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Wealth Inequality

Volume 758: debated on Wednesday 21 January 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the Oxfam projection that the richest one per cent will soon be wealthier than the rest of the world’s population.

My Lords, domestically, we have invested heavily in HMRC to ensure that the wealthy pay the tax they owe. We have led efforts through the G20 and the OECD to reform the international tax rules to tackle the issue of multinationals artificially shifting their profits to avoid paying tax. Since 2013, we have been the first G7 country to meet the UN commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on development aid.

My Lords, given what the Minister has just said, will the Government give their full support to the Private Member’s Bill on Friday which will ensure that we continue to meet the commitment to spend 0.7% of GNP on development aid into the foreseeable future? Secondly, is it not shameful that the world is still so unequal? We should all be ashamed that the richest 1% have all the wealth and that 99% should have very little. Is it not bad for governance and bad for the future of the world that that should be the case?

My Lords, I can give the noble Lord the absolute assurance that the Government support the Bill that will be debated on Friday. As to global inequality, noble Lords might like to contemplate the fact that to be part of the 1%, the wealth threshold is just over £500,000; so we are all part of the 1%.

My Lords, is it not time that some of our leading charities set about solving the problems they were set up to solve rather than getting involved in financial lobbying and somewhat dubious forecasting? Does my noble friend agree that, looking at what the British Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières do, they are the blue chips of our charities, and perhaps some of our other large charities could follow the example that they have set?

My Lords, the advocacy role of Oxfam and other charities is extremely important. The list of proposals in the report we are debating includes issues such as promoting women’s economic equality and women’s rights. Those goals are shared by all international development charities, which do a very useful job in bringing these important issues to wider public attention.

Does the Minister share my concern that the current division in wealth in our country—where the richest 1% of income getters have 14% of the wealth—repeats a situation that was last reached in 1914? If he does, will he tell the House what policies the Government are pursuing to try to close that gap, and especially what fiscal policies they are pursuing to have a necessary effect on the richest people in our country, whatever their place of origin?

As the noble Lord will know, in terms of wealth, the largest assets held by most people in the UK are housing assets. The Government have taken a number of steps in terms of taxing high-value housing. There is a lively debate about that in terms of the upcoming election. As for income, I remind him that the top 1% is now paying 28% of all income tax receipts, the highest ever level.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the evidence of growing inequality in society reflects the stagnation in social mobility? British society is becoming more and more unequal and polarised, with fewer opportunities for young people, particularly those from deprived backgrounds, to progress in the 21st century than was the case in the previous century. What steps are the Government taking to address that?

My Lords, I make two principal points. The first is that the increased level of employment means that there are now 390,000 fewer children living in workless households, which sets a very important example in those households about their future life prospects. The other point to bear in mind is that there are now record numbers of people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university, which, as we know, is one of the best ways of ensuring that people get a good, well paid job.

My Lords, does the Minister not know the evidence which indicates that inequality in this country is increasing? The policy of looking after the rich, based on some kind of theory of a trickle-down effect, is not working. How can there be a situation, under this Administration, where the rich are getting wealthier but the average family is £1,600 a year worse off?

My Lords, it is simply not true: income inequality has not risen under this Administration. The £1,600 figure—which was immensely dubious even when it was first used three years ago—is now completely outdated by the fact that wages are rising in real terms. The key thing in terms of prosperity and, indeed, income distribution is to increase the number of jobs, to increase the number of well paid jobs. We have increased the number of jobs and vastly increased the number of apprentices. That is the how we are going to enable people from the bottom end of the income scale to do better in the future.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister referred to the forthcoming Private Member’s Bill to enshrine the 0.7% ODA figure in law. Is he aware that the Economic Affairs Committee of this House produced a unanimous report a short while ago pointing out very clearly and cogently why that would be wholly wrong?

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the poverty gap can never be closed—both in this country and, especially, abroad—until women are freed from subjection, given full education, allowed to work and provided with childcare; until we end warfare in some countries, improve health and make sure that everybody speaks the language of the country in which they live; and until they achieve their full educational potential? These are issues almost greater than this House can tackle.

My Lords, that is a very important point. I pay tribute to the role of the charities in promoting women’s rights, as I said earlier. If we look at countries with very high levels of poverty and civil strife—Pakistan is an obvious example—the proportion of women who are illiterate is still shockingly high.