Policies must be subjected to a “fairness test”

All the main political parties are talking about ‘fairness’. They all say inequalities are too big and need to be reduced.

Our guest writers are Professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone and co-founders of The Equality Trust

All the main political parties are talking about ‘fairness’. They all say inequalities are too big and need to be reduced. That is a lot better than not talking about it, but the talk is almost never related to any specific policy commitment to make Britain a fairer society. Today a coalition of academics and charities, including the Equality Trust, is asking party leaders to address this.

The evidence shows that life in societies with smaller income differences between rich and poor is better for almost everyone. Levels of child wellbeing are higher in more equal societies; community life is stronger and people trust each other more.

Even middle class people are likely to live longer, happier lives and are less likely to become victims of violence if they live in more equal societies. Their children are less likely to get involved in drugs, to suffer mental illness, or to become teenage parents. All these benefits of greater equality are within our grasp and it would be a crime to let them slip away from us.

In a recent report, the National Equality Panel said that the next government’s policies to reduce the deficit will be the most important influence on what happens to inequality. The least well off should not have to shoulder the burden of a recession created by the rich.

Nor should the bonus culture be allowed to continue unchecked while unemployment rises. Choices will have to be made between cutting Trident, ID cards or social security benefits, between making income taxes more progressive or increasing VAT.

For the good of our whole society, it is high time policies were assessed for their impact on inequality. That is why a large coalition of charities, including the Equality Trust, has come together and written to the three main party leaders to ask them to commit to a Fairness Test.

This would ensure that major tax or spending changes are rigorously assessed for their impact on inequality. Carried out by the Treasury, an Inequality Impact Assessment would ensure that governments cannot make major changes without being aware of the consequences for inequality and the knock-on effects on the cohesiveness and wellbeing of the whole society.

Such assessments are needed to inform a robust debate on decisions that will have to be taken during the next parliament. The deficit could be reduced in ways which would improve the wellbeing of the whole society, or in ways which would inflict further damage.

Rather than fudging these crucial issues, we need to see our party leaders committing themselves to instituting this Fairness Test and reducing inequality from the start of the next parliament.

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