Speech at International Fairness Conference


The City of York Council hosted an International Fairness Conference on 9 June 2014 to discuss the issues of poverty and promoting fairness. The Archbishop of York’s Keynote Speech follows in full: 


It is a delight to be with you all today, as we work to take forward this vital task of promoting fairness for all citizens in this and other countries.

On Thursday this week, the 2014 Football World Cup kicks off with a Group Stage match between the hosts, Brazil, and Croatia.  In the run-up to these games, even those who are not interested in football will have seen pictures on the news about the gorgeous beaches and hotels of Rio, juxtaposed with the city’s notorious slums – the ‘favelas’.  With the arms of Christ the Redeemer outspread above all.

These are classic images of the haves and the have-nots, of the injustice and unfairness which many suffer, while others thrive.

But we need not feel smug as we meet here in this marvellous city of York, with its beauty, history, culture, and many excellent facilities for its citizens and visitors. Though it has been voted the best and most beautiful place to live in Britain, those of us who live here know that this is only part of the story. And not only here in York, but in towns and cities, villages and countryside, in this country and across the prosperous European Union, there are those for whom the picture is very different, with many of our neighbours experiencing poverty, poor education, unemployment, high crime levels, isolation.

The Fairness Commission was set up to address what we could do to make life better and fairer for all the people in our communities. 

And in order to address the unfairness, injustice, income-inequality suffered by so many, it was and is vital to ensure that all our citizens are a part of the process, just as they need to be part of the solution.

The consultation process we held with the people of the city was tremendously encouraging in building a real sense of belonging, and a desire to ensure that everyone can live life to the full, with equal opportunities and equal involvement in the life of our communities.

It is well known that injustice and inequality lead to a sense of alienation, of separation from the rest of society.  But through showing active recognition and appreciation of the value of each person, social capital is built.  We cannot stand aloof from the injustices experienced by our neighbours.

As John Donne says,

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
… Any man's death diminishes me, (
or one might say ‘injustice suffered by anyone diminishes me’)
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.

We cannot be neutral, for as Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said,

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality”.

I see four main areas of injustice and inequality in our society which need to be tackled

The first is: Health Inequality
Within almost all British cities there are differences in life expectancy between the richest and poorest neighbourhoods of anywhere from 5-12 years.  This is perhaps the biggest human rights abuse in the rich developed societies – worse perhaps than imprisoning the populations of those neighbourhoods for a similar time without trial. 

A large part of the difference is thought to be due to psychosocial factors – the quality of social relations, early childhood, social status, sense of control etc. which, working through stress, all have powerful biological effects  which look rather like more rapid ageing.

As a nation we need to protect the principles of Bevan that allow each man, woman and child access to health care whenever they need it. But we also need to work hard on building safe and caring communities in which people can flourish.

The Second area of injustice is: Child Wellbeing
Sadly for us, it seems that Britain’s children do badly compared to those in many other countries.  Levels of bullying and child conflict are high, so is childhood obesity, self-harm, drug use, poor family relationships and subjective wellbeing. In addition, the age of criminal responsibility is low compared to many of our EU counterparts.

What can we do to improve the fairness of our society, and help families in our communities who are suffering from deprivation and insecurity, to become stable and healthy places where children can thrive?

The third area is: Youth Unemployment
Our national level of unemployment among young people aged 16-24yrs stands at around 20% (just over a million young people). And it is in the most deprived areas that the majority of these young unemployed people will be found.  Studies have shown that unemployment does lasting damage.  It obviously has consequences for crime and drug abuse.  It has led politicians and media observers to talk of ‘a lost generation’

The fourth area is: Income Inequality
Larger income differences seem to make societies more anti-social.  By increasing social status differences (and social distances), greater inequality increases all the problems associated with social status – drugs, violence, poor educational performance, teenage births. Greater income inequality has so many damaging effects because it amplifies and strengthens all the ways in which social class imprints itself on us throughout life. It weakens the bonds of caring, kindness and trust between us.  If we want a happier and less divided society then an important step forward would be to reduce the scale of income differences between rich and poor. 

This is why, over the past year, I have been pleased to chair the Living Wage Commission which is urging employers to put a proper value on the work of their workers.

It is well known that you can judge how healthy a society is by how it treats the most vulnerable people.  Research has conclusively shown that a more equal society is a happier society. 

But creating an equal society may require courage from its leaders in order to consider unpopular, but well-grounded decisions and to have the determination to ensure that those decisions really will make a difference.

For us, the people, it will need courage to accept that for some of us life may have to become a little less comfortable in order for it to be more bearable for others.

I hope all of you will take the lead on tackling inequality and that others will follow. So that in each village, town, city, country, and their Councils, businesses, voluntary organisations and indeed all of us, co-operatively to carry the work forward.

What we must ask is, do we want to live in a society where inequality and suffering is ingrained, or would we rather send out the message that everyone is valued and has an important part to play? It’s our choice. We can all make it happen. Let us all pull together.