Unequal Britain

We live in a massively divided society. Britain today has the highest level of income inequality for 60 years, with the household wealth of the top 10% of the population 100 times greater than that of the poorest 10%. 30% of children in Britain live in poverty. Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Black African men earn around 20% less than white men and nearly half of Bangladeshi and Pakistani households live in poverty. NICKI JAMESON reports.

On 11 October 2010, Equality and Human Rights Commissioner Trevor Phillips (salary £112,000 for a three and a half day week) launched the report of the first Triennial Review of equality in Britain. How fair is Britain? Equality, Human Rights and Good Relations in 2010* a massive piece of work amalgamating detailed research on inequality and discrimination on grounds of race, gender, disability, sexuality, religion and social class. Fact after fact, statistic after statistic hammer home the realities of unequal Britain; yet Phillips fantastically managed to introduce the report with the statement that: ‘Britain is a country where we despise prejudice, embrace equality and believe in the fundamental right of the individual to make the most of his or her talents in a free society. We are increasingly at ease with diversity of all kinds, and intolerant of discrimination of any kind.’

Instead of demands for immediate action in the face of the fact that, for example, the life expectancy of the richest men and women in Britain is up to seven years longer than that of the poorest, and that Black African women asylum seekers have a mortality rate seven times higher than that of White women, we are treated to platitudes such as that, ‘[although] many of the old biases are, if not vanquished, on their way out…there is a great deal still to be done and there are new challenges emerging.’

A matter of life and death

In today’s Britain skin colour and immigration status can be a matter of life and death. A quarter of homicide victims are from ethnic minorities, with Black people the most likely to be murdered. Despite all the handwringing since the Lawrence Inquiry about ‘institutional racism’ in the police force and prison system, Black people are still more likely than any other ethnic group to die following contact with the police.

While levels of violent crime are falling overall, this is not reflected in the number of incidents of hate crime and domestic violence. Domestic violence is generally under-reported, particularly amongst women from ethnic and religious minority communities, by disabled women who are abused by carers they depend on and by new immigrants and asylum seekers.

Behind bars

People from ethnic minorities are substantially over-represented in the prison population; one in four prisoners is from an ethnic minority. On average, five times more Black people than White people in England and Wales are imprisoned (relative to general population) – a greater disproportionality than in the US.

The number of women prisoners has nearly doubled since 1995, although women still comprise just 5% of the prison population. A higher proportion of women in prison have experienced domestic violence than have women in the population as a whole. Many people who are imprisoned have mental health conditions or learning disabilities, have been in care or have experienced abuse.

Racism and social inequality are bad for your health

The shocking statistic on the mortality of Black African women asylum seekers is described in the report as ‘partly due to problems in accessing maternal healthcare’. Following a series of court cases in 2008-9, hospitals have been instructed not to provide free health care to ‘failed asylum seekers’. The Department of Health has instructed that maternity care should be provided whether the woman can pay or not, but the very fact that bills are issued is sufficient to terrify some refugee women from going to hospital.

The report details the strong association between poverty and poor health: those who have never worked or are long-term unemployed have the highest rates of self-reported poor health. People in routine occupations are more than twice as likely to say their health is ‘poor’ as those in higher managerial and professional occupations; people from lower socio-economic groups are more likely to have a poor diet and less likely to take regular exercise. Not surprisingly, people living in poverty or subject to victimisation show high rates of mental illness.

Across ethnic groups, Chinese people report the best health, while Gypsies and Travellers experience the worst. Pakistani and Bangladeshi people are more likely than those from other ethnic groups to report poor health, experience poor mental health, report a disability or limiting long-term illness, and more likely to find it hard to access and communicate with their GPs. Infant mortality is highest in Black Caribbean and Pakistani families.

A two-tier education system

A generation ago nearly all university students were White British; today one student in five is from an ethnic minority. However, there are massive internal divisions within the system, which current government plans for higher education (see pages 8 and 9) will only serve to widen: fewer than 10% of Black students are at the most prestigious ‘Russell Group’ universities, compared to a quarter of White students, and about a third of Black students get a first or upper-second class degree, compared to two-thirds of White students.

Students from lower socio-economic groups begin their education at a disadvantage and the gap widens in the course of their school years. Students eligible for free school meals are less than half as likely to achieve five good GCSEs including English and Maths. Fewer than one in six Gypsy and Traveller children obtain five good GCSEs.

Black Caribbean children are permanently excluded from schools in England at a rate of 30 per 10,000 and Gypsy and Traveller children at 38 per 10,000, compared to five per 10,000 for Asian and nine per 10,000 for White pupils.

Working life

Despite years of struggle for gender equality, the pay gap between men and women remains significant. At age 40 men are earning on average 27% more than women. Women workers make up 83% of people employed in personal services. Over 40% of women are employed in the public sector, compared to 15% of men. A large proportion of women work part time.

The effect of taking time out of work to bring up children is greatest for the women with the lowest income to begin with. Women with degrees are estimated to face a 4% loss in lifetime earnings as a result of motherhood, while mothers with mid-level qualifications face a 25% loss and those with no qualifications a 58% loss.

The government is currently rolling out punitive plans to force people with disabilities off benefit. The Triennial Review reveals that, despite anti-discrimination legislation and measures, between the 1970s and 2000s the chances of working for low qualified British men with disabilities halved from 77% to 38%. Of disabled people in their early 20s, 45% are Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET).

The British labour market continues to be characterised by a high level of occupational segregation. For example, around 25% of Pakistani men are employed primarily as taxi drivers. Muslim people have the lowest rate of employment of any religious group. Only 47% of Muslim men and 24% of Muslim women are employed and 42% of young Muslim people are NEET.

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer

The average net household wealth of the top 10% is £853,000 – almost 100 times higher than the net wealth of the poorest 10%, which is £8,800 or below. One person in five lives in a household with less than 60% of the median income (after housing costs); this rises to one in four for families with disabled people and nearly one in three for Bangladeshi households.

Across the board, class intersects with race, gender and disability to increase disadvantage. Ethnic and religious minorities and disabled people are over-represented in the most deprived neighbourhoods; a quarter of Bangladeshi households are overcrowded; two-thirds of Bangladeshi and Pakistani people lack savings and half of Bangladeshi and Pakistani pensioners live below the poverty line.

When the Labour government came to power in 1997, Tony Blair pledged to end child poverty. Today 30% of all children in Britain grow up in poverty – one of the highest rates in the industrialised world. This rises to 50% for Black African children and 75% for Bangladeshis.

People from lower socio-economic groups are more likely both to need care and to provide it. Better-off people are more likely to use formal childcare and people on low incomes, non-working parents and single parents less likely to use formal childcare. Bangladeshi and Pakistani people are significantly more likely than average to provide informal paid care (more than twice as likely as White people). There are a significant number of young carers (175,000 aged under 18 in 2001); a disproportionate number of whom are from ethnic minority backgrounds.

An agenda for fairness?

Although Phillips states in his introduction that the report’s function is descriptive, rather than ‘a prescription for change’, the research culminates with an ‘agenda for fairness’. The five key aims are: to reduce the effect of socio-economic background on health and life expectancy; to ensure that every individual has the chance to learn and to realise their talents to the full; to give every person the opportunity to play a part in strengthening Britain’s economy; to put an end to identity-based violence and harassment; to give more people greater personal autonomy and civic power. Each is accompanied by a series of subsidiary goals, such as ‘close the infant mortality gap between ethnic groups’ or ‘close the gender pay gap faster and further’. Other than the debatable notion of participation in ‘strengthening Britain’s economy’ this is in some senses a fairly uncontentious wish-list; however, there is no chance, especially given the current ‘slash and burn’ of public spending, of the generalised proposals being made more concrete, nor of funding being allocated to even begin to implement those parts of the agenda which could be realised this side of a socialist revolution.

Britain is an imperialist nation. The racism which permeates the country’s institutions and the resulting entrenched discrimination at all levels are a reflection of Britain’s world role as a nation which has systematically plundered and colonised, and which continues to invade, occupy and oppress other nations. Despite the existence of all sorts of ‘anti-discrimination legislation’ and the setting up of bodies like the Equality and Human Rights Commission, racism remains legally enshrined in the form of immigration laws and freelance prejudice is encouraged in the media, including the publicly funded BBC. No serious fight against racism can take place without simultaneous support for the struggle against imperialism.

This is an important report and contains a mass of information, all of which illustrates that, although the inequalities and prejudices of today are not the same as those of 30 years ago, Britain today remains a divided society, polarised along racial and class lines. This inequality cannot be resolved by capitalist government quangos or legislation even in times of prosperity. In the coming times of enforced austerity, there is even less chance of greater ‘fairness’ being handed down from above. Inequality is fundamental to capitalism and the struggle for equality is the struggle for socialism.

Fight racism! Fight imperialism!

* Available at www.equalityhumanrights.com/. The Equality and Human Rights Commission was set up in 2007 by the Labour government, which amalgamated the Commission for Racial Equality, Disability Rights Commission and Equal Opportunities Commission into a single body. Its duties include reporting every three years on progress towards a society ‘where every individual has the opportunity to achieve their potential, and where people treat each other with dignity and respect.’

FRFI 218 December 2010/January 2011


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