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The wealthy few are able to do as they like

08 November 2013

The Church should respond to questions of economic inequality, says Alan Storkey

AS THE rich receive another handout through the privatisation of the Post Office, and their off-shore earnings remain inaccessable, the fiction being put forward is that the undeserving poor and unemployed are the nation's problem.

One of the themes in the Old Testament prophecies is the centrality of truth-telling in politics. "They [the kings and officials of Judah] make ready their tongue like a bow, to shoot lies; it is not by truth that they triumph in the land." (Jeremiah 9.3). Jesus tells Pilate that, yes, he has a Kingdom, and it is one of truth.

Christians are called to truth-telling in politics - not just the transmission of facts, but truth subject to norms of justice, peace, and the common good. The time has come for Christians to relate politics in Britain to this truth-telling agenda. There is one issue which cries out to be addressed: the inequality between rich and poor. The truth is not being told.

Inequality occurs in income and wealth. Wealth is the assets owned; income is the money people receive. The top ten per cent of UK households own as much wealth (44 per cent of the total) as the bottom 85 per cent. The bottom ten per cent own nothing, or less; their debts exceed their assets. This means that a few can do whatever they like, while tens of millions do not have any real resources to live good lives. There are no effective taxes on this wealth; so it will only grow more unequal.

Income in the UK is also grossly unequal - about the most unequal in Europe. The top ten per cent earn on average 12 times what the bottom ten per cent earn. Many are earning 100th of the earnings of the top-income people: £5 an hour, compared with £500 an hour. There is no solid economic reason for paying anyone £500 an hour, or even £100 an hour; it is merely a question of how close you and your tribe are to the money troughs.

If high-income people in the UK were paid no more than £100,000, we could employ four million more people at £25,000 a year. Many, especially the young, are struggling, while the top people accumulate income. Astonishingly, the top fifth pay less in tax on income than the bottom fifth - and that does not take into account tax havens.

This inequality distorts the whole economy, explaining its poor performance and government debt. The Chancellor, George Osborne's, problems are largely that the rich have avoided tax at the rate of about £30-60 billion a year for three decades - this would have been enough to wipe out the national debt.

The young are often poor, in debt, slow to form families, and unemployed - the average age of new mothers is 30. Vast areas are deprived of wealth and income; and property, markets, work skills, and family life decay. These people will die ten years early.

The wealthy, meanwhile, control education, government contracts, the media, property markets, windfalls to the financial sector, and the tax system. So, for example, council tax bands are based on calculations from 1991, giving derisory council taxes to vast mansions.

The rich and their media barons seek to scare off anyone who addresses these questions of inequality. The Conservatives are there to keep the status quo. Both Labour and the Lib Dems are too frightened by the media power of the rich to fight these injustices that harm us all.

Unless the Church demands a political response - a wealth tax, perhaps, or the taxation of all UK-earned corporate and personal income, and a gradation to a 60-per-cent tax on the top-income band - the next election will be emptiness wrapped up, and the poor will remain servants of the rich. 

Dr Alan Storkey is the author of Jesus and Politics (Baker Book House, 2005).

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