Skip to main content

Living Standards: Inequality

Volume 779: debated on Tuesday 7 March 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what policy lessons can be learned from the forecast of growing inequality in the Resolution Foundation report Living Standards 2017.

My Lords, according to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics, income inequality in the UK is at its lowest level since 1986. The key to economic success and to reducing inequality is to improve productivity, which determines living standards in the long run. That is why the Government have established a national productivity investment fund and published a Green Paper on an industrial strategy, highlighting the role of improved skills, infrastructure investment and R&D.

My Lords, the Resolution Foundation argues that preventing the biggest increase in inequality since the 1980s requires a shift in social policy choices, notably the freeze in most working-age benefits in the face of rising inflation. Will the Government now follow the advice of Iain Duncan Smith and reconsider the freeze? He warned that it was never intended that it should have such a “dramatic effect on incomes”—his words. Would that not be the right thing to do, to protect low-income families in and out of work, for a Government who claim to be working for everyone?

My Lords, I think we have to have a little context. Savings are necessary to reduce borrowing and to put the public finances back on a sustainable footing after the financial crisis. Between 1980 and 2014, spending on welfare trebled in real terms to £96 billion, while GDP increased by much less. Our approach is a different one. We are committed to supporting working families with a whole host of measures to get people back into work, to innovate, to grow and to put the country on a good footing. It is only a forecast from the Resolution Foundation. Forecasts are not always right, and we are determined to make the changes we need for this country.

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether any assessment has been made of the effect of the national living wage on reducing inequality and, indeed, whether there is anything more that can be done in this respect?

I thank my noble friend for that question. I believe that the national living wage, brought in in April last year, is a fantastic example of policies that the Government have introduced to make work pay. Looking forward, it will rise again, to £7.50 next month, and it has already given many working people in Britain the fastest pay rise in 20 years.

My Lords, observers will have noticed that there is a startling contradiction between the presumption in the Question that income inequality has been growing very sharply and the presumption in the reply that it is doing the opposite. There are different measures, but most of them show that inequality is growing. Would it not be useful if the ONS convened a panel to get a little more clarity as to why figures can be bandied around that give such different descriptions of what is happening?

I think the ONS keeps us honest; it looks at these figures over time and very helpfully updates us. The OBR forecasts are also updated all the time so that we can see what is happening. I come back to the point that the Resolution Foundation is looking at a forecast, but if we look at what has happened, five years ago it was predicted by the IFS, I think, that there would be a rise in inequality. In fact, that has not happened. Actually, things have continued to progress and we have seen a recovery. That is what we need to continue by having the right policies, which this Government are pursuing under our new Prime Minister.

My Lords, I am shocked that the Minister does not recognise that young working families are facing serious financial pressure and are struggling, and that it looks as though it is going to be worse with inflation. Does she agree that part of the reason is the very high rents that most of these families face? Will she be willing, in the Budget tomorrow, to permit local councils to go out and borrow the necessary amounts of money to drive forward development of affordable rental housing? She has often acknowledged that the housing market is broken but all the Government’s solutions are on the demand side, and supply does not increase, especially not in the affordable area.

I would not want to steal the Chancellor’s thunder today. There is certainly some provision for prudential borrowing by local councils, but I come back to the support that we give to working families. The national living wage has already been mentioned by my noble friend. That has provided the fastest pay rise in 20 years. We have raised the personal allowance to £12,500 by the end of this Parliament; nobody had done that before. We are introducing universal credit, which has the benefit of making work pay, so that if you go out and work you are not held back by benefit dilemmas. We are committed to making work pay, and we believe that that is the very best way forward for the people of this country and for hard-working families, which I agree are a priority.

My Lords, the Minister cannot discount the Resolution Foundation in such a cavalier manner. It has a strong reputation and it produced very real, well-backed analysis. It said that higher incomes will rise, but slowly; that middle incomes are going to stagnate; and that low incomes are going to fall. We know that the base for low incomes is so little that they will be unable to afford to fall without poverty increasing substantially. The Foundation says it will be the biggest rise in inequality since the late 1980s. I do not need to remind the House which party was in power during that period or which Prime Minister—many of whose Cabinet members, of course, are still with us.

I would add that the Resolution Foundation report also says—which is the point I have been emphasising—that economic forecasts can change dramatically and there is no way of knowing just how the future will play out. I believe that the approach we now have—including our industrial strategy, and investment in infrastructure, housing, digital and transport —is making a big difference. We have protected the most vulnerable through the benefit system, which is actually highly redistributive, so that households in the lowest decile get four times the support in spending that they pay in tax, while the highest decile pay five times as much in tax as they receive in pay. We want a fairer society and getting workless households into work and improving productivity and skills is, to my mind, the best way forward.