The Independent London Newspaper

Professor Richard Wilkinson: ‘I didn’t realise Islington was so unequal’

Fairness probe reveals findings and sets out targets

Published: 10th June, 2011
by ANDREW JOHNSON

CHILDREN under five should be given free vitamin tablets and doctors should prescribe people exercise. 

These are just two of the radical proposals in the long-awaited final report of Islington Council’s trailblazing Fairness Commission – published yesterday (Thursday) after a year of public meetings and research.

While the report shines a stark light into the chasm between the rich and the poor in the borough – and the huge effects this has on the health and welfare of the less well off – there was much discussion at yesterday’s launch in the Crypt of St Mary's Church in Upper Street, as to what concrete steps the council can take to bridge the gap.

The report was praised for its well-intentioned aims but councillors admitted they are hamstrung by the law and government policy. 

For example, a recommendation to ban loan companies may not be legal.

However, council leader Catherine West said the report was the first step in changing the culture that allows the rich to get ever richer while the rest have to work increasingly long hours for less pay.

“We have a real challenge now to look at how we’re going to [tackle the inequality highlighted in the report] in a flat economic climate and a national policy that has no understanding of the problems in an inner city community,” she said. 

“I hope this will be a blueprint for other authorities.”

Introducing the report Professor Richard Wilkinson of Nottingham University – who was “roped into chairing” the commission following the success of his book on inequality, The Spirit ­Level – said that scientific research had shown that inequality is responsible for numerous problems including drug abuse, child welfare and crime, and these were much worse for those at the ­bottom of the social pile.

“I didn’t know then that Islington is one of the most unequal boroughs with some of the most deprived and extremely wealthy people,” he said.

“We know that inequality is responsible for a huge range of problems from child wellbeing to drug problems. So life could be better in Islington if income differences could be reduced.”

That people in the borough should be paid the minimum London wage of £8.30 an hour is one of the main principles of the report. The Commission concedes, however, that while the public sector can be expected to pay this, it is more difficult to influence the private sector, as well as the private firms sub-contracted by publicly funded organisations such as the Town Hall to do work.

Councillor Andy Hull, the Commission’s vice chairman, added that the report contained a mix of recommendations, some of which were ambitious.

“The report recommends that those working in the borough should be paid the London Living Wage of £8.30 an hour,” he said. “We want to make sure that we are on the front foot and aggressive as a council to make all our sub-contractors pay a fair days wage for a fair days pay.”

Quizzed by the Tribune on how to make sure subcontracted firms pay their workers adequately it was pointed out that part of the process for choosing companies includes an “added value” criteria.

Town Hall leader Cllr West said that there needed to be a “cultural change” to make people aware of how much ­people are paid.

Cllr Hull said there would now be six-­monthly reports on the progress of the Commission. 

“There’s a realisation that in some of our recommendations we are stretching it,” he added. “But we thought let’s put them in and try. Such as banning loan com­panies.”

Gary Heather, chairman of the Islington Trade Union Council, said: “I won’t be forgetting this and we’ll be looking at what the council is doing to implement these recommendations but also to make sure the council brings more money into Islington.”

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