Have we got the balance right between fairness and equality?

The years since the financial crash have seen the 2010 Equality Act and an apparently unending stream of scandals in which firms have mis-sold products, rigged markets and exploited every loophole they could find to avoid paying tax while enhancing their managers’ pay, entailing in some sections of the media breaking the law for stories.

The Equality Act is the culmination of a series of ground-breaking laws since the 1965 Race Relations Act which have over generations changed attitudes in the UK. These laws have not prevented the stream of scandals, which come from a culture in which social constraints have eroded, so that managers can use their power to pay themselves more and justify that by growing the company however they like, including choosing which law will be applicable.

In all this the concept of fairness has been lost sight of. Everyone agrees what fairness means, but rhetorically individuals often apply it only to themselves in order to win an argument. In small children that is understandable, but growing up involves learning to see how others see things so that we can act as members of society and not just as individuals. The scandals show large organisations have been less good than individuals at learning socially acceptable behaviour. The immediate response has been to seek separate remedies for mis-selling, rigging markets, tax avoidance and media behaviour, whereas the scandals originate in managerial behaviour which has not been addressed. If the misbehaviour is not addressed, it will just find new outlets that are still legal.

My idea would be to introduce a Fairness Act as soon as possible, defining fairness for this purpose as fairness to all, as the dictionary says. That makes fairness usable as a means of conflict resolution. As mediators know, getting someone to see the other person’s point of view can lead to positive outcomes.

Everyone understands the concept of fairness, which is why its scope is broad in daily life. A comparable breadth is needed in any Fairness Act, so that all stakeholders in decisions affecting the public can use it if they feel decisions affecting them have been unfair. Examples include (1) large businesses, whose stakeholders in society at large include their customers, staff, shareholders and the taxman, or (2) public authorities, whose stakeholders include taxpayers, beneficiaries of individual services and voters in general who all need good government, or (3) the media, whose stakeholders combine those of large businesses and public authorities because of the media’s constitutional role in informing the public of whatever the public needs to know in order to vote, whether providing reliable information with background on matters of public interest, or presenting the full range of solutions.

What fairness legislation will achieve over time is attitudinal change, which among other things will make bullying and discrimination even less acceptable than they already are. But it has taken half a century so far for equalities, and we must expect a similar trajectory for fairness. That is a good reason for starting now, and not waiting for the next generation.

* Dr Clive Sneddon is convener of Angus & Mearns Liberal Democrats, but writing in a personal capacity.

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  • The concept of fairness strikes me as far more problematic than the concept of equality (before the law, which is what the Act gives, not absolute equality.

    For example, much is being made that it is unfair on children that the Tory government is withdrawing benefits for third and subsequent children for all new claimants.

    But is it fair that a taxpayer who has concluded that it would be irresponsible to have more than two children because they could not afford to support more than two, has their taxes used to subsidise someone who has behaved in a less responsible fashion?

    Similarly, we have argued as a party that the “Bedroom Tax” (Spare Room Subsidy) is unfair on those forced to move out. But is it fair that other potentially more deserving families are denied a home with more space?

  • Stephen Howse 24th Jul '15 - 3:34pm

    “Everyone agrees what fairness means”

    The problem is that they don’t. Even within this party, half the membership seems to think all-women shortlists would be a fair solution to our problem of female underrepresentation in Parliament, while the other half thinks they would be unfair. “Fairness” has become a political concept whose meaning is so stretched and so subjective to individual whim that it has become meaningless.

  • I agree with Stephen Howse there is no agreement on fairness. Some people think it is fair for those who earn more to be taxed at a higher marginal rate, while some think paying income tax is unfair.

    I looked up “fair” – “free from dishonesty, in conformity with rules or standards.” So what would be the point in passing a law that states everyone must act honesty and must conform to the laws, rules and accepted standards? And would such a law be liberal? We reject forcing people to conform. “Fair” means different things to different people and that is why it was meaningless to talk about building a fair society unless a fair society is defined. Building a more equal society is something that can be measured.

  • Mavarine Du-Marie 24th Jul '15 - 5:48pm

    Firstly, it was interesting to find out the Liberal thinking of “fairness”. I came across this from Rawls:

    “Rawls constructs justice as fairness around specific interpretations of the defining liberal ideas that citizens are free and equal and that society should be fair. He holds that justice as fairness is the most egalitarian, and also the most plausible, interpretation of liberalism’s fundamental concepts.

    Rawls sees justice as fairness as answering to the demands of both freedom and equality, a challenge posed by the socialist critique of liberal democracy and by the conservative critique of the modern welfare state. Justice as fairness sets out a version of social contract theory that Rawls believes provides a superior understanding of justice to that of the dominant tradition in political philosophy: utilitarianism.”


    Could the focus then be more on corporate/public (Regulated under a Fairness Act) rather than individualized fairness (social justice), for as you say “The scandals show large organisations have been less good than individuals at learning socially acceptable behaviour.” and this might be a way forward for transparency to happen which might be then free from dishonesty and also conforms to rules or standards that govern large institutional bodies in society.

  • John Tilley 24th Jul '15 - 6:10pm

    Some interesting thoughts, Clive Snedden.
    It is perhaps a shame that you have framed your solution in terms of “fairness”. The comments from Stephen Howse and Michael BG strike a chord with me.
    In my experience the concept of “fairness” is so meaningless as to be almost useless and this is illustrated by the comment from TCO who sounding like a representative of The Tax Dodgers’ Alliance confuses fairness with meanness, irresponsibility, selfishness, greed and the ‘I’m alright, Jack’ mentality of Thatcherism.

    You are right to point out that over the last few years we have witnessed –
    “…unending stream of scandals in which firms have mis-sold products, rigged markets and exploited every loophole they could find to avoid paying tax while enhancing their managers’ pay, ”
    The biggest scandal of all is that virtually nothing has been done to bring these corporate thieves before the law.

  • Bill le Breton 24th Jul '15 - 7:55pm

    Clive, I hope you are well. It is good to learn a little of your thinking on this. Any chance of a Part 2, taking us a little deeper?

  • Jayne Mansfield 24th Jul '15 - 8:34pm

    @ Stephen Howse,
    I agree.

  • Peter Bancroft 25th Jul '15 - 9:36am

    We should spend our time coming up with compelling and differentiated views of what liberal, freedom, choice and empowerment mean. As others point out, talking about fairness in itself is vacuous and doesn’t allow us to point out why and where we are different.

  • ‘We should spend our time coming up with compelling and differential views of what liberal,freedom,choice and empowerment mean’

    How about spending time discussing issues that the electorate actually care about such as the economy, employment and immigration, the stuff you mention might be interesting for nerds to dissect but is meaningless to the electorate at large,

  • John Tilley 24th Jul ’15 – 6:10pm

    “The biggest scandal of all is that virtually nothing has been done to bring these corporate thieves before the law.”

    It would also help if the penalty for breaking the law was a spell in jail for those identified as wrongdoers [plus a fine]. If the penalty is just a fine – corporate representatives will calculate whether the fine is likely to be more or less than the profit earned through breaking the law.

    Corporations tend to have little concern for what is right or wrong – just what brings the greatest profit.

  • kevin 25th Jul ’15 – 10:29am

    “How about spending time discussing issues that the electorate actually care about such as the economy, employment and immigration, the stuff you mention might be interesting for nerds to dissect but is meaningless to the electorate at large,”

    Yes – absolutely essential. Any political party that does not engage, primarily, with the issues concerning the electorate is one that will simply fade away. Particularly if it is already viewed negatively by the majority.

  • Jane Ann Liston 25th Jul '15 - 12:22pm

    I don’t know whether or not Charles Kingsley was a Liberal, but the concepts ‘Do-as-you-would-be-done-by’ and ‘Be-done-by-as-you-did’ seem to add up to what most would consider ‘fairness’ and are easy to understand. As is ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ from several centuries earlier.

  • Clive Sneddon 25th Jul '15 - 8:37pm

    TCO is making a point I have heard before, but with which I do not agree. The Lib Dem Constitution opens with the phrase “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society”. The concept of fairness is not the problem, rather how to combine one’s own freedom with the freedom of others. Fairness is helpful in requiring us to look at a situation in the round and thus balance conflicting interests so as to support the freedom of all. The concept of equality before the law is much older than the freedom from discrimination which the Equality Act is aiming at, which is why I would like to see in law a positive requirement to treat all stakeholders as one would like to be treated. The two examples TCO gives both relate to situations not being looked at in the round, a point I will come back to.

  • Clive Sneddon 25th Jul '15 - 9:23pm

    Michael BG is right to look up “fair”. Early in my career I was a lexicographer, and know that definitions need to reflect the examples found. The relevant definition in the big Oxford English Dictionary is definition 10, which says “Of conduct, arguments, actions, methods: Free from bias, fraud or injustice; equitable, legitimate. Hence of persons: Equitable; not taking undue advantage; disposed to concede every reasonable claim.” This definition is based on long-standing English usage, and is neither vacuous nor illiberal. As Jane Ann Liston says, ‘Do as you would be done by’ is not new, though some people seem to find it ethically demanding. The reason for passing a law is that there are people who will not behave fairly to others unless there is a law requiring this. I recall the Coalition introduced a General Anti-Abuse Rule to deter and prevent artificial and abusive tax avoidance schemes as a means of reducing tax avoidance overall. The law can provide a stimulus to behave better.

  • Clive Sneddon 25th Jul '15 - 9:51pm

    The examples quoted of ‘conflicting’ views of fairness simply demonstrate that the meaning of fairness is so well understood and so generally accepted that everyone wishes to coopt it into supporting their own position. This can only be done by taking a single viewpoint and not looking at the situation in the round. A legal requirement for fairness would entail looking at situations in the round. TCO’s benefits are provided to help people in difficulty and enable them to get back on to their own feet; this helps society as a whole as well as the individual, and will over time reduce costs to the taxpayer. As long as most benefits are paid to people in work rather than the unemployed, the taxpayer is subsidizing employers rather than families of whatever size. Children should not be picked on to cut benefits first before the living wage is required of employers. For those who need affordable housing, especially the now more common smaller households, there are not enough houses. We should have built the houses first before changing the benefit rules.

  • Clive Sneddon 25th Jul '15 - 11:26pm

    Further on ‘conflicting’ views of fairness, Stephen Howse is of course right to say there is a problem of female underrepresentation in Parliament, though that is not the only underrepresented group. My understanding of the debate within the party is that it is about whether it is possible to solve this problem without adopting an illiberal solution. This is about effectiveness rather than fairness, as we all want to see individuals and society benefit from the talents of all. Michael BG’s income tax example seems to hark back to the 18th century when income was personal property and the state had no business to take it away; on the basis that income tax reflects ability to pay, it is not self-evidently unfair at all, in which case different tax rates are also fair. To John Tilley I would say that, in my view, the reason that nothing has been done to bring corporate thieves to book is the need to establish that existing law is applicable to what they have done. Any new detailed legislation to make illegal what they have done would then be evaded by finding another ingenious way of putting money into their own pockets. Hence my proposal of a more general approach designed to change behaviour.

  • Clive Sneddon 25th Jul '15 - 11:38pm

    Thank you Mavarine Du-Marie for quoting Rawls, which is helpful. I agree that the focus needs to be on corporate/public rather than individualized fairness. Thank you, Bill le Breton, for your interest, and yes, a Part 2 informed by the response to Part 1 would be a good idea. On differentiation and on discussing what the electorate cares about, Peter Bancroft, Kevin and John Roffey, my experience on the doorstep is that people are very interested in corporate malfeasance and oppressive bureaucracy that seems to miss the point of what the institution concerned exists to do. Whereas fairness is such a popular concept no one would dream of arguing against it, I have seen no action on the part of other parties actually to secure a fairer society, so we would differentiate ourselves by promising a Fairness Act and we would find support on the doorstep for actually tackling what many many people know to be wrong with our society.

  • Simon Banks 27th Jul '15 - 8:23pm

    The definition you quote of fairness, Clive, could apply very well to the equality of the Equality Act: when you come down to it, the Act penalises certain unfair acts such as not serving a customer because he’s Black or not appointing a young woman because she might get pregnant.

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