IF YOU believed the lifestyle supplements, TV ads and government talk of an 'aspirational society' you would think most people in Britain had never had it so good.
The image they conjure up is one of hard choices between buying a new 'people carrier' or getting that 4x4 to run about in. It is a world of agonising decisions on where to take the next long weekend in a £100 a night hotel in some European capital, or over which destination for the second long-haul exotic holiday of the year.
Shall we eat out in the new Terence Conran restaurant in the town centre or try that new Michelin-starred place down the road? This planet is certainly the one inhabited by New Labour ministers, most MPs, and the managers, media luvvies and businesspeople they rub shoulders with. The vast majority of people in Britain live in a quite different world.
It is one where for most people a holiday means a week in a caravan at the seaside or, at best, a package holiday abroad. And each year 40 percent of people do not get an annual holiday away from home. It is a world where most of us work hard, too hard, just to have any kind of reasonable life.
Many, however hard they work, don't even manage that. Today, those who may earn enough to get by while working worry they will be plunged into poverty come retirement.
The latest official statistics from the Inland Revenue paint a picture of the real Britain. Their figures underestimate the pools of deep poverty that blight people's lives. They exclude those too poor to pay tax, such as students, most pensioners and people forced to live on benefits.
Nevertheless the figures paint a devastating picture of a divided Britain. The gulf is between a thin layer of people who worry about how to spend their growing wealth on the one hand, and the vast majority of ordinary people on the other.
Over two thirds, 68 percent, of working taxpayers in Britain earn less than £20,000 a year-before tax. Over half, 51 percent, earn less than £15,000. At the other end of the scale a few people live lives most of us would find difficult to imagine.
Just 1 percent of taxpayers, 302,000 individuals, get an average of £201,000 each. This 1 percent grab each year more than the poorest 8.3 million people in Britain combined. The gulf between this rich elite and ordinary people has grown wider.
Ten years ago the richest 1 percent grabbed 5.6 times the total 'earned income' of the bottom 50 percent. Today they get 6.9 times as much. What the rich actually do to 'earn' income is a mystery. Once you take into account income from shares and investments and property, the gulf between the rich and the rest is even wider.
Time and again politicians say the money isn't there for the things ordinary people want-schools and hospitals, decent wages and pensions-though the same politicians quickly enough find money for war.
When socialists say 'tax the rich', the politicians say that this wouldn't raise enough money to make much difference because of the small number of rich people. That is one of the greatest lies of all. If the top rate of income Tax was increased from the current 40 percent to 50 percent (still far less than Margaret Thatcher's Tory governments tolerated for most of her reign) it would raise billions each year.
Putting a 50 percent tax rate on the 302,000 people on over £100,000 a year could raise up to £3 billion a year. Putting the same top rate on the 957,000 people who get more than £50,000 a year would raise another £5 billion.
So a modest rise in taxes, one which would not affect 96 percent of people in Britain, could raise up to £8 billion a year. The refusal by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to even consider raising taxes on the rich is a conscious choice to cosy up to the elite. This starves our public services, our pensioners and more of the money they need.
PAUL McGARR and KATE COYNE
Who gets what income?
The richest tenth of taxpayers take home 56% of all incomes...
While the combined incomes of the poorest half of Britain's taxpayers amounts to just 6%
40% of people in Britain do not get a holiday away from home. Many more make do with just a week by the coast.
We are not going halves
1% The richest 1 percent of taxpayers in Britain, just 302,000 individuals, grab £100,000 a year or more. On average they get £201,000 each.
Their combined income equals the poorest 8.3 million workers, who together make up 28% of Britain's taxpayers. On average they earn just £6,889 a year.
Class is the real divide
THE MEDIA paint a picture of the real divide in Britain as between a prosperous south and a less well-off north. They quote 'average' earnings figures to back this up. Such 'averages' are misleading. The concentration of a thin layer of very rich people in areas like London and the south east massively distorts the figures. Think of a situation where nine people have £1 and one person has £1 million. The 'average' is around £100,000-which tells you nothing.
The Inland Revenue gives a different 'average' in its figures, the figure which half of people get more than and half less. This 'median' gives a far better idea of the typical income people have. When looked at like this the differences between different parts of Britain shrink.
The 'average' income in Tower Hamlets in London is £25,000 a year. Yet the borough is home to some of the worst poverty in Britain and the typical income in Tower Hamlets is just £16,000. That is more than, say, Newcastle, where it is £14,200. Once you take into account the extra costs of living in the capital there is little real difference in living standards.
Camden in north London sounds rich when the 'average' income is £40,000. But half the people there get less than £19,700 a year. When you look at the poorest areas in Britain-the 15 councils where typical incomes are less than £12,000 a year-a different picture to that painted by the media emerges.
These poorest areas include Blaenau Gwent, Powys, Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion in Wales, and Argyll and Bute in Scotland. They also include Teesdale, Derwentside and Alnwick in the north east, Craven in Yorkshire, and Pendle in the north west.
But also in the bottom division are Torridge, Torbay, North Devon and West Devon in the south west as well as Thanet in 'prosperous' Kent.
Work steals parents from children
'AT SCHOOL or college, at work and at home it is crucial to our lives. I am convinced that parents who spend just 20 minutes a day reading at home with their children can make a big difference to their child's learning.' These are the words spoken by David Blunkett in 1998 when he was the Education and Employment Secretary. New Labour is always preaching on about how to be a good parent.
Every parent knows that spending time with, and reading to, their children is a good thing. And most parents try to spend as much time doing this as possible. But time is precisely what few parents have. Long hours Britain-encouraged by declining industry and falling wages-means that not only do parents not have enough time to read to their children, they often don't have time to stop and think.
A recent report by the Rowntree Foundation found that 32 percent of mothers who frequently worked long hours, and 46 percent of fathers, found that 'every week their work limited the time they could spend reading with, playing with or helping children with their homework'.
It also reports that they want to spend more time with their children but are working longer and longer hours just to make ends meet. 'One half of fathers and 13 percent of mothers regularly worked over 40 hours per week; 30 percent of fathers and 6 per cent of mothers worked over 48 hours per week.'
Working long and unsocial hours is a 'requirement of the job rather than a choice', according to 75 percent of mothers surveyed. Many parents work consecutive shifts to manage childcare and rarely get to see each other. These relationships are put under increasing pressure.
Households where both parents work, one full time and one part time, are now the norm. The idea that this growth is fuelled by a desire to earn extra cash for luxury items is rubbished by the report.
It confirms what we already know-the increasing number of 1.5 or two-earner families has everything to do with necessity, job insecurity and housing costs. But if you have to work long hours to make ends meet, who looks after the children?
Most of the extra money a family earns can easily end up being gobbled up in childcare costs. While Cherie Blair can afford a lifestyle guru, most mums and dads struggle to pay the baby-sitting fees.
New Labour lectures fathers about their responsibility to read to and provide good role models to their sons. It's working class fathers who are more likely to take on a larger share of childcare responsibilities. Financial restraints and limited access to affordable childcare make 'shift parenting' the only option for working class families.
Families and Work in the 21st Century can be downloaded from www.jrf.org.uk