A More Equal Society? by John Hills and Kitty Stewart (eds)

Policy Press, Bristol, 2004, 408 pp, paperback 1 8613 4577 1, £15.99, hardback 1 8613 4578 X, £44. Now avaibale in paper back £19.99. Order this book

When Labour was elected to government in 1997, it inherited a country that had experienced worsening inequality and poverty over the twenty years. Between 1979 and 1997 the proportion of households that were workerless more than doubled to 16 per cent. From the start of the 1980s until the mid-1990s, the Gini coefficient – the standard measure of inequality – rose faster in the United Kingdom than in ten industrialised nations with available data (including Sweden, Germany, France and Australia). By the mid-1990s the Gini coefficient was higher (and so inequality was worse) than in any of these other countries except the United States. The UK also had the third worst record in terms of child poverty compared with 15 other countries. Only the United States and Italy reported a higher percentage of children living in worse conditions by the mid-1990s.

Faced with this deterioration a key test for any reformist government is how successful it has been in stemming and reversing this tide. So, has Labour created a more equal society? The answer to this question is the preoccupation of this edited collection. It provides a comprehensive and state-of-the-art picture of Labour’s record to date which will be of value to researchers, policy-makers and students alike. Paraphrasing a recent election slogan, the judgement of the book is that while there are noteworthy achievements, much more remains to be done, especially on inequality.

The book starts off by setting out what it means by social exclusion. Kitty Stewart and John Hills in their opening chapter note that social exclusion became an important theme early on in Labour’s term of office. In August 1997, Peter Mandelson announced the formation of the Social Exclusion Unit that was intended to deliver ‘joined-up’ government by co-ordinating the efforts of different departments to tackle exclusion. Critics of Labour might worry that the social exclusion agenda is spin that is intended to conceal an attempt to exit from a commitment to address poverty and inequality. Stewart and Hills are more sympathetic to the concept of social exclusion, arguing that it helps capture the complex nature of poverty and inequality. They adopt an understanding of social exclusion that concentrates on employment, education, health and social and political participation.

The book charts progress in each of the above areas. When assessing the overall impact of Labour, the book rightly concentrates on assessing progress on an independent plane rather than seeing whether the government simply lives up to its own targets. Most of the chapters rely on quantitative data, though the chapter by Anne Power and Helen Willmot report findings from their qualitative study on the perceptions of families who live in poor neighbourhoods. One of the themes of the book is the plethora of initiatives that have been pursued by government. For example, Liz Richardson in her chapter on social and political participation draws attention to schemes such as Fair Share, Community Chest, Millennium Volunteers, Community Development Programme and the Development Fund/Volunteer Recruitment Fund. While most of the authors praise the government for paying attention to the different facets of exclusion, and point to real (though sometimes modest) achievements, they highlight the persistence of important problems and doubt whether further progress will be made without additional redistribution. Abigail McKnight in her contribution on employment notes that for working-age adults without children, the risk of living in poverty has remained constant for all household types between 1996/7 and 2002/3. Franco Sassi contends that a much more aggressive redistributive policy is needed to tackle stubborn inequalities in health.

The above evidence is supplemented by case studies of particular groups deemed to be at risk, looking at children, older people, ethnic minorities, asylum seekers and residents in deprived areas. Most progress seems to have been made in relation to child poverty, with Kitty Stewart noting that government spending on child-contingent support such as tax credits are up by around 70% since 1997/8, and early years spending on schools increased by around 80%. Stewart records that the government is on track to reduce child poverty by 25% by 2004/5. The percentage fall in child poverty is better than anywhere else in the European Union. Much less positive things can be said, however, about other areas. Tania Burchardt shows that the treatment of asylum seekers is lamentable.

So what does this all add up to? The volume paints a portrait of a government committed to tackling exclusion, though arguably more interested in poverty, especially child poverty, than inequality. The fact remains that while child poverty has fallen during Labour’s tenure in office, income inequality has not altered much since 1997 (and on some indices, such as the gap between the very top and the very bottom, has risen slightly). Though it is not the book’s brief to explore in detail the utility of different policy tools, it is interesting to speculate how further progress might be made. At least two things can be said on this matter. First, the evidence from most of the chapters points to the continuing significance of redistributive taxation. We might add that it is worthwhile examining the role that might be played by a Citizen’s Income. Second, some of the chapters hint at alternative policy tools. For example, there is a glancing reference to the Child Trust Fund and more broadly ‘asset-based welfare’. This approach looks to the stocks of assets that people own as well as the flows of income that people receive. These themes deserve further scrutiny, and such a study could build from the solid foundations provided by this book.

Rajov Prabhakar