Inequality and Social Mobility

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:20 pm on 12th June 2019.

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Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth 6:20 pm, 12th June 2019

I could not agree more. In fact, I think that a stock question to all who aspire to be the leader of this country should be “How are you going to tackle the inequalities that our country faces?”

The impact of these inequalities on life expectancy, which is now stalling after decades of growth, has not gone unnoticed. Among women, the gap is the largest since the 1920s, and for older women—as we have heard from other Members today—life expectancy is actually reversing. What has been the Government’s response? To increase the state pension age. People’s lives are becoming shorter, but they will have to work for longer to receive their pensions. The gap in life expectancy between the rich and the poor is 10 years for men and seven a half years for women, and that applies to healthy life expectancy as well.

The analysis shows that, while life expectancy is slowing down in the United States and some European countries, the slowdown is worst in the United Kingdom. This is not a developed country phenomenon: life expectancy is increasing in Denmark, Norway and other Scandinavian countries. The stalling in life expectancy has been picked up by the actuaries, who have estimated that there could be a 15% reduction in pension deficits—equivalent to £310 billion.

None of this is new. Seminal works such as “The Spirit Level”, published 10 years ago, showed that in societies and communities in which the gaps between the rich and poor are narrow, life expectancy, educational attainment, social mobility, trust and more increase. In addition, more equal societies see economic benefits, as described by the International Monetary Fund in 2015. Fairer, more equal societies benefit everyone.

Wilkinson and Pickett’s most recent work, “The Inner Level”, examined how more equal societies reduce stress and improve everyone’s wellbeing, unpicking the evidence of the pathophysiological pathways and mechanisms through which inequalities act to affect our health and wellbeing, physical, mental, emotional and more. Our health and longevity depend on how and where we are able to live, which in turn depends on our financial means. But on top of this, there is an independent and universal effect that reflects positions in our hierarchy: our “class”, status and relative power. The impacts of inequalities in power—political, practical and personal—are worthy of greater exploration and analysis and I hope that the Deaton review will pick up on that.