The black marks on the government's inequality record

Half way through the parliamentary term, how is the government doing? Not too well, writes One Society's Larissa Hansford.

At the half way point of the Coalition Government's term, debate rages over top pay, low pay and the persistently vast gulf between the two.

The trend to an expanding pay gulf is one that right and left alike have denounced. Front page headlines express outrage over the £1.32m payout to theformer director-general of the BBC, influential multinational board members call for a pay cap on corporate bonuses, and studies show that pay for top bosses rose an average of 10 per cent in 2011. Meanwhile £5m people are living at below living wage pay, with both Boris Johnson and Ed Milliband, backing an expansion of the scheme.

In the midst of so many calls for a reduction in the UK pay gulf, how have the Government performed on these issues? A new report by One Society, The Coalition Government and Income Inequality: The half term report, indicates that their record is wanting. It finds not only that inequality has not been reduced, but concludes that Coalition polices are actually likely to produce an increasing gap between the richest and the rest, at the same time as average incomes fail to keep up with the rising cost of living.

A One Society report on fair pay in Local Authorities showed how much progress has been made in the public sector over the last few years in addressing its inequalities. However, the private sector points out the report, where pay ratios are much more extreme, has largely escaped notice. The much reported "shareholder spring" led to just six substantial protest votes over extortionate pay at the top. BIS (The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) proposals to increase shareholder power have failed to incorporate important stakeholders such as company employees. Proposals on binding pay votes have been watered down and there has been no significant action on issues such cash bonuses and simplification of pay packages.

At the lower end of the payscale, the two year public sector pay freeze and the upcoming two year below-inflation pay rise have put pressure on already low public sector salaries. Not only does this have a direct impact on inequality, but along with increasing costs of living, has serious implications for living standards. Increased costs of childcare, transport and cuts to tax credits have all played their part in this.

When they stood in the general election, inequality was a major concern for both coalition parties. The Conservative manifesto called for a society in which “wealth and opportunity must be more fairly distributed”. The Liberal Democrats meanwhile decried the fact that “Britain [is] one of the most unequal societies in the developed world, where ordinary people struggle to make ends meet.”

With 74 per cent of people believing that income inequality is too high and even CEOs beginning to recognise they are probably overpaid, it is clearly still a highly relevant issue to the electorate. On top of this, No. 10's favourite think tank recently warned that the Conservative Party are still seen as the party of the rich.

"Excessive" levels of income inequality are not only unpopular, but, as the One Society's report sets out, they are also inefficient. Growing evidence shows that large pay differentials stunt economic growth and cause instability. It also highlights the harmful effect that inequality has on our communities, our health and our environment.

For all these reasons, argues the report, political parties who want to be taken seriously in the next general election will have to outline a plan of action to tackle the UK's unacceptable levels of income inequality. Left and right alike must sit up and take notice of the harmful effect of extreme wealth disparities, and the significant impact that government policy could have in addressing them.

Marking the scorecard. Photograph: Getty Images

Larissa Hansford is a Campaign Assistant at One Society.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.