Government ministers repeatedly tell us that the government is “hell bent” on “levelling up” the country, closing or even eliminating the gaps between the wealthy and the poor, and between places with high levels of disadvantage and more affluent areas.
But as the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated, this country very much remains a divided one. People face barriers according to levels of income and wealth, educational opportunity and outcomes, secure and insecure employment and much more.
Health inequality has been a particular problem for many years and the pandemic has highlighted this, as areas of the greatest social disadvantage are most likely to have the highest levels of Covid-19.
It is all the more tragic that government cuts to local authority finance have hit councils with the greatest social need the hardest. This has been a deliberate government policy.
Education inequality has been moving in the wrong direction for a number of years, but the pandemic also brought this into sharp relief.
The fiasco of awarding examination results brought this to the front pages, but less coverage was given to the severe inequality based on social class, family incomes and wealth when it came to accessing online learning – including access to digital devices, stable WiFi and home environments suitable for learning.
Now we learn that as state schools are struggling to find Covid-19 tests for learners and staff, Eton and other public schools (supported by their charitable status) are able to purchase regular tests.
Poverty and hunger are increasing. A Covid-19-driven economic recession will lead to a massive growth in unemployment – especially at the end of October, when the furlough job retention scheme is scheduled to end.
This summer it took the Manchester United footballer, Marcus Rashford, working with a charity to draw attention to child hunger and to shame the government into extending free school meals over the summer holidays.
Now the Trussell Trust, Britain’s largest food bank network, is warning that UK destitution rates will double by the end of the year, resulting in a massive increase in demand for charity food parcels.
Specifically, the Trussell Trust predicts that if the government withdraws Covid-19 support for low-income households, at least 670,000 extra people will become destitute in the last three months of the year – defined as a level of poverty that leaves them unable to meet basic food, shelter or clothing needs.
“If we don’t take action now, there will be further catastrophic rises in poverty in the future,” warned Emma Revie, the chief executive of the charity.
The Trussell Trust is not the only charity witnessing and warning of rising poverty, homelessness and hunger. The Covid-19 crisis is unprecedented, and the resulting inequalities are compounding existing conditions.
No serious charity concerned with fairness, equity and equality should be ignoring the levels of contemporary poverty and inequality. Many are seeking to ameliorate the impact of poverty and hunger, homelessness, and other manifestations of these horrors, which is commendable – but not sufficient.
I firmly believe our shared goal must be that Covid-19 leads not to a return to a pre-pandemic reality of inequality and unfairness; rather, we need a better reality.
All charities and wider civil society must be ready and willing to challenge the underlying causes of these horrors – which are a combination of several factors, with long-term structural inequalities and government policy high on the list.
In this, one of the six wealthiest global economies, surely there is no excusable or acceptable excuse for child poverty and the other scourges of our country in 2020?
Charities should join forces with others in civil society, including trade unions and faith groups, to make the case for a more equal society and a fairer economy. Such a society and such an economy would be safer, kinder, more inclusive and more cohesive.
In the short term, charities and other civil society bodies should be campaigning for an extension of the job retention (furlough) scheme beyond the end of October, not just for charities, but for all sectors that cannot return to active employment for some time.
They should also be arguing for investment in public services, especially social care, the NHS, social housing and local authorities. And they should call out the economic falsity of "austerity".
Longer term, they should be arguing for major structural and policy change including outlawing precarious employment; ending the inhumane policy of ‘no recourse to public funds’; the systematic elimination of homelessness; the introduction of statutory minimum income standards, and much more.
Significant progressive redistribution of wealth and income would be economically advantageous, not least because those on lower incomes have a higher propensity to spend than those enjoying higher levels of income and those with excessive economically inactive wealth.
Charities, and civil society more widely cannot simply witness unfairness, a lack of compassion and need, and then either pass on the other side of the road to avoid being accused of being "political", or simply just try to patch up the injuries created by unfairness and inequality.
Of course, amelioration and support are vital and historically have been the forte of many charities. Yet advocacy and campaigning are also important – and sometimes more important.
Charities are facing extremely hard choices as revenue declines and demand for their services increases, and the government fails to offer serious financial support.
However, this should not, must not and cannot be a cover for a failure to speak up and to speak out.
As Compassion in Politics powerfully argues, compassion has the power to change politics for good. Charities through their advocacy can demonstrate their compassion in ways that can secure sustainable change for the good.
They can – and should – push for genuine measures to level up our divided society.
John Tizard (@johntizard) is an independent strategic adviser and commentator