A commuter train pulls into a London station. Photo: Getty Images
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Transport subsidies are an inequality issue. No, really

What government chooses to subsidise - trains - and what it chooses to cut - buses - says more about its commitment to reducing inequality than any number of press releases and warm words.

With the Budget fast approaching there is widespread speculation over government spending plans and where the promised cuts will fall. We know further education, public health and other areas are seeing their funding greatly reduced, in some instances fueling intense debate. But other areas are receiving comparatively little attention.

The latest records show the government spends £5.4bn on public transport subsidies. That’s more than double the amount spent on NHS A&E services across the country, so hardly small change. And yet the value of this subsidy seems to have gone unchallenged. In fact transport subsidies have effectively been guaranteed for the future with promises to freeze rail fares.

Transport is often seen as an unglamorous area of policy and it’s never likely to generate the same headlines as our health and education systems. But beyond the crowded commuter services and rising fares there is another important and worrying story not being told. The way we subsidise transport is increasing inequality. In our new report Taken for a Ride the Equality Trust shows just how transport subsidy is spent and exactly who benefits. In total the richest ten per cent of households receive £978 million in transport subsidy; over three times more than the £297 million received by the poorest ten per cent. When broken down by household, and you adjust for the fact that different households are different sizes, the richest ten per cent still gain nearly double the subsidy of the poorest, £294 per year per household compared to just £162.

One of the reasons this happens is that the government spends large amounts on subsidising rail travel in London and the South East. For the rail system alone a household in the richest ten per cent benefits from over three and a half times as much subsidy as one in the poorest ten per cent. And a household in London benefits from almost four times as much rail subsidy as a household in Wales. On the other hand the benefit from subsidy for bus travel is much more evenly distributed across income groups, but is much smaller than the subsidy for rail travel.

The consequences of this uneven subsidy are profound. The poorest are effectively being locked out of access to good jobs, schools, health services and cultural activities. We’re spending an awful lot of money to get relatively wealthy people into good jobs, but not so much helping those in real need.

This inequality of travel subsidy is not a recent development either, for most of the last 20 years the richest ten per cent has received over four times the level of subsidy of the poorest ten per cent. However, it’s far from being a necessary part of our transport system, and there are many better options open to the government which wouldn’t perpetuate existing inequality. It could use the money earmarked for subsidies to invest more in transport infrastructure in poor areas. In doing so it could help rejuvenate these areas rather than spending more in places that are already wealthy. It could invest more in types of transport used by people on lower incomes (like the bus network) and less on transport that people on low incomes can’t afford even after it’s been heavily subsidized (like rail). Or it could even give the subsidy directly to people on low incomes for use on transport.

The fact that these sorts of solutions haven’t been sufficiently considered is largely due to a failure of public policy making. The process for considering new projects fails to ask the important question of what the projects effects will be on existing inequalities. Largely because the Government and its constituent departments in turn fail to consider the large and growing evidence base of the harmful social and economic effects of inequality.

A project which doesn’t harm the poorest, but involves boosting the incomes of the richest, is seen as a net positive because the question of increased inequality simply isn’t asked.

Our transport system is vital to us all. It’s how we get to work, send our kids to school, how we shop and generally move around. It literally binds the nation together. But despite this it is still failing many of our poorest. The only way to avoid this in future is for Government to embed inequality reduction into all of its decisions from transport, to education to healthcare. Until that happens, we’re on a road to greater inequality. 

Tim Stacey is Senior Policy and Research Adviser at the Equality Trust. 

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The 8 bits of good news about integration buried in the Casey Review

It's not all Trojan Horses.

The government-commissioned Casey Review on integration tackles serious subjects, from honour crimes to discrimination and hate crime.

It outlines how deprivation, discrimination, segregated schools and unenlightened traditions can drag certain British-Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities into isolation. 

It shines a light on nepotistic local politics, which only entrench religious and gender segregation. It also charts the hurdles faced by ethnic minorities from school, to university and the workplace. There is no doubt it makes uncomfortable reading. 

But at a time when the negative consequences of immigration are dominating headlines, it’s easy to miss some of the more optimistic trends the Casey Report uncovered:

1. You can always have more friends

For all the talk of segregation, 82 per cent of us socialise at least once a month with people from a different ethnic and religious background, according to the Citizenship Survey 2010-11.

More than half of first generation migrants had friends of a different ethnicity. As for their children, nearly three quarters were friends with people from other ethnic backgrounds. Younger people with higher levels of education and better wages are most likely to have close inter-ethnic friendships. 

Brits from Black African and Mixed ethnic backgrounds are the most sociable it seems, as they are most likely to have friends from outside their neighbourhood. White British and Irish ethnic groups, on the other hand, are least likely to have ethnically-mixed social networks. 

Moving away from home seemed to be a key factor in diversifying your friendship group –18 to 34s were the most ethnically integrated age group. 

2. Integrated schools help

The Casey Review tells the story of how schools can distort a community’s view of the world, such as the mostly Asian high school where pupils thought 90 per cent of Brits were Asian (the actual figure is 7 per cent), and the Trojan Horse affair, where hardline Muslims were accused of dominating the curriculum of a state school (the exact facts have never come to light). 

But on the other hand, schools that are integrated, can change a whole community’s perspective. A study in Oldham found that when two schools were merged to create a more balanced pupil population between White Brits and British Asians, the level of anxiety both groups felt diminished. 

3. And kids are doing better at school

The Casey Report notes: “In recent years there has been a general improvement in educational attainment in schools, with a narrowing in the gap between White pupils and pupils from Pakistani, Bangladeshi and African/Caribbean/Black ethnic backgrounds.”

A number of ethnic minority groups, including pupils of Chinese, Indian, Irish and Bangladeshi ethnicity, outperformed White British pupils (but not White Gypsy and Roma pupils, who had the lowest attainment levels of all). 

4. Most people feel part of a community

Despite the talk of a divided society, in 2015-16, 89 per cent of people thought their community was cohesive, according to the Community Life Survey, and agreed their local area is a place where people from different backgrounds get on well together. This feeling of cohesiveness is actually higher than in 2003, at the height of New Labour multiculturalism, when the figure stood at 80 per cent. 

5. Muslims are sticklers for the law

Much of the Casey Report dealt with the divisions between British Muslims and other communities, on matters of culture, religious extremism and equality. It also looked at the Islamophobia and discrimination Muslims face in the UK. 

However, while the cultural and ideological clashes may be real, a ComRes/BBC poll in 2015 found that 95 per cent of British Muslims felt loyal to Britain and 93 per cent believed Muslims in Britain should always obey British laws. 

6. Employment prospects are improving

The Casey Review rightly notes the discrimination faced by jobseekers, such as study which found CVs with white-sounding names had a better rate of reply. Brits from Black, Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds are more likely to be unemployed than Whites. 

However, the employment gap between ethnic minorities and White Brits has narrowed over the last decade, from 15.6 per cent in 2004 to 12.8 per cent in 2015. 

In October 2015, public and private sector employers responsible for employing 1.8m people signed a pledge to operate recruitment on a “name blind” basis. 

7. Pretty much everyone understand this

According to the 2011 census, 91.6 per cent of adults in England and Wales had English as their main language. And 98.2 per cent of them could speak English. 

Since 2008-2009, most non-European migrants coming to the UK have to meet English requirements as part of the immigration process. 

8. Oh, and there’s a British Muslim Mayor ready to tackle integration head on

The Casey Review criticised British Asian community leaders in northern towns for preventing proper discussion of equality and in some cases preventing women from launching rival bids for a council seat.

But it also quoted Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, and a British Muslim. Khan criticised religious families that force children to adopt a certain lifestyle, and he concluded:

"There is no other city in the world where I would want to raise my daughters than London.

"They have rights, they have protection, the right to wear what they like, think what they like, to meet who they like, to study what they like, more than they would in any other country.”


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