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Fair doesn’t mean equal

31st October 2014

I was sent this picture by a member of our Board. They’d seen it on Twitter. I think she liked it for the simplicity of the message it gave.


Most people would agree that equality is a fine thing. Enabling any individual to participate at the same level is essential to any sort of functioning society. However it only works if everyone is able to reach that level – or, as in the case of the picture, to look over the barrier and see what everyone else can.

This resonated with me as I think it sums up our ethos.

Equal is good but it isn’t always enough on its own. Gateway has always been about bridging the gap, recognising that there are people who aren’t ready or able – for justifiable reasons – to participate at the same level.

Gateway has always been about giving people that metaphorical “leg up”. In our Articles of Association, we committed to “providing assistance in overcoming barriers”. It was one of our founding principles and remains key to everything we do.

Our approach is to look at the individual and, with them, make the call on what they need to be able to participate.

Some people just need a bit of support and encouragement to actually get on with things. Others need us to build their confidence before they can see for themselves how competent they actually are.

But some people are a distance away from participating fully. It’s going to take more time and effort, but we’re in it together and we’ll help them all we can. If it’s possible, and they want it, we’ll help them get there.

What is fairness?

So what does it mean to be fair? The Oxford Dictionary says, ” treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination”. But sometimes, it’s clear someone is in need of more help. Sometimes, responding to a need requires “positive discrimination”.

The picture of the children looking over the barrier is beautiful in its simplicity. The one on the right is tantalisingly close. They know something exciting is happening as they can hear it but, frustratingly, they can’t quite see. They need that little bit of extra help to participate.

Likewise, in wider society, some people need us to discriminate in their favour – to build their resilience and confidence – to enable them to participate.

I’m worried that what I see as “fairness” – giving extra help, or making exceptions for someone based on their individual need – is sometimes seen as somehow less credible, or “soft”. But why? The help – like the extra step in the picture – is so easy to provide. No one is disadvantaged by it, no one is put out, and you could argue that we all benefit, because more people are living a fuller life.

Assessing needs, not judging behaviour

So can we say, then, that fairness means giving people the help they deserve? And that treating them differently is OK if it gets them to where they need to be – to the same place as everyone else?

I never thought I’d be saying the same thing as David Cameron, but in his Conservative conference speech in 2010 he said, “fairness means giving people what they deserve”. Great! How reassuring. Maybe we could even find some common ground.

But no, it falls away, as he continues, “and what people deserve depends on how they behave.” So, suddenly, it’s become a trade. The discrimination that Mr Cameron shows here is not a positive one, but a moral one, based on a judgement of someone’s behaviour.

At Gateway, our job is not to make any moral judgements, but to help those who need it in a way that is most likely to have the biggest benefit to them.

chris and amyTake home visits from our Health Trainer service. Most people are happy to meet their Health Trainer at the GP surgery, Children’s Centre, or local cafe, but some request a home visit.

However, it’s recently been suggested that the only people who should get a home visit are those who are housebound. The idea is that anyone else should be able to come to us, and if they don’t want to, they are clearly not committed enough to embark on a behaviour change process.

That, to me, sounds like a needless moral judgement. There’s a feeling that we are being “soft” and somehow disempowering the individual by agreeing to visit them at home.

If we stopped home visits, loads of people wouldn’t engage – and that’s not because they’re not committed, it’s because they’ve not got the bus fare, they’ve got three small kids at home, they’re embarrassed about how they look, or they’re anxious about going into a new situation, because they’re low and haven’t been out of the house for weeks because their relationship broke down, or they were bereaved, or they lost their job… there are a hundred valid reasons.

If we go to see someone at home it might just mean that someone who wouldn’t otherwise engage at all puts their trust in us and starts to do whatever it is they need to do. Our Health Trainers are skilled. They know the ideal is for the person to leave the comfort of home and engage more fully, and in most cases they gradually encourage them to do just that.

And who’s disadvantaged? We’re not – we’re happy to do home visits! The individual isn’t, as they are in their preferred environment. And the Commissioner is satisfied, as we’ve reached someone who would otherwise have disengaged.

It’s a simple fact that some people do just need a bit of extra help – a “leg up” – to get to where everyone else is. It isn’t just fair to offer it – it’s our responsibility.

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  1. Eleanor McGee

    Unfortunately, Cameron thinks some people deserve little or nothing. I will continue to look for a Government that helps the feckless poor, as well as “hard working families”. As you point out, we can’t always see what people are struggling with from the outside, so best not to judge. Thanks for bringing up this theme.

  2. Vicki Fitzgerald

    A great post, and what Gateway is all about. Starting at the point someone feels able to is hugely important. Home is often the safest place to take a first step. Gateway understands this better than those who are not on the front line and it is so important to share our understanding.

  3. Ann Forletta

    A thought provoking post which beautifully highlights the difference between equity and equality. ‘One size’ has never fitted all. People will continue to have differing needs. One of Gateway’s strength is being able to identify those needs and find innovative ways of addressing them. Keep with the good work!

  4. Jamie Forbes

    It was this picture, of the childreen with the boxes, that I mentioned to the Chancellor for Education after my recent appearance on Channel 4 news during the Conservative Party Conference. I, however took the left picture – with everyone having a box – as ‘fair’ and the right picture as ‘just’, and that the benefits system needs more Justice, and less ‘Fairness’

    I also like the fact that the picture encompasses the idea of limited resources and that those with an advantage should be willing to give something to those with a disadvantage.

    • Katherine Hewitt

      What a coincidence that you latched onto the picture too! I think it’s been used quite a lot but I can see why. It’s so straight forward isn’t it.
      It’s interesting what you say about justice. One definition of fair I looked at defined it as without injustice – so maybe we’re both right! I think we’re saying the same thing – that people should get what they need and that’s not us being good to them, it’s justice.
      I also agree about the extra dimension, those giving away what they have because they don’t need it and someone else does. I don’t think we can ever be reminded enough to do that.