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Income and Wealth Inequality

Volume 757: debated on Wednesday 26 November 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the current levels of income and wealth inequality in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, according to the latest ONS statistics, income inequality in the UK is lower than when this Government came into office. Recent ONS data have also found that wealth inequality has remained unchanged since this measure began in 2006.

My Lords, there may be some dispute about those figures, but for the moment let us go along with them. Is the Minister aware that today, or yesterday, the Institute of Directors, hardly a hotbed of left-wing views, denounced a pay package for a senior executive as being “excessive and inflammatory”? The chief executives of our leading companies have seen their average pay go up from £4.1 million to £4.7 million. That is at a time when the largest network of food banks says that increased demand for food bank services has gone up by 38%. Is that not a gross condemnation of our society?

My Lords, I completely agree with the noble Lord that many directors have had pay increases which bear no relation to either pay increases that other people have had or the performance of their company, and that is why this Government have introduced a raft of measures to make firms more accountable to their shareholders for the pay packages that directors get. However, I remind the noble Lord that those people who are in the top 1% of wage earners and whose pay has gone up now contribute some 28% of the total income tax collected.

My Lords, does my noble friend recollect that the late Lord Bauer, a pathfinding economist in many areas, suggested that in this context a more objective word than “inequality” is “difference”?

I am not sure that I do recollect altogether. It is important to look at inequalities as well as differences because there is an additional dimension in the word “inequality” to the neutral word “difference”.

My Lords, will the noble Lord, who is my former student and was a very good student, join me in recognising that after three or four decades of being roughly constant, income inequality in the UK shot up during the 1980s, and the Gini coefficient went from around 0.25 to about 0.35 in household disposable income and has stayed there through different Administrations over the last 20 years? We moved from being one of the more equal countries to one of the more unequal countries in the OECD. Does he recognise also that the share of gross income of the top 1% has more than doubled in the last 30 years, moving from around 6% to around 13%? Are he and the Government comfortable with those levels of inequality?

My Lords, I cannot but agree with my former tutor. I fear that I did not hear the last part of his question altogether, but it is very important, first, that we shine a greater light on the amount that people have been earning at the top end so that they can be subject to appropriate scrutiny, and, secondly, that people at the top end are taxed more effectively than they have sometimes been in the past. In both those respects, the Government have made some progress.

My Lords, has the Minister read the recent report of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission? Its central conclusion is that, because of the rise in the number of working poor, unless very different policies are pursued, by 2020 the challenge will be that we will be a much more divided nation between north and south and between rich and poor. What are the Government going to do in order to have those different policies to ensure that we are not a singularly divided nation?

My Lords, the commission has put great priority, in all its reports, on the importance of work in households. One of the telling statistics, for me, about what has happened in recent years is that there are now 390,000 fewer children in workless households than there were in 2010 and that the proportion of children in workless households is now at its lowest level since records began. We know that the family environment is extremely important to how children think about the workplace and to their chances of getting jobs.

My Lords, in the context of this important discussion on relative income and wealth inequality, do the Government have a view on the opinion of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, expressed yesterday, that since 2010 the position of pensioners has increased significantly relative to those in work, however palatable that might be to your Lordships’ House?

My Lords, as for how resources are allocated, and where people feel more could be done or less, it is a bit like squeezing air round a balloon. It is interesting that I do not think that there has been a single question in your Lordships’ House on one aspect of the Government’s policy—the level of support the Government have given to pensioners.

My Lords, if the Minister is right that inequality has not increased then the Government are clearly failing in their objectives, because they certainly set out to reduce income tax on the more highly paid. We all know the excesses of chief executives getting 21% increases in pay when very many other people are seeing reductions, let alone increases, and cannot keep up with inflation. Is he aware that there are 1.4 million people on zero-hours contracts and that the average family in this country is £30 a week worse off under this Government?

My Lords, I just think that the noble Lord’s figures are wrong. On inequality, I would like to quote Chris Giles from last week’s Financial Times, since noble Lords opposite clearly find it difficult to accept what I am saying about it.

“Since 2008, the earnings distribution has been flat as a pancake. And because the coalition government has protected people dependent on social security more than the working population, inequality of net incomes has edged down”.

My Lords, does the Minister agree, following the noble Lord, Lord Stern, that the Gini coefficient has gone up significantly over the last three decades? There is no question about that, regardless of who has been in government. Does he agree that the living standards of people in this country are far higher than three decades ago, when Britain was the sick man of Europe?

My Lords, I absolutely agree with the noble Lord. Noble Lords will be aware that real incomes are starting to rise again and are projected to do so over the next three or four years by all reputable forecasters.