Incomes report must be taken with a pinch of salt as premises flawed


COMMENT:HOW MUCH money do you need to satisfy your "physical, psychological, spiritual and social needs"? What is a "minimum acceptable standard of living"?

What is the objective difference between a need and a want? Yesterday, four people actively involved in advocacy - three are members of a non-governmental organisation urging social justice and one is from a trade union-funded think tank - published a weighty, partly taxpayer-funded volume giving answers to these questions.

Here's a question that is easier to answer: should taxpayers' money be given to Ibec to write a huge report on the regulation of business? No, because as sure as night follows day, the report would find that business is being throttled by too much red tape.

And even if that is true, does anyone believe Ibec would be objective on an issue about which it exists to lobby? Again the answer is no. The conclusion, therefore, is that Ibec should not be paid by the State to research its own direct interests.

Just as Ibec is a fine organisation, so too is the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice (VPSJ), three of whose employees were co-authors of yesterday's report on incomes needed for a decent standard of living. But just as the Department of Enterprise shouldn't be subsidising Ibec research, the Department of Social Protection has no business giving VPSJ taxpayers' money to do its research.

Funding issues aside, there is plenty to quibble about in the tome. The four authors begin their 182-page report with a lament: "unfortunately, to date there has been limited commitment in Ireland to establish social consensus as to what constitutes adequate income and resources".

This is an extraordinary statement in a number of respects. First, people are different in their needs, wants and opinions. There will never be consensus on what constitutes adequate income and resources.

Second, it is not clear who is being criticised for "limited commitment" and why this is unfortunate given there does not appear to be widespread demand for such a commitment. Third, the notion of adequacy changes. What was adequate in the past is not likely to be adequate today. There is no acknowledgment of this in the report.

Finally, because societies themselves change over time, so too do the kinds of consensus they arrive at with regard to adequacy (and a thousand other societal questions). That is one reason why democracies hold regular elections. Political parties put forward policies about the amounts of welfare payments and minimum wages - the focus of this report - and people express a preference. Such issues are the meat and potatoes of political contestation and should remain open to debate, not be shut down.

Despite complaining about the absence of a deliberately constructed social consensus, the authors say that their work is informed by "socially agreed empirically based income standards". These standards are not "socially agreed" in the sense that any fair-minded observer might understand, but are the authors' interpretation of the views of the focus groups whose discussions and responses were used as input into their work.

Another eyebrow-raising aspect of the report was the publisher - the Policy Institute in Trinity College. Impartiality and objectivity are hallmarks of academic research. Publishing the views of a lobbyist blurs the line, thereby undermining TCD's credibility.

It is right in a free society that vested interests and lobby groups have every opportunity to put their case. In a society with such a small marketplace for ideas, the research and opinions of advocates can play a role in stimulating debate. But they should always be taken with a pinch of salt. Yesterday's report should too.