To tackle personal debt we need to tackle inequality first

An inequality test should be applied to all government policies to assess whether they will increase the gap between the richest and the rest.

Today’s report on personal debt from the Centre for Social Justice makes for sobering reading. With average household debt at £54,000, nearly twice the level of a decade ago, it is clear just how many are struggling in austerity Britain.

We’re told that the causes of this astonishing personal debt are people being forced to use credit to pay bills as the cost of living rises, as well as the legacy of cheap credit before the financial crash. These are clearly significant issues, but the reality is that they are part of a far wider, systemic problem. One that many seem unwilling to recognise. The gap between the rich and the rest has widened alarmingly over the past 30 years, with the UK now experiencing one of the highest levels of income inequality in the developed world. Study after study, in both the UK and internationally, has shown that as inequality rises, so does household debt.

According to research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, single people need to earn at least £16,850 a year before tax in 2013 for a minimum acceptable living standard. Couples with two children need to earn at least £19,400 each. But according to the ONS, just under half of people don’t get £19,400. About a third don’t get £16,850. For years, people have been told that if they work hard, they’ll get the rewards, but that simply isn’t true anymore. This is partly a result of a greater proportion of UK jobs being low paid. The proportion of jobs classed as low paid by the OECD is now among the highest of developed nations, and around 20 per cent of employees earn below the Living Wage.

Another issue is the increasing amount of insecure work such as temporary work and zero-hours contracts. Being trapped in a low-pay-no-pay cycle understandably plays havoc with budgeting. A further problem is a result of inequality driving up prices. This is most obvious in housing costs, where the average person trying to find a home finds themselves in a market where they are competing with people who are buying second homes, and with investors who are fuelling speculation-driven property inflation. In fact around 85% of new-build properties in central London and 38% of re-sales are estimated to have been purchased by overseas buyers.

Perhaps the biggest problem is also the simplest. Pay for FTSE Director’s may have increased by 14 per cent in the last year, but for the average employee pay continues to fall behind prices. We’ve now had four years of pay falling in real terms for most people. To tackle the debt crisis, the government needs to focus on reducing the UK’s high levels of income inequality. An inequality test should be applied to all government policies to assess whether they will increase the gap between the richest and the rest. Raising the level of National Minimum Wage and incentivising employers to offer jobs that pay a reliable income is a key way of tackling debt, driving demand in the economy, and reducing social security costs.

We also need a more progressive tax system, including proposals like a property speculation tax to stop the rich pricing the rest of us out of a home, but also a fiscal rebalancing away from consumption taxes like VAT, because they hit average and poor people hardest and hold back spending. Inequality is more than a driver of debt, it supresses our economic recovery and fractures our society. If the government wants to tackle debt, it needs to tackle inequality first.

Duncan Exley is director of The Equality Trust

Children play a game of football in front of a residential development in the London borough of Tower Hamlets on February 21, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Duncan Exley is the director of the Equality Trust

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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.