George Osborne holds freshly minted coins during a visit to the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, Wales on March 25, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Inequality is on the up again - Osborne's boast is over

After the Chancellor boasted that inequality had fallen, welfare cuts mean it is rising again. 

To cries of disbelief from the Labour benches, George Osborne boasted in his last Budget that "under this government income inequality is at its lowest level for 28 years". Osborne's statement wasn't wrong. The Gini coefficient for disposable income in 2011-12 (the most recent figure then available) was 32.3 per cent, the lowest level since 1986. As I noted at the time, it's normal in periods of economic stagnation for inequality to fall as middle class earnings decline and the automatic stabilisers protect the incomes of the poorest.

But as I also noted, the Chancellor's boast was unlikely to last for long. Owing to the coalition's welfare cuts, many of which only took effect last year, inequality is forecast to significantly increase between now and 2015-16. In particular, Osborne's decision to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent for at least three years (an unprecedented real-terms cut) means the poorest will see a sharp fall in their incomes. The IFS expects inequality "to rise again from 2011–12, almost (but not quite) reaching its pre-recession level by 2015–16." 

Today, the Office for National Statistics has provided us with an update and, exactly as predicted, inequality is on the up again. The Gini coefficient increased to 33.2 in 2012-13, the same level as in 2009-10 and is only likely to get worse (these figures are from the year before the top rate of tax was cut from 50p to 45p). 

While the Tories could take little credit for the earlier fall in inequality (which was largely due the decline in middle class earnings), they will deserve the blame for the rise. And with Ed Miliband making the need to reduce the gap his defining mission, Osborne may live to regret fighting on this turf. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

GETTY
Show Hide image

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.