At the end of last year, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, disgracefully equated vulnerable sections of society to ‘cornflakes’ in his infamous Margaret Thatcher speech. He also went on to state that inequality is ‘natural’ and ‘essential’. His oxymoronic cure for inequality (which in London equates to thousands using foodbanks and sleeping rough whilst the ‘super-rich’ thrive) is to cause further hardship for vulnerable groups because, he believes, it is healthy to foster a ‘spirit of envy’.
It is shameful that the Mayor of a city as diverse and wealthy as London can advocate such a view and get away with it. Despite the reams of evidence that demonstrate the structural inequality across the capital, the Mayor keeps his fingers in his ears and lets the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It is made even worse that this is due not only to his general incompetence, but also to his genuine, personal outlook on society – as demonstrated in his speech at the Margaret Thatcher lecture.
My cost of living report, Falling Further Behind, is a rebuttal to the Mayor’s dangerous ‘cornflake economics’ and underlines the structural inequality that exists in London and the actions that he can take to lower the barriers to success, which are outlined in the paragraphs that follow.
The evidence in my report shows that Londoners from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds face barriers to success due to low pay; employment discrimination; food poverty; lack of appropriate childcare provision; high public transport fares; and high rents. A report by the Runnymede Trust for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Race and Community in 2012 found that 25% of the unemployment rate for Black and Asian men and women is a result of prejudice and direct discrimination. The report also found that BAME women face discrimination ‘at every stage of the recruitment process.’ London’s Poverty Profile shows that half of all people in poverty in London are from BAME backgrounds.
Londoners with disabilities face barriers due to a smaller supply of suitable, accessible housing; cuts to disability allowances; food poverty; inaccessible public transport; lack of specialised childcare provision; and barriers to employment. This in turn, has forced many to turn to food banks and risk their health by cutting back on heating so they can afford the bills. According to the London Cost of Living Survey, 74% of disabled Londoners have cut back on heating their homes in order to afford their energy bills.
Women face various barriers due to a lack of affordable childcare; low pay and low pensions; insecure employment contracts; public transport safety concerns; and widespread sexual discrimination. Once again, the Mayor falls short when addressing this inequality. Indeed, in February 2014, the Mayor claimed women are not ‘anywhere near’ achieving equal employment opportunities in the labour market, but that his own pool of advisers, in which ‘almost half’ of the staff are women, was an example of how things could be done. However, it turns out that only 4 of his 14 paid advisers are actually women (28%).
The inequality story for young and older Londoners can also not just be dismissed as a result of, what the Mayor, in his speech, put down to, ‘natural and God-given talent’. Children and young people are facing barriers to success due to hunger impacting on their education; being forced to pay out high rents for accommodation; the cancellation of the education maintenance allowance; increased university tuition fees; and a lack of job opportunities. Meanwhile, elder Londoners are facing hardship due to high energy bills; malnutrition; and rising costs of everyday necessities. As highlighted in my report, it also appears that Londoners are retiring later than people in other parts of the UK with 11% of those aged 65 and over in work compared with the national average of 9.5%. In the North East, this figure is 6% (Source: ONS Annual Population Survey).
The negative impact of the cost-of-living crisis extends to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, too. Those who identify as LGBT face societal discrimination which feeds into employment opportunities and, notably, housing. Due to a high risk of domestic abuse, LGBT Londoners who are victims of abuse also struggle from a lack of emergency accommodation in the city. Studies have also shown that the vast majority of homelessness services work with people who identify as LGBT.
Whilst the Mayor takes economic advice from the back of his cereal box, my report suggests that Londoners across the city are suffering. I urge the Mayor to take steps to address this inequality to help those groups protected under the Equality Act 2010. I believe that action can be taken on these issues and that inequality is not inevitable. It is certainly not ‘essential’ as the Mayor suggests. Boris argues that vulnerable Londoners require inequality and envy to ‘shake’ them to the top, but it is he that needs to be shaken into action. The evidence and recommendations outlined in my report show that the barriers facing vulnerable groups are not ‘natural’, but structural, and it is time for the Mayor to recognise this and work to make London a city of equal opportunity for all, instead of a city of inevitable and, as he argues, justifiable inequality for the majority.
Jennette Arnold OBE AM has been a member of the London Assembly since 2000. Initially a London-wide member, since 2004 Jennette has represented the North East London constituency of Hackney, Islington and Waltham Forest. Jennette’s work focuses on the key strategic issues that impact directly on the lives of her constituents – improved transport services, crime reduction and affordable housing. She is also a champion in the fight against any form of injustice and discrimination.