged, to improve their wellbeing, providing everyone with the tools to live a life they choose.
So now to update Beveridge
The Beveridge Report was peerless in its scale and ambition. Of course the context was unique – Britain was caught up in a world war and there was strong public support for an active, welfare focussed government given the deprivations people had experienced. The country had faced enormous social problems – unemployment was above 10% for the majority of the 1920s and ‘30s, millions lived in slum housing and a child born in the 1940s couldn’t expect to live much past 65. Beveridge recognised the extent of misery and suffering in 1940s Britain and sought to tackle it head on.
Of course, things are very different today, but the case for an active, enabling government is no less compelling and we cannot afford to be any less radical in our ideas.
Trends in income inequality can be difficult to discern in the short term, not least because earnings have been falling sharply since to the 2008 crash but it is clear that the prices of essential goods and services have risen and living standards have fallen, hitting those on low income particularly hard. The longer-term trend is one of a widening gap between those on the highest incomes and those on the lowest – the Equality Trust estimates that UK income inequality increased by 32% between 1960 and 2005. Patterns of wealth inequality are even starker. I am sure many here are familiar with Thomas Piketty’s conclusion that there is an inherent tendency for wealth inequality to widen as the return to capital outstrips economic growth and indeed we are already at the point where the richest 1% of UK households has more wealth than the bottom half of the population put together. Equally shockingly, the wealth of the richest 1,000 people increased by over £28 billion last year – enough to fund 20 years’ worth of grocery bills for all the UK’s food bank users and have change left over.
It’s not that the Liberal tradition is anti-wealth creation – far from it. We are rightly very open to new ways to grow our economy sustainably, be it new digital platforms allowing new enterprise to flourish, encouraging mutuals, co-operatives and employee participation or promoting skills formation and apprenticeships. But if we are to be true to our core values then we need to have something to say about this level of inequality - and the reasons behind it.
There is a very damaging and misleading narrative that seeks to divide modern Britain into the “strivers” and the “scroungers”, characterised by those who work hard and fund public services through their taxes and those who choose to live on benefits rather than get a job. But the reality is very different. You may have heard of John Hills’ recent book ‘The Myth of Them and Us’. Hills’ research suggests that over the course of our lives, most of us will rely on the welfare state at some point and get as much back as we put in. Moreover, the wealthier among us are actually likely to benefit more as they live longer and draw more from the state in the form of pensions and NHS services. So whilst understanding the importance of aspiration, individual responsibility and self help, I think we need to be bolder in tackling the myth of the deserving rich and undeserving poor that has frankly overshadowed much of the debate on social policy today.
There are also other ways in which our society is very different to that of our grandparents. For a start many more women are in work as we’ve begun to break down the barriers associated with female workforce participation, particularly childcare. We also have much greater diversity of household structure as more of us live alone, cohabit, marry later and divorce. The nuclear family with 2.4 children can no longer be the model we have in our minds when formulating policy.
And of course the digital revolution means we’re much better connected than our grandparents and great grandparents could ever imagine. Better technology and more resources means we’ve got the capacity to do more to address the modern day incarnations of Beveridge’s five giant evils. But it brings its own challenges with it and we are increasingly becoming aware of the dark side of the internet.
So a quick canter through the giant evils.
Thanks to Beveridge, the majority of us don’t face destitution if we lose our jobs. We don’t, as a rule, face widespread malnutrition. For the most part we’ve escaped the grinding poverty that characterised life for too many people in Britain in the inter war years. This is something to celebrate, but it would be quite wrong to assume that want has no place in our society any more. It’s a travesty that over 900,000 relied on food banks for emergency meals in 2013/14 and that we still have 2.3m children growing up in relative poverty as currently defined And frankly, just redefining the issue as IDS seems determined to do isn’t going to make the problem go away.
As I just mentioned, tt’s clear that too many people - working all the hours they can - are still struggling to make ends meet. Since the recession began in 2008 ordinary, middle-income families have experienced an unprecedented squeeze on their budgets, and real incomes aren’t forecast to return to their pre-crash levels for another three or four years. Most tellingly of all, one in five of all workers in the UK are on low pay, one of the highest proportions of any advanced economy. It patently isn’t right that you can be in full-time work and still unable to support your family without relying on benefits because your earnings are too low. I think Beveridge would be really exercised by this.
I want to touch briefly on the gender pay gap, a phenomenon that makes work a less effective route out of poverty for women than men. The gender pay gap for all workers (both full and part time) still stands at 19% and women are significantly more likely to be in low paying jobs than their male counterparts. This is a continued affront to the basic liberal principles of equality and fairness and something we should remain committed to addressing.
It is a similar story with what Beveridge referred to as idleness and indeed described as the fiercest of the five giant evils. Unemployment is historically speaking very low, but this masks a stubborn lack of opportunities for those with a disability or a mental health condition. Young people are also increasingly disadvantaged in the jobs market. 16-24 year-olds are three times as likely to be unemployed as the rest of the population, the largest gap for more than 20 years.
Low overall unemployment also hides the growing insecurity we face at work. David Cameron might be pleased that just one in fifty jobs is a zero-hours contract (though the ONS say 1 in 40), but I guess I’m not the only person here who thinks that’s still too high. How can you possibly plan a household budget if you have no idea how much money is coming in each week? I’m pleased there has been some progress, initiated of course by Vince Cable, to outlaw exclusivity clauses in zero hours contracts, but there are still too many rogue employers abusing the system in the name of labour market flexibility. I’m particularly concerned about low paid workers in the social care sector doing a crucial job looking after elderly and disabled people in their homes and feel that the least we can do is ensure that they are entitled to compensation when shifts are cancelled at the last moment.
We’re also seeing increasing numbers of people in self-employment. In part this is a reflection of the changing way we work, and the growth of the digital economy, but it is also closely associated with job losses over the course of the recession. For some of us the chance to be our own boss is a hugely liberating one, for others it represents a new source of anxiety and insecurity.
Moving now to ignorance, or more positively speaking, education. What has become very clear in recent years is the importance of the early years in determining outcomes in later life and addressing the systemic disadvantages that children from low-income backgrounds face. By the age of five, children from poorer families are already more than a year behind their more privileged peers when it comes to vocabulary and cognitive development. In a nutshell, social mobility depends on us getting the early years right so that those born into less privileged backgrounds aren’t left on the starting line by children whose parents can afford the violin lessons, the maths tutor, who can read bedtime stories and help with homework. It’s not that I want to stops these things happening – I just want to do more to level the playing field.
We also urgently need to devote more attention and resources to our vocational education provision. Every day we rely on those with the skills to fix our car when it breaks down, build our homes and ensure we’ve got access to electricity and clean water. These are essential skills to any well running economy. As Professor Alison Wolf has pointed out, the provision of low and unstable funding for the further education sector risks eroding our technical workforce entirely, the workforce on which a vibrant and productive manufacturing economy depends. Yes we need more apprenticeships – and I’m a great fan – but the numbers are fairly small and the vast majority are for the 19 plus age group. We also badly need proper, rigorous vocational qualifications and technical training to prepare young people for jobs and far more focus on providing progression routes and opportunities for the roughly 50% of 16-19 year olds who are not on the A level/University route – sometimes referred to as the “Missing Middle”.
Let’s look closer too at education at the other end of life. There are still more than 6m people in the UK who have never used the internet and the majority of this group are older people. With everything from shopping to banking and getting your TV licence now done online, it’s absolutely vital that we support those who have so far been bypassed by the digital revolution if we’re to ensure that they’re able to participate fully in society. With the changing working patterns induced by the online revolution, you’re also severely disadvantaged in the labour market if you don’t know your Google from your Skype or your Kickstarter. We need to ensure that everyone, of every age, has the IT skills needed to ensure they aren’t left behind in a rapidly changing world.
It’s wonderful that we’re all living longer and generally healthier lives, but the challenge of how we care for each other in our old age is in my view the biggest social policy challenge facing us. Better integration of health and social care to ensure the elderly get the help they need outside of hospital is vital and we have made real strides in Coalition Government - thanks to the work of Paul and Norman - through the Better Care Fund. But we also need to recognise the role that family and friends carers play – 60% of us will be a carer for a relative at some point in our lives and this generates huge savings for the NHS. Caring is an intensely demanding job, both physically and mentally, and carers often experience huge costs to their own wellbeing. Many of us in this room – myself included – have our own stories to tell.
This is particularly true for what’s called the “sandwich generation”, typically women of around my age who find themselves trying to support children entering adulthood and often still living at home, providing childcare for young grandchildren and at the same time caring for elderly parents whose health is failing. It becomes incredibly difficult to work when you are being called off to hospital at a moment’s notice. Employers are not always as understanding as they could be and many end up leaving the workforce altogether and their valuable skills are lost to the economy.
Mental health is now finally getting the attention it deserves after years of neglect thanks to our hard fought battles in government and the great work that Paul and Norman did. We are probably all now familiar with the statistic – one in four of us will suffer from a serious mental health condition at some point in our lives – but waiting times for treatment are still far too long and the stigma attached to mental health conditions is still fa too pervasive. We’re also an immensely stressed society as we juggle work and family life in a world of information overload and 24/7 communications, and this is also impacting on our mental wellbeing and the health of our relationships. Strong relationships with friends, family and partners are vital in helping us to cope with life’s obstacles and there is a strong argument for public health policy to focus more on our all-round wellbeing and promote healthier, more supportive relationships – something I feel we are Liberals have been rather reticent to acknowledge and talk public about.
We don’t tend to use the word squalor much any more – it conjures up a rather Victorian image, doesn’t it. The fact is though, while the slums are thankfully a thing of the past in the UK, we still have a lot to do to make living conditions acceptable for many people, particularly access to green open space. I’m no expert on housing, but it seems to me a basic problem for far too many people is the chronic lack of security in their housing arrangements as well as a chronic lack of affordable housing. Those in need of social housing can wait months or years for a property to become available, while private sector tenants face short tenancies and the threat of eviction from rogue landlords.
I am closely involved with a coalition of charities called ‘Making Every Adult Matter’, who work with adults affected by multiple problems– lives afflicted by combinations ofmental ill health, homelessness, drug and alcohol misuse, offending and family breakdown. People in this very unenviable situation are often completely cut off from the communities in which they live and are poorly served by mainstream services who struggle to engage effectively with people living often chaotic lives and for whom turning up at an appointment is not a straightforward matter.
We’re also seeing a growing feeling of social isolation among many older people, a group who have traditionally been at the heart of family life and the local community. It is telling that the Silverline, the older people’s helpline, received 8000 calls in its first week alone, and shocking that 1 in 10 of Silverline’s callers can regularly get though a week without speaking to one other person. It seems painfully ironic that it in a society where it increasingly feels that we cannot escape round-the-clock communication, a sizeable group feel that they have absolutely no one to talk to.
So in updating Beveridge’s five evil giants, the picture that emerges is one in which wellbeing for too many is perilously low. There are people all across the UK who feel disappointed by their lives, anxious about paying the rent or buying next year’s school clothes, saddled with debt and unable to participate in everyday social, sporting and leisure activities. Too many people being denied the opportunity for happiness and instead being condemned to a life of misery. These are the issues that fire us up as Liberals. We instinctively know that these are things that matter and they have for years – for decades, in fact - been the beating heart of hundreds of our campaigns. For many of us, they will be among the reasons we knew we wanted to join the party in the first place.
And it’s this denial of happiness that, I think, offers us the answer to where we should direct our liberal energies in fighting for social justice and I’m calling it today the wellbeing approach.
We have aready made it one of our core missions to end the discrimination against people with mental health problems across the UK – and it’s something I am a passionate advocate of. But I think now is the time to be more ambitious still. To paraphrase Beveridge, we should use to the full the experience gathered in the past, but not be restricted by it. As Lib Dems we have lived through a serious trauma, but out of that trauma we should seize the “revolutionary moment”. We should be bold and radical – we should demand better for all of us, and fight to make positive wellbeing a national priority - and a basic right.
And not just because I believe it is the right thing to do – though I absolutely convinced it is. But because the concept of wellbeing is fundamentally liberal – it’s about the individual and the principle of individual empowerment that I believe runs distinctively through the DNA of this party.
In the last government, the Office of National Statistics were for the first time asked to look at capturing a picture of national wellbeing. It probably won’t surprise too many that the results show we have a long way to go. Across the country just over one-quarter of the population scores well on all four measures – life satisfaction, happiness, the absence of anxiety, and the feeling that your activities are worthwhile.
The same proportion score badly on at least one. That leaves half the population who are then, just ‘ok’ - and three quarters of the population who are clearly not thriving. Not fulfilling their potential in one way or another, not getting the opportunities that they want, not being supported. I think we should aspire to do better for everyone – as Lib Dems we should demand that government provides the conditions for people to be better that ok. So I want to suggest a kind of reinvention of the Benthamite mission, with the pursuit of wellbeing for everyone established as an overarching goal of our social and economic policy but with a good dose of Rawls thrown so the wellbeing of disadvantaged and the quest for social justice is at its heart.
What do I mean by this? Well because the most important determinants of your wellbeing are your life chances - your income, your employment status, your education, your housing situation, a strong focus on reducing wellbeing inequalities may well be the best way to realise our aspirations for liberty,equality and community. Because gross inequalities in wellbeing have a negative impact not just on the most disadvantaged in society, but on everyone and the economy suffers too.
Mental ill health – one of the largest factors affecting poor wellbeing – costs the UK an estimated £105bn every year– almost as much as the entire NHS budget for this year.
Conversely, helping children to build their emotional resilience and wellbeing not only improves their mental health but is likely to lead to greater academic success, and in turn higher productivity and better wages. Poor wellbeing tends be a core feature of a vicious cycle of low productivity, low incomes, state subsidies and, in turn, lower GDP. We know as a country we have a major problem with productivity - it is has not improved in 8 years and some economists saw it is our greatest economic challenge.
Now this brings to mind for me Bobby Kennedy’s unforgettable quote back in 1968. While GDP measures economic activity of every sort, he said and I quote “it does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials… it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile” So you could say we was an early adopter of the importance of wellbeing! It’s not that GDP isn’t important, of course it isn’t, but it simply doesn’t tell the full story of what really matters. This is a key point in how resources are allocated and policies area evaluated.
And in that regard, some of the signs for the UK do not look good. According to research by the Children’s Society, the UK ranked 9th out of a sample of 11 countries around the world for child wellbeing, only ahead of South Korea and Uganda, and behind Romania, Spain, Israel, Brazil, USA, Algeria, South Africa and Chile, while UNICEF found that, out of the world’s richest 29 countries, the UK had the lowest rate of young people going into further education and one of the highest rates of alcohol abuse.
It is a stark picture, and one that immediately brings to the fore the obvious inequalities that these children grow up with. Rather predictably, children growing up in poverty had lower levels of wellbeing, as did children growing up in households where no-one worked, children whose parents suffered with depression, and children who said that the economic crisis had a greater impact on their families.
And the UK also has the dubious honour of topping the tables for wellbeing inequalities, with one EU study putting us 23rd out of 27, only just ahead of Cyprus, Hungary and Romania. On a ten point scale, the difference in measured wellbeing between those in the top and bottom 20% is almost 5 points – those at the top were almost twice as ‘well’ as those at the bottom. And to draw a sketch of those most likely to have low levels of wellbeing, it turns out that time and again they are people whose lives have been limited by disability or ill health, unemployed people, separated or divorced people, and perhaps surprisingly, those in middle age.
Now I’m well aware that these type of leagues tables need all sorts of caveats attached, are often not comparing like with like and can be misleading. But there’s a picture merging which I think it hard to ignore.
And in terms of how we determine our policy priorities, I think that looking through the lens of wellbeing increasingly offers a good starting point. And rather than suggesting a utopian vision where money flows like water to maximise every opportunity to make each one of us just a little bit happier, looking at wellbeing inequalities gives us a hard-nosed, evidence based framework for identifying where government will get most bang for its buck and shows what interventions will make the biggest difference to improving the wellbeing of those on the bottom rungs of the ladder. In the current straightened financial circumstances this is more important than ever.
And we know we have room to improve on our recent record, because over the last five years inequalities have increased in too many areas. Looking through a wellbeing lens helps us understand more about why this matters – and provides the evidence to show what interventions will make the biggest difference to improving the wellbeing of those on the bottom rungs of the ladder - to the benefit of us all.
So enough of the theory, what precisely does this mean for our policy development? Let me touch on a few areas where I think it may provide some solutions to come of the challenges I outlined in the earlier part of this lecture.
Time and again, lack of stable employment – linked, inevitably, to poverty and material deprivation – has been shown to be one of the most recurrent issues among those with low levels of wellbeing. In fact, it was the only determinant for which there were no protective factors against its negative impact on wellbeing. This may seem striking, but I think, instinctively, we know it to be true, just as Beveridge knew it. We care about recessions because we care about unemployment, and we care about unemployment because we care about people’s wellbeing. So, what does the evidence show? People who have been unemployed for more than six months have significantly lower wellbeing than those who have been unemployed for less time. And alongside them people with insecure employment have lower wellbeing too.
So, let’s be bold. I want to propose that the pursuit of stable and secure employment – with decent pay – for all who can work should be one of the key goals of our economic policy.
This means well designed and delivered employment programmes that work effectively to help the most disadvantaged in the labour market, rather than the false hope of the work programme which had neither the funds not the expertise to help those deemed “hardest to help.” It also means putting a stop to exploitative contracts and doing more to address low pay. As a starting point, I want to see the Low Pay Commission being asked to look explicitly at wellbeing inequalities when making its recommendations on the Minimum Wage.
And because raising the incomes of the poorest will deliver by far the biggest wellbeing dividends we should go further and look to the Living Wage to tackle in work poverty. More than 1 in every 5 people of working age are paid below the living wage – the majority of them women - and they are often doing some of the hardest work going. Paying below the living wage means that, in turn, the public purse has to find money to subsidise low wages through tax credits – currently estimated at some £30bn although who knows what will happen when the George Osborne announces where the £12billon cuts to welfare spending are going to come from. So let’s become the party that really champions the Living Wage.
And hand in hand, let’s do more to drive a culture of fair pay within companies, because it turns out – as we all probably instinctively know – that being treated and paid fairly matters much more to wellbeing that absolute salary. So we should do more to address exaggerated pay differentials– not because the top executives shouldn’t be well remunerated for the responsibilities they carry, but because they shouldn’t be over lavishly remunerated at the expense of those at the bottom, because genuine fairness requires transparency, and because it makes good business sense. We only need to look at companies like John Lewis to see that valued employees are a company’s best asset. So building the tireless work of Jo Swinson to ensure that companies publish their gender pay gap, let’s also be clear that we want to see business publish the ratio between the highest and lowest paid, and between the pay of those at the top and at the middle.
And I would suggest that we need to look again at some of our own priority setting on income. In 2010 we had a flagship policy to raise the level of the personal tax allowance – and, perhaps against the odds, we did it although of course the Tories took the credit! It is a huge Lib Dem achievement that over the course of the last Parliament we took 2 million of the lowest paid workers out of tax, but it also means that raising it further does little to help those at the bottom of the ladder. If we are serious about our social justice mission, then we need to take a step back and again look at where we can make most impact. So, rather than looking to further increases in the personal allowance, let’s look to national insurance.
As work by the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently illustrated, aligning the National Insurance threshold with the personal tax allowance of £11,000 would take 1.8million people out of direct tax altogether. And, crucially, with an eye to wellbeing inequalities, this would cut taxes for a group with lower earnings than anyone who would benefit from further increases in the personal tax allowance.
Moving on, I’ve already made plain how delighted I am that as a party we have already clearly nailed our colours to the mast on mental health. But despite doing so much and securing - in law - the principle of parity of esteem between physical and mental health, there is still a long way to go. In fact, as recent work by the LSE’s Professor Paul Dolan has shown, the very system we use to determine value for money in health interventions discriminates against people with mental health problems because people systematically underestimate the impact of mental ill health on their wellbeing. So we need to put this right, we need parity of access to treatment and parity of funding, as well as much better mental health support for Black and Minority Ethnic groups who have been consistently let down by mental health services.
And more generally, we need much better understanding of the mental health impacts of physical health issues, we need to put an end of the stigma which is so damaging to people's wellbeing, and we need to get serious about prevention and make sure that the tools for good mental health and wellbeing are promoted across the board - through schools, employers and communities. As an aside I’ve been really encouraged that since taking on the mental health portfolio in the Lords I have people running small businesses wanting to talk to me about how mental health issues are affecting their workforce.
We also need to design much better, joined up help to those at the very bottom of the pile - those with serious and complex needs who, far too often, find themselves caught in a wicked cycle of being pushed from pillar to post, from service to service, with multiple diagnoses which no-one service is able or willing to deal with. We have to be able to offer them the joined up care they need with much better joint working between the statutory and the voluntary sector
Turning to disability, we have already sown a nugget of hope with the Lib Dem social care reforms which put the principle of individual wellbeing at their heart and recognise that alongside independence, interdependence – with colleagues, friends, family, and the wider community – are the fundamentals of a good life. In reality though, we know that local authority budgets are already at breaking point and it will be a long, hard slog before the spirit of the reforms are put into practice.
But that doesn’t mean we just shrug our shoulders and give up. We should demand for all who need it the right to genuinely person centred care that provides the support that they want, at the time and in the ways that they want it. At the heart of all of this is personal relationships, with their family, their friends, their paid and unpaid carers and their communities. In short, a total redesign of the current care system. In the long term I think we would do well to look at some radical new ideas for how care is funded – some have suggested a new form of social insurance system to cover 21st century life cycle risk and a different way of sharing costs between the individual and the state.
Turning to carers we need to keep fighting for the statutory entitlement to carers leave from work that we proposed in our manifesto. And for all carers we should continue to articulate the case for the right to respite care and short breaks and a decent carers bonus to help relieve both the financial pressures that many suffer as they struggle to cope with the obligations that they have willingly - and selflessly - taken on themselves.
Moving on again to housing shortage. We need to build a quarter of a million homes every year for the next ten years, and last year we managed just over half this number with less than 10% of those social rented homes. We should campaign vigorously against the plans to sell off more social housing. We had some great policies in our last manifesto on home building, garden cities and rent-to-buy. But no-one here will have forgotten where we got things so horribly wrong. The bedroom tax - and that really is what it was - was a policy we should never have allowed to see the light of day.
Finally, on social mobility all the evidence tells us that your life chances – particularly at schools and in the workplace -are heavily influenced by the circumstances of your birth. As liberals we are committed to righting this injustice. It’s one of the reasons we fought so hard in coalition to secure the pupil premium for those children from the least well off backgrounds, which evidence from OFSTED, the NAO and others says is making a real difference. We must fight to retain it at a time when its future is looking less certain. Our free early years education entitlement for 3/4 and disadvantaged 2 year olds is also making a real difference but there is so much more to do.
Interestingly, one of the key findings that emerged from a report of the APPG on Social Mobility which I co-chair was that character, resilience and wellbeing was the “missing ingredient “ of policies to improve individual life chances. A growing body of evidence shows how character traits and resilience – things like self belief, perseverance, being able to bounce back from sets backs and adversity, developing a sense of control over their lives as well as things like empathy and teamwork are directly linked to doing well at school and in the workplace. And the good news is these things aren’t innate, they can be taught and developed. For some schools and employers this is fast becoming part of their core business. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the works of the Nobel prize-winner economist Heckman, who has clearly demonstrated that investing early in these skills, particularly with disadvantaged children, come with strong results.
And the Group also found that the point of greatest leverage is what happens between the ages of 0-3, especially in the home. So it looked at the links between parenting and social mobility – a somewhat controversial policy area for some. There are always voices who say that any intervention is this area is an assault on liberty— an unwelcome intervention by a literal nanny state. But the evidence show that effective parenting has an even bigger influence on a child’s outcomes than income or class and that sensitively designed parenting advice and support programmes – nearly always delivered by charities and voluntary bodies and aimed at both mothers and fathers- can help parents become the sort of parents they want to be- and as a result giving their children a fairer start in life. To me that’s not curtailing liberty – its making it possible.
So to conclude a thread that runs through much of what I have talked about today is that wellbeing is strongly influenced by surrounding social norms. So while strong relationships with family and friends help support wellbeing at an individual level, at the level of communities – and ultimately, at the national level - trust, empathy and cohesion within society are vitally important. When these are available, populations are more resilient to knocks of all kinds.
My sense is that we have paid too little attention to building this vital social fabric for too long and are now paying the price. Disillusion with politics and politicians is at an all-time high, people feel unable to make their voices heard, disempowered and isolated in their communities. Now this is absolutely liberal territory and we need to claim it. We need to say clearly that wellbeing and happiness requires participation, engagement, meaningful relationships and empowerment at all levels – whether that is about determining how your personal care needs are met or standing as a local councillor.
I don’t want to give the impression that the state could or should do everything to improve wellbeing, rather that an enabling state can put power and opportunity back into people’s hands. I think it’s time to look beyond the state/market dichotomy and instead develop solutions that enable the active participation of individuals and local communities. So we should be looking to celebrate and expand the role of the voluntary sector. Beveridge was a huge admirer and Jo Grimond highlighted its importance as a ‘buffer’ between the state and the individual. Community activism is and will always be a central pillar of liberalism.
I hope I have provided you with some food for thought as we seek to re-boot Liberalism as a progressive and radical force in British politics. Some ideas about how we might look afresh at both policies and priorities. My basic argument today is that a wellbeing approach to public policy will go hand in hand with a renewed focus on the worst of amongst us, but for the benefit of all and resonates strongly with our core values as a party.
Claire Tyler (Baroness Tyler of Enfield)