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Alf Dubs on the need to tackle head on the trends towards greater inequality and poverty in the UK

There is a morass of statistics about inequality and poverty in the UK, but one thing that they all do is highlight how the level for both is high. A question for government ministers and politician more broadly therefore, is whether or not this is the price we have to pay for our present relatively high living standards? Or if they believe – as I do – that the price is too high, then what can be done?

Second only to the United States, the UK has the highest levels of inequality of any advanced democracy. Without our redistributive tax and welfare system, the situation would be much worse. So, it is rather surprising that a contender in the Conservative leadership contest has committed to reducing the tax on people earning over £50,000 a year. Hardly the most impoverished group in society.

The recently published Deaton Review on inequalities in the twenty-first century includes some clear statistics on the problem and seeks to track the issues over a further five year study. But there has been an even more critical United Nations report on the impact of austerity on human rights within the UK that predicts close to 40% of children will be living in poverty two years from now. Millions of people in jobs meanwhile, are dependent on various forms of charity including food banks.

There has been a runaway rise in incomes, with those in the richest households almost tripling their salaries in the last four decades. In 2017, pay among FTSE100 CEOs was on average 145 times that of the average worker – compared to just 47 times in 1998. In addition, real wages are still below the pre-crisis level. And in the financial year ending 2018, the wealthiest fifth of individuals in the UK saw a 4.7% increase in their disposable income – compared to a 1.6% decline for the poorest fifth.

There are of course, other income inequalities, impacting variously on women, the young (with a knock on impact on their life chances within the housing market), older people, the black and ethnic minority population, and those with disabilities – with the latter suffering more than most.

But inequality is not just about income. As the Deaton report makes clear, there is a divergence in life expectancy between deprived and affluent areas of our country, and a growing burden of poor mental health among disadvantaged groups. There is also a geographical divergence between our successful cities and our former industrial towns and coastal areas. 

So, inequality cannot be reduced to one dimension – stemming as it does from many forms of privilege and disadvantage. The real question however, is whether the immorality of increased inequalities in our country are sustainable. Or whether they should be condemned and tackled with urgency.

I am very much of the latter view, and it is good to see my party bringing forward imaginative – and costed – solutions, including a National Transformation Fund aimed at rebalancing the economy and a National Investment Bank (with regional arms). I also welcome plans for tackling tax avoidance and evasion, increased corporation tax and a hike in the living wage, with the latter including a more equitable system that benefits younger workers.

As it stands however, we are not yet the party of government and a general election could be as far off as the early summer of 2022. I hope therefore, that the minister responding to my debate in the Lords this week will give some indication of what his party plans to do to reverse the current, depressing trends.

Lord Alf Dubs is a Labour Peer. He tweets @AlfDubs

Published 11th June 2019

A question of priorities

Alf Dubs on the need to tackle head on the trends towards greater inequality and poverty in the UK


George Foulkes on tackling isolation and loneliness among older people

Most of us in the House of Lords have a vested interest in the causes of older people – for obvious reasons. But I declare a more specific interest as a former Director of Age Concern Scotland and now Chair of Age Scotland, the charity representing the interests of all older people in Scotland. As such I am acutely aware of the problems they face.

An increasing problem in society as a whole is the scourge of loneliness and isolation, often resulting in depression and even suicide. It is particularly acute among older people, with over half of those of 75+ living alone and 10% of those over 65 saying they are always or often lonely. The causes include the death of spouses, increased social mobility leading to the decline of the family as a unit, and disability or illness.

Age Scotland and our sister organisations and networks provide support through friendship groups, visiting services and clubs; and particularly our helplines which provide free and confidential advice for older people. However, spending cuts on social care and the NHS have exacerbated the problem as more people are having to stay at home with a dependence on domiciliary support.

A number of universal benefits help to protect older people, particularly those who rely on the state pension. Notwithstanding the recent modest increases, this remains one of the lowest in Europe because of the ‘triple-lock’ which is in place to ratchet up the basic payment.

One of these universal benefits is free or concessionary travel. This encourages older people to get out and about, keeping them fitter and thereby saving money on social and health care – as well as making them feel less isolated. But it has an added benefit of keeping services viable, particularly in rural areas, to be used by younger people who may not have access to a car.

Another benefit is free TV licences for the particularly isolated and vulnerable over 75’s, for many of whom television is their only regular contact with the outside world. Unfortunately, the government has transferred responsibility for its cost to the BBC. A social policy decision that must be reversed, as it should not be the job of the BBC to look after the rights of older people.

A recent Lords select committee on intergenerational fairness has sadly questioned the cost of these benefits, in the mistaken belief that poorer families should benefit by cutting the benefits of poor pensioners. This is manifestly unjust, when the income and wealth of the already affluent top 10% is growing almost exponentially. Those people should contribute more to the people who have sacrificed over decades to increase the prosperity of our country.

Any concern that some rich older people are getting benefits which they do not need can be dealt with by taxing them, rather than introducing some demeaning and costly means-testing.

The parliamentary debate that I am leading this Thursday is intended partly to highlight the scale of the problem. But it is also to encourage government ministers to take action to improve both the lives of older people and bring forward long-term cost-effective solutions.

Lord George Foulkes of Cumnock in a Labour Peer and Chair of Age Scotland. He tweets @GeorgeFoulkes

Published 10 June 2019

In it together

George Foulkes on tackling isolation and loneliness among older people


Jeff Rooker on tackling the long-term implications of climate change

If timing is all then a good example is the debate on climate change that I will be opening for Labour later this week in the House of Lords. No technical expertise is required. All of that was included in David Attenborough’s recent lecture on BBC1. A real visual update of the dangers to the planet as well as the positive actions we can take. Mitigation is all very well, but avoiding the dangers is much more important.

Writing for The Times earlier this month, Philip Collins drew attention to a 30 year old speech by Margaret Thatcher, since which “no senior politician has succeeded in making climate change a cause”. Tony Blair, Al Gore, David Cameron, both Milibands all tried and failed to deliver a memorable climate change speech, he opined. But the material in the then Prime Minister’s address to the United Nation’s general assembly was more dramatic and the scale vast. Remarkable for both its science-based admission that human actions are at fault and the way it sets out the potential of irreversible damage to the planet.

More recently, the 2006 Review of the Economics of Climate Change by Nicholas (now Lord) Stern has clear lists of the dangers, recommended actions and the economic impacts. Our scorecard against his recommendations is not too good.

It is a global issue. We have just eleven years to the 2030 potential tipping point to keep the rise in global temperature to 1.5°C or otherwise face potential changes which we cannot control. The long term targets to get to 2050 as either carbon free or an 80% reduction on the 1990 figures will be irrelevant if the global temperature has gone above 2°C or even 3°C. Catch up on Attenborough on BBC iPlayer to understand the consequences.

Carbon emissions are made by all countries but those likely to suffer most are not the big five carbon emitters of China (30%), the United States (15%), the EU28 (10%), India (7%) and Russia (5%). Together, they account for two thirds of the global total.

While coal burning must stop completely, worrying reports from Global Energy Monitor in the Institution of Engineering and Technology journal show China has quietly restarted construction on dozens of suspended projects. Even under President Trump (perhaps nobody’s told him), the United States is on course to phase out coal by 2030.

Having started it all with our Industrial Revolution, the UK is today a low emitter on the world scale. But we are also part of the third largest emitter and, whatever happens with Brexit, will remain in the EU integrated electricity market. We therefore have responsibilities from both a historical perspective and to next generation.

Even if our science remains world class, we are not doing well. However you look at the statistics, the young climate change activist Greta Thunberg was correct when she referred to the UK’s “very creative carbon accounting”. And the IPCC report last October is a real wake up call to tell us “the house is on fire”.

Yet the UK has continued population growth, big doubts about the new nuclear build required to provide the base load, insulation rates on housing have fallen, and planning permission has been given for a new coal mine. We have also abandoned wind generation on land, and listed building consents continue to stop the use of clean energy technologies. The best solutions need to be market driven but regulated – something that gives confidence to nations, manufactures and households to make changes they can accept and live with.

It is not too late but actions to change are really urgent. I have changed my mind on the third runway at Heathrow and fracking. We also need to address the simple truth that climate change does not fit into our current political system.

Lord Jeff Rooker is a Labour Peer and a member of the Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee

Published 29th April 2019

Wake up call

Jeff Rooker on tackling the long-term implications of climate change

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