Commission on Social justice: Labour's election defeat fuelled inquiry

The commission was born out of Labour's election defeat in 1992, when the electorate apparently resoundingly rejected what - by Labour's past standards - was an exceedingly modest 'tax and spend' package.

A key part of Labour's manifesto had been raising pensions by pounds 5 for single people and pounds 8 for couples, to restore their link to earnings, and to restore the value of child benefit to its 1979 level.

The pounds 3.3bn cost of that accounted for much of the increased tax which Mr Smith proposed to levy on those earning more than pounds 21,000 a year.

As the Conservatives turned that into 'Labour's tax bombshell', and no one, not even pensioners, appeared much impressed by the benefits on offer, Labour found itself losing the election by a seven point share of the vote, even though it cut the Conservatives' 100-seat majority to 21.

John Smith's response was to set up the Commission on Social Justice. It was to be 'a new Beveridge' to carry out an independent inquiry into social and economic reform and produce recommendations for a strategy and programme of policy changes over 15 years. Its mission was to 'develop a practical vision of economic and social reform for the 21st century'.

The commission was based at the Institute of Public Policy Research, a left-of-centre body whose former deputy director, Patricia Hewitt, was a policy adviser to Neil Kinnock when he was Labour leader. The commission secretary was David Milliband, who is now a policy adviser to Tony Blair.

The terms of reference included: to consider the principles of social justice and their application to the economic wellbeing of individuals and the community; to examine the relationship between social justice and other goals, including economic competitiveness and prosperity; to analyse public policies, particularly in the fields of employment, taxation and social welfare, which could enable every person to live free from want and to enjoy the fullest possible social and economic opportunities.

The 16 commissioners, chaired by Sir Gordon Borrie, a former director general of fair trading and former member of the Equal Opportunities Commission, met 16 times. Detailed work was done in 'policy development panels'. Policy proposals were thrashed out during three weekend retreats.

Thirteen discussion documents were published.

The commissioners went on 11 'outreach' visits around the country between February 1993 and April this year.

They met individuals, organisations, local authorities, church groups, trade unions and employers and organised seminars for academics and pressure groups.

Between 450 and 500 written submissions were received as evidence. The total budget for the commission's work was about pounds 250,000 but many extras were provided in services and help provided free. The commission received no money from any political party.

(Photographs omitted)

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