Former Huntingdon MP and prime minister Sir John Major has spoken out about the “shocking” impact of inequality in Britain.

Delivering a lecture entitled 'A nation at ease with itself?' on Tuesday, in London, Sir John said more needed to be done to close the gap between the rich and the poor.

He said life was “still not easy” for many families, despite the relative rise in wealth in the county, and sought to draw a distinction between people in receipt of benefits and scroungers.

He said: “Sixty years ago, my family's circumstances were not easy. But in a country now immensely more wealthy, life is still not easy for many others.

“Even in areas that are recognised as wealthy, there are families or individuals who have fallen behind.

“Policy-makers must understand how hard it is to escape from such circumstances. It is not inertia that keeps the unemployed immobile: it is simply that, without help, they are trapped.”

The former prime minister urged people to “cast aside the misconception” that everyone out of work is idle, stressing that not everyone receiving benefits should be labelled “a scrounger”.

He said: “Of course idlers and scroungers exist – and governments are entirely right to root out the cheats who rip off the taxpayer. But the focus must not be only on those who abuse the system; we need equal concentration on those who are failed by the system.

“Poverty isn't only about empty pockets. In some of our great cities, the lifespan of the poorest is 20 years shorter than that of the most wealthy.

“I have no doubt that much of this disparity is caused by poor lifestyle, poor choices, poor diet – but poor environment, poor housing and poor education must surely be contributory factors. Whatever the reasons, this is a shocking situation in 2015.”

In order to bring about change, Sir John said that tackling the state of the nation's finances was paramount, and that “penalising the rich” while cutting defence and overseas aid spending was unsustainable.

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