Opinion: Our crucial role in tackling inequality

Last year, a report by the London School of Economics showed that parental background continues to exert a very powerful influence on the academic progress of children. By the age of seven, for instance, bright children from poor homes will be overtaken academically at school by less gifted pupils with wealthier parents. Worryingly, the UK ranks low on social mobility when compared with other advanced nations.

As for the nation's health, inequalities are getting worse. For three decades, commissions have reached the same conclusion: the health gap between those at the top and bottom of the social scale has widened. And the substantial evidence of inequitable provision within the NHS doesn't even take into account those who can afford to go private. As Lord Darzi recently pointed out: "Westminster and Canning Town are separated by just eight stops on the Jubilee Line, and by a seven-year disparity in life expectancy."

Some of the blame for these health inequalities must lie with the current Government, and some with previous governments. Inequalities in education, largely a government responsibility, clearly infuse and inform health inequalities. But there are also factors - such as income, environment, housing, transport and lifestyle - that no government can completely control. These inequalities should offend anyone who believes in social justice - and expose as meretricious trash the assumption that there are no big social issues to confront any more.

"I don't need less than a deserving man," said Alfred P Doolittle, Eliza's scoundrel of a father in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion: "I need more." Shaw may have been satirising Doolittle as the embodiment of the undeserving poor, but perhaps our current crisis in the distribution of health, wealth and learning requires that we do give more. With coordination, collaboration, concerted effort and committed resources, perhaps joined-up civil society can succeed where joined-up government has failed.

If inequality is our responsibility, perhaps the emphasis should shift from political action for the public good to private action for the public good.

  - Nick Seddon is an author and journalist: nptseddon@hotmail.com


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