Inequality — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:44 pm on 29th January 2009.

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Photo of The Bishop of Chester The Bishop of Chester Bishop 3:44 pm, 29th January 2009

My Lords, I shall attempt a synthesis between the position of the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and that of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. I am not sure how successful I shall be.

Choice is potentially a good thing. Freedom, which choice seeks to express, is in some sense central to authentic human experience. It has certainly been part of the rhetoric and inspiration of the British national character and history. One thinks of Churchill's most inspiring rhetoric, contrasting freedom and tyranny—although the 20th century also demonstrated how freedom that exists simply out of its own strength and for its own purpose can become its own tyranny. One thinks of Sartre's epithet: "Hell is other people".

The problem can be put this way. Any society or system that bases itself on freedom and choice without restraint, moderation and, to use an in-vogue word, regulation tends to produce an exaggerated outcome in winners and losers. In society as a whole, the losers can easily slip into becoming an underclass, where poverty and underachievement become endemic, as is the case in terms of health in parts of Glasgow and elsewhere. A symptom of this is a larger-than-average prison population.

If the United States comes immediately to mind, there is a great deal about British history since 1979 that exhibits similar strains and imbalances, with an inexorably rising prison population here, too, and ingrained poverty among certain sections of our people. With that goes the well rehearsed problem of underachievement in the lower educational reaches of our schools. There is more than one way in which a society can sleepwalk into segregation. Arguably, we see the same dynamic at work today in the former Soviet Union, especially in Russia, with the extraordinary, and extraordinarily rapid, emergence of a super-rich elite. I cannot believe that this will be to the long-term benefit of Russian society.

The question that I have puzzled over as I have thought about the topic for this debate is how a society can promote freedom and choice yet avoid the worst outcomes which produce exaggerated winners and endemic entrenched losers. In the year when we especially recall Charles Darwin, I shall try to illustrate briefly how choice emerges in the process of evolution. Scientists tell us that the universe came into existence about 13 billion years ago. For most of those billions of years, no life had yet emerged, but then there was no death either. Death comes as a consequence of the emergence of life. As evolution advanced and plant life came about, so came the possibility of diseases or the deformation of plants, with one organism impairing another. Further up the evolutionary tree came animals, which had a greater sense of choice and meaning—the ability to move around their environment—but then one animal could prey on another. The arrival of human beings also brought the ability to relate to eternal, transcendent values of truth, beauty, justice, love and so forth. However, along with that came the emergence of moral evil. Nature may be red in tooth and claw but in the animal world you do not get the equivalent of a Hitler or a Pol Pot.

The point is that, as the freedom of creation develops, choice emerges, and it brings both the flowering of true humanity and a corresponding threat. So it is that choice and freedom tend to generate winners and losers, and a corresponding increase in inequality. To some extent, that will be inevitable in any society, but I think that society needs to seek to set certain limits to it in one way or another.

This, I believe, has been a major part of the story of Britain, especially over the past 30 years. I do not argue that this has been altogether bad. Indeed, I think that there have been many positive outcomes during this period in terms of choice, opportunity and the benefits of economic liberalism. In relation to the last, there has also been an underlying instability, which is being cruelly exposed in the current banking crisis.

With freedom must always come responsibility and an obligation towards the common good of wider society. Archbishop William Temple put it this way:

"Concentration on acts of choice as the proper locus of freedom ... is a blunder. Freedom is not absence of determination; it is spiritual determination ... by what is intrinsically good".

This is an ideal, of course, and in practice both individuals and society as a whole will fall short, but all the more reason for seeking active commitments to moderate or avoid the inequalities that too narrow a focus on choice will tend to generate. These need to be the commitments of government, individuals and the intermediate institutions in society alike.

I follow others who have contributed to the debate by reflecting on what this might imply in the area where choice has been given so much prominence in recent decades: education. There has often been official puzzlement at the stubbornly high and socially unacceptable underachievement in our secondary schools, particularly by those in the lowest quartile of achievement, despite 20 years of being given a priority by government in both planning and the allocation of funds. The built environment of schools has seen a significant and welcome transformation, but that has not been matched by improvements in the achievement of those at the lower end of the scale in particular.

Choice operates in the state system by reinforcing the differences between good and bad schools, or those that are perceived by parents to be good and bad. The academy programme has been part of the response, by rebuilding or replacing schools in underperforming areas with new schools endowed, at least in theory, with new freedoms. In many ways I regard the academy programme as an imaginative response to the educational challenges in more deprived areas, but one consequence has been further to disadvantage non-academies in neighbouring catchment areas, which are often themselves struggling somewhat. I expect that the academy programme will achieve its aims only when all or most schools are organised along those lines and other policies are in place to support the weakest schools and the poorest areas to take account of their intrinsic tendency to fall down the scale where the natural forces of parental choice are permitted to operate—and they will tend to operate whatever restrictions are placed on them.

Of course, although this is rarely introduced into our debates, choice operates in another way between schools, to benefit some and disadvantage others. I refer to the choice of around 8 per cent of the wealthiest parents to send their children to private schools. These schools are usually academically selective, which unavoidably makes them socially selective, and the resources spent per pupil are typically higher than in the state sector. We ought to ask much more searching questions about how society can ameliorate those inequalities that so distort school-age education in our country. I say that as a parent who has sent a child with special needs to private school, because it is naturally the instinct of every parent to do the best for their child. I pay tribute to the excellence exhibited in many private schools and to the academy programme, which is an attempt to emulate them.

The educational playing field needs undergirding policies that aim at least to promote levelling out, including a clear plan to match in state schools in this country the spending per pupil in private schools. Interestingly, higher education arguably presents a better picture. Students attend by choice and the Government have a good policy to increase and widen participation. The universities, unlike state schools, are independent institutions, so to achieve their aims the Government have operated through quite a sophisticated mechanism of regulation for home undergraduates—HEFCE, which is, theoretically at least, at arm's length from government—allocating funded places with some care and moving to support weaker institutions, despite their formal and, indeed, actual independence.

I hear suggestions that new elements of choice may soon be injected into this sector by lifting the fee cap and perhaps by deregulating a proportion of home undergraduate places. Those who have the responsibility for these matters should think long and hard before moving in those directions, with due attention to the law of unintended consequences.

In summary, choice and equality of outcome are inevitably in tension, but it is possible for a society both to respect choice and to develop ways of operating policies and social norms that seem to ameliorate the worst outcomes of inequality.