Dr John Sentamu: Our unequal, unjust society... the richest are getting richer and the poorest lose all hope

Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu
Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu
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WITH renewed public outrage at the excesses of the financial sector and the huge inequalities in wealth it has helped to generate, we are being confronted daily with new evidence of extremes of wealth and poverty, demonstrating how scandalously unfair our society is.

But how is this to be addressed? This is the urgent task for us all. The news that chief executives (CEOs) of the FTSE 100 companies last year received average pay increases of almost 50 per cent adds urgency to our cause.

Typically, these CEOs receive 300 times as much as the least well paid British employees in their companies. If they have a responsibility to their staff, it is hard to imagine a more powerful way of telling some people that they are of little value than to pay them one-third of one per cent of your own salary.

Top pay has been found to bear little or no relation to company performance, but even if it did, isn’t the performance of a company dependent on the work and well-being of all its staff?

Among the ill effects of very large income differences between rich and poor are that they weaken community life and make societies less cohesive.

If the concept of the Big Society is to become a reality, so that people come to know and take more care of each other, income differences must surely be reduced. No one wants a “dog eat dog” society in which people feel obliged simply to fend for themselves.

But over the last few decades, the gains from economic growth have gone disproportionately to those who already have most. In contrast, forecasts suggest that child poverty will increase. The danger is that rather than increasing equality of opportunity, social mobility will slow down and people will become more divided by class and status.

What can we do to change this? Perhaps it would help to make directors and CEOs more accountable to their employees. Perhaps there should be employee representatives on company boards. Co-operatives, mutuals, friendly societies and employee owned companies almost always seem to have much smaller income differences within them. Another problem is tax avoidance – both by multi-national companies using tax havens and by rich individuals. To their great credit, a few of the richest individuals have pointed out the unfairness of a tax system which allows them to pay a smaller proportion of their income in tax than their most junior staff.

But as well as changes in regulations, a wider recognition of inequality as an ethical issue is important.

In his book The Honour Code, Anthony Appiah shows that changes in people’s ideas of what are honourable and respectable ways of behaving have been potent sources of social reform.

For example, Appiah describes the crucially important contribution which a change in ethics made to the ending of footbinding among Chinese women, of fighting duals among the English aristocracy, and to the abolition of slavery. Part of our task in creating a more caring and equal society is therefore to change attitudes to excessively high incomes and the accumulation of private wealth. Great wealth has for so long been seen as a mark of status. Here I have two suggestions. The first is to let it be known that in future the Queen’s honours would not be given to those who have already rewarded themselves most handsomely.

To have to choose between two coveted sources of honour and prestige would be salutary. On the same basis, it might be worth extending this to the Queen’s Awards to Industry so that companies with the largest pay differences between senior and junior staff would know that they were less likely to win these awards.

My second suggestion concerns tax avoidance. The idea came originally from someone who, despite his wealth, regards tax avoidance as unethical. He suggested that a tick box should be added to tax forms which you would tick if you were willing for the amount you paid in tax to be made public.

The idea was, on the one hand, to encourage people to take pride in the contribution they made through the tax system to the wellbeing of society, and on the other, perhaps to make people a little ashamed if they did not tick the box. Not to tick the box would suggest that you felt you had something to hide.

Given the Government’s attempts to reduce the public spending deficit, each thousand pounds of tax avoided presumably means an additional thousand pounds of cuts to public services on which the least well off are particularly dependent.

Many of us who joined the Jubilee 2000 Coalition, which campaigned successfully for the cancellation of debt-indebtedness by poor countries to the rich nations must now found a new coalition to tackle this inequality.

The spirit which led to the campaign for Trade Justice, Make Poverty History, Fairtrade, and the Millennium Development Goals, must be rekindled.

Why? Because changes in public attitudes can take place quite quickly. Over the last few decades racism has lost its respectability and is seen as unacceptable. The same applies to homophobia (the irrational fear of homosexuals) and discrimination against women.

My belief and trust is that a society which has shown itself capable of making such rapid changes to attitudes in these areas will also prove capable of recognising that our society will work best when we recognise that as human beings we are all, fundamentally of equal worth and members of one society.

Let us do it. Let us do it now.