Salter Lecture 2019: Solutions for a Divided Society

Catherine West

I am honoured to give this year’s Salter Lecture, following in the footsteps of Molly Scott Cato MEP, whose speech in 2017 highlighted the peace argument for staying in Europe. The focus of my speech today is not Brexit, but it would be impossible to talk about solutions for a divided society without speaking its name, particularly in light of yesterday’s European Elections. The referendum split the population in two and the ensuing negotiations have laid bare the inadequacies of the Parliamentary process. It would be easy for me, as a Remainer, to wish that the whole thing had never happened, but to do so would be to deny Brexit’s political salience and to ignore the context of austerity which, I believe, gave the Leave Campaign its edge in June 2016.

Many who voted to leave did so as a response to unfettered inequality and as a rejection of those who appeared to defend it. The high number of Leave voters in the regions of England, particularly in the North, could not be a clearer statement of the fact. In the decade since the financial crisis, advanced economies have disappointed on many fronts. The government’s choice to bail out bankers and to keep interest rates artificially low for a decade exposed the myth of the self-sustaining free market. The continual concentration of wealth and power in the City of London has alienated a huge chunk of the country, and the in-fighting and squabbling in the House of Commons has only served to exacerbate disillusionment. I fear, however, that if we leave the EU the very same people who are disenchanted with politics and who voted to leave stand to lose the most.  

Two years ago, I delivered the Swarthmore Lecture, which I wrote with my friend Cllr Andy Hull. Our thesis was that inequality is bad for everyone, not only undermining important human notions of worth, self-esteem and respect,[1] but is also economically damaging. What’s more, unequal societies tend to be less trusting, more violent and suffer more from ill mental health.[2] We dedicated this work to Jo Cox, a dear friend and colleague who was assassinated by a white supremacist for what he perceived to be failing to put Britain first, when all Jo ever wanted to do was to make her country a better place for everyone. Jo’s legacy, embodied by the statement that “we have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”,[3] resonates with a Quaker sense of inclusivity. Since Jo’s death, the world has borne witness to a great many more tragedies fuelled by hate. I wish to pay tribute to the victims of these senseless killings and to their families and friends, because the deep thread running through all of this is division and inequality, which breeds contempt and fear.

I have spent my working life trying to build a more equal society. From using my language skills to help asylum seekers for whom English was not their first language, to working as a caseworker for David Lammy MP, as a councillor and eventually Leader of Islington Council, and now as an MP. Working with some of the most vulnerable people in society in neighbourhoods of wealth and inequality, I see the same problems time and time again: housing need, money worries and a lack of access to secure employment. It has, throughout my career, been my desire to see politics address the needs of deprived and disadvantaged communities, to address the scourge of low pay and the blight of pensioner poverty. Today, I wish to put forth solutions to this deep divide. I wish to tell you that there is hope: that with political will and innovative policies we have the power to make transformative change.

In what follows I will lay out solutions to three of the most insidious issues of our time. I will demonstrate how truly affordable, decent housing can be the rule, not the exception, and provide a stable base from which everyone can thrive; how a living wage and a clampdown on unscrupulous employers can ensure the eradication of poverty pay, and how a public health approach to violent crime can save lives by addressing the problem at its source.

Housing

Having an affordable, stable home should, in 21st Century Britain, be a given. Yet we’re faced with a housing crisis of epic proportions. Not only is it the result of a highly unequal society, it also reinforces it. The tragedy of the preventable Grenfell fire in one of London’s wealthiest boroughs is a stark reminder of the glaring gap between the haves and the have nots. Since 2010 in England, homelessness has risen by 60% and rough sleeping has risen by 134%.[4] In the same period, the rise in the cost of renting privately has surged ahead of wage growth.[5] Moreover, there are 1.2 million people on the social housing waiting list, but fewer than 6,000 homes were built last year.[6] The government spending £12 million on a luxury New York apartment for a British diplomat to live in while he negotiates trade deals with the US is a slap in the face to those sleeping rough or who have been on social housing waiting lists for years: [7] for those who are told a magic money tree doesn’t exist only to find that it does if you are deemed important enough.

At the heart of the housing crisis is the overall lack of affordable homes, and an increasing reliance on an expensive, insecure and often unprofessional private rented sector to house families on typical incomes is behind the rise in homelessness in the UK. But it doesn’t need to be this way. The government made a step in the right direction by banning no-fault evictions in England, which enabled landlords to evict tenants without a reason after their fixed-term tenancy had ended. Building more council housing, offering secure long-term tenancies and toughening up on planning so that we can get the homes we really need rather than unaffordable luxury penthouses would all go a long way in tackling this country’s housing crisis. The government needs to provide consistent, long-term funding in order to provide a new generation of public homes at low rents.

One of my constituents was faced with a desperate situation recently. The Council tried to relocate her and her disabled child hundreds of miles away from London to Telford in Shropshire because of a lack of social housing in the borough. This would have been away from the child’s hospital and all of the constituent’s support networks. We won that battle and kept that constituent and her child in their home borough, but sadly her case isn’t unique. My caseworkers and I frequently have to fight to keep vulnerable constituents in Hornsey and Wood Green from being pushed out of London to areas with more social housing stock. The need to build more social housing could not be more urgent. With adequate funding from central government, we would be able to embark on a programme of mass social house building. But this requires bold action; as the Mayor of London has said, we need four times the current annual government funding for genuinely affordable homes. There also need to be changes in the law to allow councils to buy up land more cheaply and reforms to private tenancies to give tenant security of tenure and to stop landlords hiking up rents.

Some councils are doing excellent work to ensure that local residents reap the benefits of new developments. Islington Council, for example, implemented their new homes local lettings policy for all homes built on existing estates in 2014, which prioritises the lettings of new homes to people currently living on the estates on which they are being built. This could be replicated by councils across the country.

I believe we should also explore rent controls for the private sector to tackle the untenable situation of out of control rents. Rent control measures hand local authorities the power to regulate rent levels, stripping private landlords of the ability to overinflate the amounts they charge. That said, rent controls can only ever be a stopgap for a healthy housing market. The long-term solution to the housing crisis is to eliminate the shortage of homes.  

Wages

The concentration of wealth and job opportunity in London creates vast inequalities between the Capital and the rest of the UK. Career progression and better-paid work is more likely if people move regions – particularly if they go to London.[8] Too often provincial towns and cities don’t have the employment infrastructure to ensure career progression, notably in professions like law and accountancy. Those from wealthier backgrounds are more likely to be able to make that kind of move, with the resources and support to grab opportunities wherever they may be. Meanwhile, most people living in the regions cannot afford to move to London, let alone pay the higher living costs. Devolving power and prestige to local government and combined authorities would be a way to ensure a more even spread of growth and new jobs – and would make our economy less reliant on London.[9]

Meaningful, secure work and a decent wage underpin a fair society. Yet the UK has one of the highest rates of income inequality in Europe.[10] While unemployment is at a 44-year low,[11] in-work poverty is shamefully rampant, causing record numbers of households to rely on food banks.[12] Indeed, a record 1.6 million emergency food parcels were given out by the Trussell Trust last year, widely believed to have been the result of benefits cuts, Universal Credit delays and rising poverty.[13] UK households have experienced flatlining living standards due to a lack of economic and pay growth, and average incomes are not likely to rise materially over the next two years either.[14] This is of course inextricably linked to the housing crisis, as for people on average wages, rent is unaffordable and getting on the property ladder is almost impossible without recourse to the bank of Mum and Dad.

What is clear is that Universal Credit has been a total failure. Along with other MPs and experts, I am continuing to call for the five-week wait for the first payment to be scrapped and for benefits to be uprated in line with the cost of living, which they have not been since 2016. I believe that the rollout, which will only serve to widen the gap between rich and poor, should be halted immediately.

A cocktail of insecure, low-paid work and stagnant wage growth has pushed millions into a permanently precarious financial position, leading to a consumer debt crisis. Rather than being about people living beyond their means, as some would have us believe, it is about people whose incomes have been squeezed so tight for so long that they cannot make ends meet, however hard they try. This couldn’t be illustrated more clearly than by the fact that NHS and council workers are among the biggest users of payday loans.[15] Real wages are lower now than they were in 2010, and nearly 10 million people – a third of the workplace – are in insecure work,[16] characterised by zero-hour contracts. Rather than offering people flexibility and control by allowing employees to choose their own hours to suit their needs, zero-hour contracts put people in a precarious situation where they don’t know how much money they will receive from week to week. While real wages in the finance sector have grown by as much as £120 a week, [17] average working people are £800 a year worse off than they were a decade ago.[18]

In-work poverty is not only morally wrong, but economically illiterate. In 2014, taxpayers spent £11 billion pounds a year topping up low wages paid by UK companies, eleven times the cost of benefit fraud that year.[19] Rather than attacking benefit claimants for ‘sponging off the state’, we must hold corporations accountable. There needs to be proper enforcement of the National Minimum Wage as a bare minimum. One way to help to do this would be to devolve responsibility for enforcing compliance with the National Minimum Wage to local authorities. HMRC is too distant from communities to deal effectively with the many sharp practices that occur at local level. Closer to the ground, local authorities have existing, multifaceted relationships with employers and with workers in their area.

An even better solution to eliminating in-work poverty would be a commitment from both the private and public sector to pay a living wage to all of its workers, because a prerequisite of any sustainable industrial strategy should be a resolute rejection of poverty pay. Yet one in five UK workers, over five million people, earn less than the living wage. The living wage, which is £9 per hour in the UK and £10.55 per hour in London, is independently calculated based on the actual cost of living. Paying a living wage is, as the name suggests, about allowing workers to truly live, not just survive; it’s a wage, not just a handout; it’s about earning, contribution, reciprocity and the dignity of work.

As leader of Islington Council I brought our cleaning team in-house and increased their pay. When I suggested this proposal, no one argued, but when I stated that I would do this by cutting the pay of the chief executive by £50,000, a chorus of naysayers erupted to tell me how we would never be able to find a good chief executive again.

Not only is paying employees a living wage the decent thing to do, it’s also good for business. According to a study carried out by the Living Wage Foundation, 86% of businesses stated that paying a living wage improved the reputation of their business, 75% said that it increased motivation and retention rates for employees, and 58% said that it improved relations between managers and their staff.[20]

Going beyond a living wage, some companies have taken exemplary steps in creating a more egalitarian relationship with their staff. The home entertainment retailer Richer Sounds is the latest British company to adopt an employee ownership model, following in the footsteps of John Lewis and Riverford Organic Farmers.[21] By transferring shares into a trust, Richer Sounds employees (minus the directors) will receive a £1,000 bonus for each year they have worked for the retailer, to thank employees for their loyalty and hard work, and to give them a more reciprocal relationship in which they can have their say on the running of the business. More companies could adopt this model: not only to give workers a financial boost, but to create a less hierarchical working environment.

The government should also require all employers to publish their internal pay ratios between the highest- and lowest-paid (as opposed to average paid) employees, bringing much-needed transparency to the low-pay-versus-high-pay debate. The political economist Will Hutton has suggested that, under normal circumstances, no public-sector employer should exhibit an internal pay ratio higher than 1:20.[22] When I was leader of Islington Council I got our pay differential down to 1:11.

As you can see, there’s a lot we can be doing in Parliament to ensure that everyone gets a fair wage. Starting by publishing internal pay differentials would encourage businesses to narrow the gap between the lowest and highest paid employees. Paying everyone a living wage would be a huge step towards eradicating in-work poverty. Supporting businesses to adopt an employee ownership model would also create a more egalitarian work environment while simultaneously increasing pay. In the long-term, I believe there should be a move towards ensuring an even spread of new jobs outside the Capital so that people don’t feel the need to move to London just to get a good job.

Knife Crime – A Public Health Approach

Countries that exhibit high levels of inequality between groups are more likely to experience violent conflict than more equal countries.[23] It is unsurprising, then, that we are in the throes of a knife crime epidemic. After falling for several years, knife crime in England and Wales is rising again. Homicides in the last year rose to their highest level in over a decade, with 732 people killed in England and Wales. Offences involving knives also rose by 6%.[24] Some of the knife crime incidents in the Capital have happened in my own constituency, and the impact has been horrific. I’ve also received dozens of letters and emails from constituents fearing for their children’s lives. It’s a sorry state of affairs when people don’t feel safe in their own communities, and I’ve been working hard to tackle this issue in Parliament.

A public health approach to violence has, for some time, been considered to be a way of tackling its root causes. By analysing the risk factors for committing violent crime, we can see that income inequality is a significant driver for knife-carrying. [25] Young people who live in very deprived areas and have few educational or employment opportunities may be less likely to see potential for their future and therefore more vulnerable to claims that crime is an option for achieving status and resources. That is why I have proposed the allocation of a special fund for pupils at risk of school exclusion. We know that there is a link between school exclusion and knife crime. We also know that being at risk of school exclusion, or worse, being excluded is detrimental to young people’s mental health. It makes young people feel like the system has given up on them and can make them feel as though all they can do is resort to a life of crime.

A public health approach to violence is preventative. Rather than focusing on changing individual behaviour, as traditional strategies to tackle violent crime have done through criminalisation, it is aimed at transforming health-damaging circumstances,[26] thus providing the maximum benefit for the largest number of people. These health-damaging circumstances include material deprivation, adverse childhood experiences, experiencing violence and substance abuse.  This does not mean that public health ignores the care of individuals. Rather, the concern is to prevent health problems and to extend better care and safety to entire populations.

One success story comes from the city of Cali in Colombia. Rodrigo Guerrero, a public health specialist, won the 1992 mayoral election on the promise that he would reduce the rising levels of violence, which he did – reducing the homicide rate by 30% between 1994 and 1997. [27] He set up a programme in which risk factors for violence were identified, which shaped the priorities for action. Another part of the programme was to provide education on civil rights matters for both the police and the public at large, including television advertising at peak viewing times highlighting the importance of tolerance for others and self-control. Over the course of the programme, special projects were set up to provide economic opportunities and safe recreational facilities for young people. Proposals were discussed in consultation with local people, and the city administration ensured the continuing participation and commitment of the community. This reduction in the number of homicides allowed the law enforcement authorities to devote scarce resources to combating more organised forms of crime. Furthermore, public opinion in Cali shifted strongly from a passive attitude towards dealing with violence to a vociferous demand for more prevention activities.

Closer to home, and more recently, Scotland managed to reduce knife crime dramatically by adopting a similar approach. In 2005, Scotland had the second highest murder rate in western Europe and Scots were more than three times more likely to be murdered than people in England and Wales.[28] Between April 2006 and April 2011, 40 children and teenagers were killed in homicides involving a knife in Scotland; between 2011 and 2016, that figure fell to just eight.[29] Tougher sentences and stop-and-search weren’t behind these dramatic decreases. Rather, these sorts of criminalising measures have been shown to widen the gap between the police and those targeted, and one of the key aims of Scotland’s public health approach to violence was to rebuild trust within communities.[30] The focus was on offering routes into employment so that those at risk of knife violence could get their lives back on track. By targeting prevention through education and early-years support, we can also address the adverse childhood experiences that define the lives of so many future offenders.

Taking heed of lessons learned in Scotland and in concert with Scottish public health experts, last year the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan launched his Violence Reduction Unit, which comprises a variety of services and involves communities to be a part of designing and working towards solutions. The idea is that a healthy, safe start in life for children could save lives by keeping them in a positive educational setting and providing life opportunities. It’s about supporting vulnerable young people and preventing them from going into crime in the first place.

Conclusion

Just as the problems of a divided society are interlinked, so too are its solutions. Striving towards a society in which work is meaningful and offers decent pay is not only a laudable goal in and of itself, but is a step towards tackling the disillusionment among young people which has been proven to be linked to knife crime.

What we need is bold, transformative and joined-up policymaking. We need bottom-up approaches. We need to listen to local people. To tackle housing inequality, we must invest in a programme of mass social house building, explore the possibility of rent controls, and toughen up housing planning regulations. We must also address income inequality, which would, in turn, be a step towards ensuring that everyone can afford a decent place to live. By enforcing the living wage, publishing pay differentials and taking tough action against unscrupulous employers, work can be meaningful and provide a fair wage so that people can enjoy their lives, not just worry about paying their bills. Finally, adopting a public health approach to violent crime could not only cut the number of homicides, but also transform young people’s lives in some of the most deprived areas in the country.


[1] T. Piketty, Capital in the twenty-first century (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2013).

[2] K. Pickett and R. Wilkinson, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (London: Allen Lane, 2009).

[3] J. Cox, Speech in the House of Commons – Devolution and Growth Across Britain, 19 June 2015, https://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2015-06-03d.674.0, accessed 4 May 2019.

[4] National Audit Office, Homelessness, 13 September 2017, https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Homelessness.pdf, p. 14. 

[5] Ibid.

[6] Shelter, Building more affordable homes, October 2018, http://england.shelter.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/1597709/2018_10_19_Shelter_briefing_-_Building_more_affordable_homes_.pdf, accessed 15 April 2019.

[7] Government buys £12m luxury New York apartment for diplomat, BBC News, 27 March 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-47717397, accessed 21 May 2019.

[8] ‘State of the Nation Report: Inequality ‘entrenched from birth’’, BBC News, 30 April 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-48103017, accessed 30 April 2019.

[9] M. Easton, ‘State of the Nation report: Inequality in the UK ‘entrenched’’, BBC News, 30 April 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-48103017, accessed 30 April 2019.

[10] ‘Income inequality in the UK’, House of Commons Library, 15 March 2019, https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-7484#fullreport, accessed 13 May 2019.

[11] Office for National Statistics, Labour market economic commentary: April 2019 https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/articles/labourmarketeconomiccommentary/april2019, accessed 20 April 2019.

[12] Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Budget 2018: tackling the rising tide of in-work poverty, 12 October 2018, https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/budget-2018-tackling-rising-tide-work-poverty, accessed 25th April 2019.

[13] P. Butler, ‘Food bank network hands out record 1.6m food parcels a year’, The Guardian, 25 April 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/apr/25/food-bank-network-hands-out-record-16m-food-parcels-in-a-year, accessed 25 April 2019.

[14] Resolution Foundation, Child poverty risks hitting record levels, 20 February 2019, https://www.resolutionfoundation.org/media/press-releases/child-poverty-risks-hitting-record-levels/, accessed 25th April 2019.

[15] R. Booth, ‘NHS workers top list of those applying for payday loans’, The Guardian, 18 April 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/money/2018/apr/18/nhs-workers-top-list-of-those-applying-for-payday-loans, accessed 1 May 2019.

[16] R. Partington, ‘Real wages fall despite low levels of unemployment’, The Guardian, 18 October 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/oct/18/real-wages-fall-despite-low-levels-of-unemployment, accessed 1 May 2019.

[17] R. Partington, ‘Britain risks heading to US levels of inequality, warns top economist’, The Guardian, 14 May 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2019/may/14/britain-risks-heading-to-us-levels-of-inequality-warns-top-economist, accessed 14 May 2019.

[18] K. Ahmed, ‘Workers are £800 a year poorer post-crisis’, BBC News, 12 September 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-45487695, accessed 1 May 2019.

[19] J. Meadway, ‘Taxpayers spend £11bn to top up low wages paid by UK companies’, The Guardian, 20 April 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/apr/20/taxpayers-spend-11bn-to-top-up-low-wages-paid-by-uk-companies, accessed 22nd April 2019.

[20] E. Heery, D. Nash and D. Hann, The Living Wage Employer Experience, Living Wage, https://www.livingwage.org.uk/sites/default/files/Cardiff%20Business%20School%202017%20Report.pdf.

[21] Z. Wood, ‘Richer Sounds founder hands over control of hi-fi and TV firm to staff’, The Guardian, 14 May 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/may/14/richer-sounds-staff-julian-richer?CMP=share_btn_link, accessed 14 May 2019.

[22] ‘Best-to-worst public sector pay link proposed by Hutton’, BBC News, 1 December 2010, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-11879059, accessed 1 May 2019.

[23] Institute for Public Policy Research, Shared Destinies: Security in a globalised world (London: Institute for Public Policy Research, 2008), https://www.ippr.org/files/images/media/files/publication/2011/05/Security%20Commission%20Interim%20Report_1666.pdf?noredirect=1.

[24] Office for National Statistics, Homicide in England and Wales: year ending March 2018https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/homicideinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2018, accessed 25 April 2019.

[25] R. Grimshaw and M. Ford, Young people, violence and knives – revisiting the evidence and policy discussions, UK Justice Policy Focus, Issue 3, https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/sites/crimeandjustice.org.uk/files/Knife%20crime.%20November.pdf.

[26] P. Draper, (ed.) Health Through Public Policy: The greening of public health (London: Green Print, 1991), p.7. 

[27] Krug et al. World Report on Health and Violence, Volume 1 (Geneva: World Health Organisation, 2002).

[28] G. Seenan, ‘Scotland has the second highest murder rate in Europe’, The Guardian,26 September 2006, https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2005/sep/26/ukcrime.scotland, accessed 2nd May 2019.

[29] G. Younge and C. Barr ‘How Scotland reduced knife deaths among young people’, The Guardian. 3 December 2017,https://www.theguardian.com/membership/2017/dec/03/how-scotland-reduced-knife-deaths-among-young-people, accessed 2nd May 2019.

[30] S. Jones, Scotland is showing how to win the fight against knife crime, The Guardian, 14 December, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/14/scotland-knife-crime-public-health-issue-violence-uk accessed 22 May 2019.