Charles Kennedy: 'Inequality is worse now than it was under Thatcher'

From a New Year address by the leader of the Liberal Democrats

This Labour government keeps telling us that Britain is getting better; but it's not getting better for everybody. Unfairness divides our society. Inequality is worse than under Margaret Thatcher. We have an unfair tax system which means those on the lowest earnings pay more of their income in tax than the richest. Yet the new economy and the new information society have brought challenges and opportunities which should enable every individual to have the chance to make the best of their lives.

Fundamental unfairness in modern Britain isn't just about wealth. It's about life-chances and opportunities. It's about social injustice which splits communities and divides families; and is embedded in the most fundamental aspects of life - housing, social mobility and education.

There are tens of thousands of families in the country living in overcrowded housing. Yet there are half a million fewer social homes now than when New Labour came to power in 1997.

The statistics are chilling. In 21st-century Britain, a baby born in Westminster will live, on average, eight years longer than a child born in the Canning Town area of London. While Department of Health figures show infant mortality is twice as high for children of parents in manual work as those in managerial and professional jobs.

The Prime Minister has made it a speciality to trot out statistics about how life in this country is improving. But it hasn't for these families and their children. Labour's short-termist policies, far from denting inequality, are actually contributing to a continuing widening of the gap between rich and poor. And what is worse, social mobility has stalled. Those born into poor circumstances are more likely to be trapped under Labour. It is the sad fact that a party once dedicated to the advancement of the underprivileged has presided over an ever-growing divide.

Unfairness breeds division, division breeds distrust. Public distrust - and New Labour's politics of fear - have already undermined some of the very foundations of the democratic society in which we live.

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