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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Household income and inequality

As a new Oxfam report has highlighted, the richest 1% of Britain’s population owns almost more than 20 times the total wealth of the poorest 20%. Or put another way, 634,000 of the wealthiest people are worth 20 times as much as the poorest 13 million. This makes Britain one of the most unequal countries in the developed world.

This 'us and them' society is illustrated by a story in today's Guardian. The disgraced former owner of BHS, Dominic Chappell, owes more than £500,000 to the taxman on the profits he made. HMRC has started legal proceedings to recover the money. However, Chappell has put the business that owes the tax, Swiss Rock Limited, into liquidation, meaning he could walk away without paying the bill. Truly, only the 'little people' pay taxes.

We also have some more detailed data on disposable income, helpfully analysed by SPICe in their latest briefing. Disposable income per person in Scotland is currently £17,905. This is just below the UK figure of £17,965. Scotland has the 5th highest GDHI per person of all UK regions. Between 2013 and 2014 Scottish GDHI per person grew by 0.2% in cash terms. This is lower than the increase across the whole of the UK (0.5%).

Taking a longer time frame is interesting. Between 1997 and 2014 Scottish GDHI per person increased by 28% (£3,740) in real terms with the UK seeing a 27% (£3,830) increase over the same period. The gap between Scottish and UK GDHI per person has decreased from a peak of 8.6% in 2000 to 5.1% in 2014. This is one statistic that we can't put down to the oil price crash.

Unsurprisingly, London has the highest disparity between the highest and lowest GDHI per person in the UK. Scotland in comparison is a more equal society, at least in terms of disposable income. However, there are significant inequalities within Scotland. Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire has the highest level in disposable household income at £20,547, followed closely by Edinburgh. Glasgow City is the lowest at £14,757. East and North Ayrshire saw the largest increase in GDHI per person last year while East and West Dunbartonshire saw the largest decrease.

The GDHI figure is broken down into primary income ( wages, assets etc) and secondary (benefits, pensions and gifts). Scotland has the sixth highest level of primary income of the U.K. regions and accounts for 7.8% of all primary income in the UK, but 8.3% of total UK population. Only London, south-east and east of England outperform their population share. Scotland has the highest proportion of income from wages of total income and the second lowest proportion of rental income and self-employment. Since 2008 all types of primary income have decreased in real terms in Scotland, but financial assets have declined the fastest, probably due to low interest rates.

Scotland accounted for 8.4% of the total income from benefits which is almost exactly the same as Scotland’s population share of the UK (8.3%) and are fourth from bottom in this 'dependency' league table. Interestingly it is areas like, Lochaber, Skye and South Ayrshire that have the highest secondary incomes. This is probably due to pension income and reminds us where the bulk of the welfare budget is actually spent.

So, this data shows that income inequality in the UK remains a huge issue for concern. Scotland is a more equal country, but still has big geographical differences. The question for policy makers is how should these disparities be tackled. Unequal countries do worse on almost every count, so we should focus on progressive taxation and stronger public services to bridge the gap.

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