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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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.