♦ Wealth of half world's population now same as that of group who could fit on a double-decker bus

Wealthy elites have co-opted political power to rig the rules of the economic game, undermining democracy and creating a world where 85 richest people own the wealth of half of the world's population, worldwide development organisation Oxfam warns in a report published today.

'Working For the Few', published ahead of this week's World Economic Forum in Davos, details the pernicious impact that widening inequality is having in both developed countries and in developing countries, helping the richest undermine democratic processes and insist on policies that promote their interests at the expense of everyone else.

The report says that there is a growing global public awareness of this power-grab. Polls carried out for Oxfam in the UK, Brazil, India, South Africa, Spain and US show that most people in all six countries believe that laws are skewed in favour of the rich. The UK polling carried out by Research Now, found that two-thirds of people thought 'the rich had too much influence over the direction the country is headed' and only one in ten disagreed. The UK is one of the most unequal countries in the OECD club of rich nations.

Inequality has shot up the global agenda recently. US President Obama has made the issue one of his key priorities for 2014. The World Economic Forum has identified widening income disparities as the second greatest worldwide risk in the next 12-18 months. WEF's Global Outlook report, published in November, warned inequality is undermining social stability and 'threatening security on a global scale'.

Oxfam wants governments to take urgent action to reverse the trend. It is asking those attending Davos to make six-point personal pledge to tackle the problem.

Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam Executive Director who will attend the Davos meetings, said:

"It is staggering that in the 21st Century, half of the world's population – that's three and a half billion people – own no more than a tiny elite whose numbers could all fit comfortably on a double-decker bus.

"We cannot hope to win the fight against poverty without tackling inequality. Widening inequality is creating a vicious circle where wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, leaving the rest of us to fight over crumbs from the top table.

"In developed and developing countries alike we are increasingly living in a world where the lowest tax rates, the best health and education and the opportunity to influence are being given not just to the rich but also to their children.

"Without a concerted effort to tackle inequality, the cascade of privilege and of disadvantage will continue down the generations. We will soon live in a world where equality of opportunity is just a dream. In too many countries economic growth already amounts to little more than a 'winner takes all' windfall for the richest."

The UK government's Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, chaired by Alun Milburn, warned in October that having stopped rising towards the end of the last century, social mobility is now flat-lining and "could go into reverse". It found that too often being born poor leads to a lifetime of poverty.

Policies successfully demanded by the rich in recent decades include financial deregulation, tax havens and secrecy, anti-competitive business practice, lower tax rates on high incomes and investments and cuts or underinvestment in public services for the majority. Since the late 1970s, tax rates for the richest have fallen in 29 out of 30 countries for which data are available, meaning that in many places the rich not only get more money but also pay less tax on it.

A recent US study presented compelling statistical evidence that the interests of the wealthy are overwhelmingly represented by the US Government compared with those of the middle classes. The preferences of the poorest had no impact on the votes of elected officials.

This capture of opportunities by the rich at the expense of the poor and middle classes has helped create a situation where seven out of every ten people in the world live in countries where inequality has increased since the 1980s and one per cent of the world's families now own 46% of its wealth ($110 trillion).

The report says:

US Banknotes by 2bgr8

US Banknotes by 2bgr8

· Globally, the richest individuals and companies hide trillions of dollars away from the tax man in a web of tax havens around the world – it is estimated that $21 trillion is held unrecorded and off-shore;

· In the US, financial deregulation directly correlates to the increase in the income share of the top 1 per cent which is now at its highest level since the eve of the Great Depression;

· In India, the number of billionaires increase tenfold in the past decade, aided by a highly regressive tax structure and the wealthy exploiting their government connections, while spending on the poorest remains remarkably low;

· In Europe, austerity has been imposed on the poor and middle classes under huge pressure from financial markets whose wealthy investors have benefited from state bailouts of financial institutions;

· In Africa, global corporations – particularly those in extractive industries – exploit their influence to avoid taxes and royalties, reducing the resources available to governments to fight poverty.

Oxfam is calling on those gathered at WEF to pledge to:

· Support progressive taxation and not to dodge their own taxes;

· Refrain from using their wealth to seek political favours that undermine the democratic will of their fellow citizens;

· Make public all the investments in companies and trusts for which they are the ultimate beneficial owners;

· Challenge governments to use tax revenue to provide universal healthcare, education and social protection for citizens;

· Demand a living wage in all companies they own or control;

· Challenge other members of the economic elite to join them in these pledges.

Later this year, Oxfam will launch a global campaign to persuade governments to tackle inequality by cracking down on financial secrecy and tax dodging, by investing in universal education and healthcare, and by introducing a global goal to end extreme inequality in every country. A UN high-level panel chaired by David Cameron, which made recommendations on post 2015 development goals, stopped short of proposing a specific goal to reduce inequality.

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