Five meanings of fair - which is fairest of them all?

Boy sulking Scrapping child benefit for higher-earners has proved controversial, despite government claims it is "fair"

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Prime Minister David Cameron has spoken of the need for a fair approach to cutting the UK's spending deficit. But what exactly is fair?

Coming amid economic turmoil which saw taxpayers bailing out banks blamed for recklessly gambling financial stability for the promise of huge bonuses, it was perhaps inevitable that "fairness" would be a recurring theme of the 2010 UK general election.

Labour based its campaign on the offer of "a future fair for all", while the Lib Dems promised fair taxes, a fair chance, fair future and fair deal on their manifesto cover.

The Conservatives peppered their campaign material with similar references although, with their invitation to join the Big Society, it was a slightly different vision - focusing on everyone doing their fair share.

David Cameron expanded on that theme in his first party conference speech as prime minister. But defining fairness is not as easy as it may sound, as the following examples show:

1. Fairness in the "Big Society"

Mr Cameron called for a "new conversation about what fairness really means".

David Cameron a the Conservative conference Fairness means giving people what they deserve, says the prime minister

Facing anger from within his party over the scrapping of child benefit for higher earners, he told delegates that "fairness includes asking those on higher incomes to shoulder more of the burden".

"Yes, fairness means giving money to help the poorest in society; people who are sick, who are vulnerable, the elderly," he said.

"But you can't measure fairness just by how much we spend on welfare."

People should be supported out of poverty, not trapped in dependency, he argued.

Going further, he said: "Taking more money from the man who goes out to work long hours every single day so the family next door can go on living a life on benefits without working, is that fair?

"No. Fairness means giving people what they deserve - and what people deserve can depend on how they behave."

2. Fairness in justice

Striking a balance between fairness for victims of crime and the right to a fair trial is a problem ministers are constantly wrestling with.

Lady Justice statue Are the scales of justice tipped unfairly?

It was once a pillar of English law that a defendant's previous convictions could not be mentioned during a trial, except under particular circumstances such as where there were stark similarities between past offences and a new allegation.

However, the 2003 Criminal Justice Act allowed for juries to be told of a criminal record in cases where it was "relevant" and showed their "bad character".

At the time, the Bar Council's vice-chairman, Matthias Kelly QC, said ministers faced "upsetting the scales of justice" if they proceeded with the controversial proposal.

"It would seriously prejudice the prospects of a fair trial," he argued.

But former Attorney General Baroness Scotland, then a Home Office minister, heralded the act becoming law in December 2004 by saying: "Trials should be a search for the truth and juries should be trusted with all the relevant evidence available to help them to reach proper and fair decisions."

The Scottish Law Commission is currently considering a similar move.

3. A philosopher's view

Philosopher Mark Vernon says people's view of fairness has changed over time.

Start Quote

Mark Vernon

Banking would be impossible without a strong society because bankers make money out of others, and that means fairness must operate”

End Quote Mark Vernon

"Ancient Greek philosophers talked about fairness in terms of your place in society and fulfilling your roles and responsibilities within the community," he says.

While a notion of fairness works best in such relationships, today's individualistic world makes for "profound tension" in discussions about what is fair.

"It doesn't make much sense to ask whether a footballer's pay is fair, because footballers have a skill and ability that is individual. That's why people pay to see them," he argues.

"On the other hand, it does make sense to ask whether a banker's pay is fair because banking is a community activity. Banking would be impossible without a strong society because bankers make money out of others, and that means fairness must operate."

In modern meritocracies, the market decides people's worth and fairness means little more than "what you can get away with", he says.

4. Fair access to schools

Every year thousands of children are denied a place at their first-choice school, sparking protests about a lack of fairness in admissions policy.

School children in class A "fair" method for allocating school places has proved elusive

There are a range of arguments about what is the fairest method of deciding who should go to over-subscribed schools.

One of the most common is to choose those who live nearest the school. However, some argue that it allows wealthy people to "queue-jump" by buying a house nearer the school.

"Fair banding" attempts to counter this by grouping pupils into bands, according to their abilities, and allocating a proportion of places to each - thus potentially taking in pupils from a wider area. However, if a large proportion of the applicants are in the top ability band, the allocation of places can reflect this and again deny the poorest children access to a top school.

Awarding places by lottery has also been tried - with Brighton and Hove operating the first city-wide system. However, because it is used in tandem with catchment areas, researchers have suggested it has made little impact in evening out inequality.

On top of this, traditional practices of prioritising children according to faith, awarding them places at the same schools as siblings or testing for admission to grammar schools continue.

5. Fairness in taxation

On the face of it, asking everyone to contribute exactly the same amount to the tax pot might sound like the fairest system of all.

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher tried to introduce such a system with her plan for a flat rate poll tax after winning the 1987 general election.

Poll tax protesters The Poll Tax. Fair to some but not in the eyes of others

However, asking the rich, middle class and poor to pay the same local tax was denounced as "unfair" and led to mass demonstrations by people from all levels of society, according to journalist and broadcaster Michael Goldfarb, writing for the BBC in August.

The argument was that it failed to take into account people's ability to pay. However, when Labour introduced a 50p top rate of income tax in April, higher earners argued they were being punished despite already contributing the most to the state's coffers.

On the other side of the coin is the amount people take from the state. All Britain's major parties are in favour of universal healthcare but the government now argues that offering child benefit to higher-earners is unfair.

As ministers mull over which budgets to cut and who to tax more, expect the argument over what is fair in terms of sharing burdens and benefits to continue.

Below is a selection of your comments.

The section Fairness In Taxation shouldn't include a discussion of the Community Charge (Poll Tax). The Community Charge was a charge (i.e. payment for a service/services), and not a tax. Those that objected were doing so on the basis that some people should pay less than others, for the same services. Clearly that is a nonsense. If they were buying goods (food, TVs, cars) or services (loans, insurance, phone, satellite-TV) they wouldn't expect to pay less than anyone else. Also, I don't think you're right about "all sections of society" complaining. The Community Charge was of course a much fairer system than the current Council Tax that incorrectly links the size of your house to your disposable income, neither of which have anything to do with the amount of council services you consume. The Council Tax exactly implements the rule of people paying different amounts for the same thing, and clearly is totally unfair.

Dom, Kingston

My view of what's fair financially is everyone contributes the same proportion of their income/benefits to repairing our deficit: A simple calculation to show that the amount needed to redress the balance, after cost-saving measures / efficiencies are in place is X and to generate X requires an across the board say 3% reduction in benefits and 3% increase in taxes, then this is fair because those who can will pay more through higher taxes, but proportionally everyone is contributing the same percentage of their income. Simplistic yes, but it's my vision of fair.

Peter, London

The only fair way to do things is to abolish the welfare state all together. The government should be providing defence, road building and basic policing, nothing more. This would reduce the tax burden massively and society would progress through competition.

Dave, Portsmouth

This is all a bit of a smokescreen. The bottom line is that only a politician could think there's fairness (by any definition) to be found in introducing a policy that would penalise a household with a total income of £44k whilst protecting a household with a total income of up to £87k. It's a special kind of idiocy that afflicts only politicians that results in this kind of suggestion being made.

Rob, London, England

The rhetoric calls for "those on higher incomes to shoulder more of the burden". Fairness might suggest that those who earn twice as much, should pay twice as much. In fact, with our current progressive tax system, someone earning £62,000 pays exactly three times as much income tax as someone earning £31,000 - you could argue that those on higher incomes are already shouldering more than their fair share of the burden. This also ignores the fact that the better-off tend to take a lot less out of the system, through their use of private education and healthcare, and not using out-of-work benefits. I'm not suggesting that the better-off are having a particularly hard time or are deserving of sympathy; just that any suggestion that they are not already doing their "fair" bit is a little absurd.

Richard Gosling, Aberdeen, Scotland

My kids' definition of fair is "what I want"'. Come to think about it, this is a pretty universal meaning.

Andrew, Malvern, UK

I worked for some years for the Insurance Ombudsman, where we were required to reach decisions which were fair and reasonable. This naturally applied to each side to the dispute, both member of the public and insurance company. We rapidly discovered that interpretations by each side as to what was "fair", were not in any way based upon the care taken at arriving at a settlement ; the trouble taken in the explanation ; or the correctness of principles followed. It was about winning or losing. People will consider even the most biased, illogical and unprincipled decision "fair" - as long as it goes their way. Conversely, the most Solomon-like and wise judgement, based on scrupulously applying proper precedents and principles, but going against them, is "unfair". Thus those deprived of Child Benefit, no matter how rich or undeserving, will consider their loss unfair; whilst delighted unaffected onlookers think it is just fine. No-one cares about the arguments, or abstract concepts of right or wrong. It's as simple as that. "Equitable", "reasonable" etc mean exactly the same thing.

Tony Cantlay, London, UK

What seems fair to one seems unfair to another, there is no right or wrong answer in this argument and no solution will please everyone. What bothers me most is that the hard working seem to be punished! I've worked hard to get in a good job, earning good wage, I've struggled to keep out of debt during the recession and yet I see so many people "happy" to stay on benefits because it's easier, they know the system and they deliberately manipulate it. It makes me furious!

Charlie, Upminster, Essex

A teacher once explained to me that fair does not mean equal. Equal is when everything is the same for everyone. She used the example of a building. If it has a set of steps, then anyone who arrives must climb them and the method of entering is equal. However if anyone is unable to climb steps they cannot get in, therefore it is equal but not fair.

Nich Hill, Portsmouth, UK

Like many English words "fair" has a range of meanings and nuances. When a "black sheep" uncle of mine left the Royal Navy many, many years ago his discharge papers had a character section in which his commanding officer had written "fair" which was clearly understood by both sides to mean "pretty bad"!

David Everington, Shrewsbury, England

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