Children play football in front of a residential development in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How inequality is costing the economy billions

The social consequences of inequality, such as reduced life expectancy and worse mental health, cost the equivalent of over £39bn every single year.

Since the late 1970s, the UK has become one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. As the rich have got richer, the rest of us have been left behind. Research released today by Oxfam shows that just five families now have as much wealth as the poorest 20 per cent of the population. It’s a frightening statistic, and for most people, one that offends their basic sense of decency. Can anyone really be "worth" this much? Can so many people be worth so little?

Worryingly, for some the answer appears to be "yes". For these people, an elite but small group of "wealth creators" are delivering jobs and driving economic growth. If five of these people happen to have the same wealth as a fifth of the population, well that’s just reward for their hard work and, no doubt, superior intellect. Perhaps even more concerning is the argument that inequality is not just acceptable, but desirable - driving the competitiveness vital to entrepreneurialism. But does seeing someone paid hundreds or even thousands of times more than you act as encouragement, or as a painful reminder of how little society values you?

The reality is that the consequences of the UK’s extraordinarily high levels of inequality are far-reaching and catastrophic. Of the developed OECD countries, the UK is ranked 17th out of 23 for life expectancy, 19th out of 22 on obesity, 17th out of 21 on teenage births, and 17th out of 23 for imprisonment. More equal societies, meanwhile, top the table on almost every measure.

Inequality shapes how we see others, our levels of trust in strangers, our sense of community. It erodes the bonds between individuals. But might it go even further? The IMF and others have pointed towards the damaging effects that inequality may have on economic growth. It makes perfect sense; if wages stagnate or fall for the majority of people, a consumer-led recovery becomes tricky to engineer without encouraging a huge growth in personal debt.

In addition, the impact of inequality on our health, wellbeing and crime rates may also have a financial cost. Research recently conducted by the Equality Trust has found that the impact on the UK of some of the social consequences of inequality, including reduced healthy life expectancy, worse mental health, higher levels of imprisonment and murder, could cost the equivalent of over £39bn every single year. If this was broken down to an individual level, it would show that the impact of inequality on every man, woman and child in the UK can be valued at £622.

Yet these figures may be just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the costs associated with inequality remain incalculable. For example, how does one value the higher level of community cohesion, trust, and social mobility associated with less unequal countries? Our estimate is based on a comparison between the level of inequality in the UK and the average level seen in developed countries. In other words, small changes to our level of income inequality would have a huge effect.

In recent weeks, the issue of inequality has gained significant coverage, it is now unquestionably part of the public and political narrative. But we need action to match the rhetoric. A living wage, a fairer tax system, and the creation of jobs with genuine opportunities for advancement should all be part of political party manifestos. But all parties serious about reducing costly social problems must also include an Inequality Test - an explicit goal that the net impact of their policies will be to reduce the gap between the richest and the rest. The benefits of reducing economic inequality are clear - a richer, healthier and quite possibly happier society. But we need politicians to have the courage and conviction to deliver real change.

Duncan Exley is the director of the Equality Trust

Duncan Exley is the director of the Equality Trust

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.