No hiding place: Why the UK can no longer ignore inequality

The UK is so unequal that the richest 1,000 people have amassed as much wealth as the poorest 40 per cent of the population put together.  

In 2015 the international community finally recognised the necessity of tackling the gap between the rich and the rest. Years of mounting evidence has shown that reducing economic inequality is essential to secure healthier, happier and safer societies, and this was acknowledged when the United Nations announced its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs are a set of 17 international development targets, agreed by members of the UN, that acknowledge the interdependence of poverty and inequality reduction, environmental protection, social inclusion and sustainable economic growth.

Goal 10 of the SDGs sets the target of reducing inequality within and between countries. The inclusion of within-country equality objectives is particularly good news given the wealth of evidence on the rewards societies reap when the economic divide is reduced. The UK is one of the most unequal countries outside of the developing world; our politicians can’t keep avoiding it. What’s more, the British public overwhelmingly believes the gap between rich and poor is too large and that the government has a responsibility to reduce it.

It wasn’t all plain sailing for the inclusion of Goal 10 – not least because of the efforts of the UK government to have inequality reduction removed from the agenda. When David Cameron, the then Prime Minister, sat as a co-chair on the international 'high level panel' tasked with looking at developing new SDGs, a group of 90 academics wrote to all (27 or so) of those on the panel, asking them to include a goal of inequality reduction. Many wrote back supporting this. The UK government wrote back too, suggesting reducing inequality should not be included as a goal, claiming it may prevent economic growth (despite that this concern is unfounded).

Sadly, at every step our country has lagged behind others, flying in the face of the collective wisdom of NGOs, academics, economists, and other world leaders, and dragging its heels on inequality reduction.

Thankfully, inequality was included in the SDGs despite UK government opposition, and means this reticence is going to be much harder to justify. There are several specific objectives within Goal 10 that all countries, including our own, must do their best to achieve. The goal calls for the income growth of the poorest 40 per cent of the population to be sustained at a rate higher than the national average. This is an improvement from old measures that only included GDP per capita, which masked the fact that a country could get richer while its poorest saw their incomes stagnate. It will be relatively easy to measure whether this target is met, but other targets offer more scope for countries to develop their own approaches.

For example, countries are tasked with developing fiscal, wage and social protection policies to achieve greater equality, and ensuring social, economic and political inclusion, regardless of economic status and other things like sex, race and religion. Another crucial inclusion in this area is the requirement to not only ensure equal opportunity, but also to reduce inequalities of outcome. This accepts that equality of opportunity can’t be achieved when some are born into extreme poverty and others great wealth.

Our country is so unequal that the richest 1,000 people have amassed as much wealth as the poorest 40 per cent of the population put together, while nine children in every classroom are growing up in poverty. When top bosses pocket in one year what a nurse would work for 165 years to earn, we know it’s time to make a change.

Sustainable development doesn’t apply only to nations classed as ‘developing’. The SDGs task governments of all countries, including ours, with improving the economic and social wellbeing of all their citizens. The UN calls for ‘ambitious’ national responses. Now is the time for our government to step forward, set a clear target for inequality reduction and work hard to reach it.

This blog was written and adapted for UKSSD by Lucy Shaddock, The Equality Trust