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Economic and Social Inequality

Volume 762: debated on Thursday 18 June 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they will prioritise to reduce economic and social inequality in a One Nation Britain.

My Lords, the Government believe that the best way to reduce inequality is by delivering full employment and reducing the number of workless households. By restoring growth to the economy, low-income households will become more likely to enter work, and households will reap the benefits of a growing economy. More people are in work now than ever before, and since 2010 the number of children in workless households has fallen by around 390,000.

My Lords, while the Prime Minister sloganises about the Government’s one-nation approach and as the Chancellor forswears any tax increases on the well off and remains bent on hitting the poorest again with a further £12 billion of cuts in social security, is it not inevitable that inequality will worsen, with its associated pathologies of ill health, underperforming education, poor productivity, slow economic growth—as the IMF pointed out this week—and, whatever tokenistic legislation they pass, a budget surplus continuing to recede beyond the horizon?

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord. Income inequality in the UK has actually come down, and this is reflected in household incomes since 2007-08. The annual average disposable income of the poorest fifth of households has risen by £100 in real terms, while over the same period the largest fall has been in income for the richest fifth of households, which has reduced by £3,000 per year. The way to address inequalities, both social and economic, is to get people into work so that they can reap the benefits of full employment.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that much social inequality is caused by the acute shortage of affordable housing? Will the Government put their fullest energy into bringing forward surplus government and local authority land and brownfield sites so that the gap in provision of new affordable housing can be met?

My Lords, housing is of course extremely important. The effect on low-income families for housing is particularly acute so, as we all know, the Government are working on this. But the most important thing is that people in whatever kind of housing it may be are able to work and produce benefits for their families.

My Lords, is not the main cause of inequality in fact inequality of wealth, which was not dealt with in the Answer? No Chancellor has attempted to deal with it since David Lloyd George quite a long time ago. However, have not the present Government made matters significantly worse by failing to tackle inheritance fairly and by failing to set proper taxation on wealthier property? Is it not appropriate to consider the Government’s policy on equality on Waterloo Day?

My Lords, the facts do not bear out the noble Lord’s question. I accept that wealth inequality is higher than income inequality—although he is shaking his head—and that is the case both in the UK and across the OECD. However, it has not changed since records began in 2006. Internationally, the level of wealth inequality in the UK remains below the OECD average and significantly lower than that seen in the US.

My Lords, we have not yet heard from anyone from either the Liberal Democrat Benches or the Conservative Benches, but because we have so far had some contributions from the Opposition Benches, perhaps I may suggest that we start with my noble friend Lord Lang and then go to the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece.

My Lords, in addition to the excellent answers already given by my noble friend to the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, should he not also draw attention to the fact that raising the tax threshold has also been an enormous advantage to those at the lower end of the social equality scale? This, together with the other excellent points he has made, completely confounds the arguments coming from the Benches opposite.

My noble friend is absolutely correct. Since 2007-08, the annual average disposable income of the poorest 20% of households has risen by £100 in real terms, while the average annual income since 2007-08 of the richest 20% has fallen by £3,000.

My Lords, the Minister talked about people who can work and should work, but he has not mentioned the inequality of those families which are headed by someone with a physical or mental disability who cannot work. Children in such families are increasingly living in poverty, and inequality is rising. Can the Minister say how these cuts to welfare, which can only be described as ideological, will impact on those families? Will he tell us whether the Government will undertake to do an impact assessment to ensure that inequality does not get worse for those families?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right, and we do want to pay attention to those who are not able to work. She is completely right on that. I will not undertake to do an impact assessment, but I will pass that on.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Howarth mentioned the IMF report. The report rejects the trickle-down effect, rejects the idea that increased inequality makes economies more dynamic and counsels that the best way to stimulate economies is to support the worst-off 20% in any country, and—wait for it—the other aspect would be to increase the strength of trade unions. What is the ministerial response to this report?

We think that the best way to help the lower—the poorest—in this country is to enable them to get to work. That is why having a record number of people in work is a good thing.