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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.