“Tinkering at the margins”: Budget does not do enough for women, campaigners say

Caitlin Logan

Chancellor faces criticism for silence on key areas such as social care and women’s pensions

FOLLOWING THE ANNOUNCEMENT of the UK Government’s tax and spending plans on Wednesday by Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, the UK and Scottish Women’s Budget Groups and Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) campaigners have said the budget fails to make the investments needed to address women’s inequality.

Research by the Fawcett Society in 2015 found that up to 85 per cent of austerity measures since 2010 – including cuts to benefits, taxation, pay and pensions – came from women’s incomes.

Organisations such as the Women’s Budget Group monitor the impact of budgets on men and women and argue that such analysis is necessary if governments are to reduce, and not widen, existing inequalities.

In response to the 2017 Budget, Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of the UK Women’s Budget Group said: “There were too many areas in the budget where the chancellor chose to tinker at the margins of problems rather than make the systemic changes and investment needed.

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about the UK budget

“What we saw today in the main, was a series of relatively minor announcements which failed to address underlying issues.”

Stephenson pointed to Hammond’s failure to address the “crisis in social care”, and to insufficient increases in NHS funding, which disproportionately impacts on women who make up the majority of NHS staff and are more likely to need NHS services.

She said: “Philip Hammond repeatedly talked about the need to invest to secure a bright future for Britain. But his plans for investment in infrastructure failed to recognise the importance of social as well as physical infrastructure.

“Social infrastructure (including health, education, and care) is as vital to the economy as roads, rail and investment in high tech.”

Universal Credit was a key area in which the government made concessions in the budget. Stephenson said the £185m per year to address the waiting times was “welcome”, but said that it “barely addresses the issues with the design and cuts to Universal Credit”.

She said: “Our research with the Runnymede Trust shows that as a result of changes to Universal Credit: Employed claimants will be £1200 worse off per year by April 2021 compared with the original design of UC and unemployed claimants will be £500 worse off; women on average will lose more than men; and families with three children with one earner will be £3891 worse off, while families with two earners will be £3287 worse off.”

Angela O’Hagan, convener of the Scottish Women’s Budget Group was also underwhelmed by the budget’s potential to address areas of major inequality.

READ MORE: “Trouble Ahead”: Experts and opponents pull apart the autumn budget

Speaking to CommonSpace, O’Hagan said: “To ignore social care in relation to improving the quality of people’s lives and as a focus for the much trumpeted investment is really poor. 

“The Chancellor claimed to be committed to making Britain fairer, yet paid no attention in his spending or policy commitments to social care or to the chaos that changes in tax and benefits have wrecked on people’s lives, particularly women and among them, particularly Black and Asian women.

“He claimed the party’s philosophy is to make work pay and yet in-work poverty is increasing, again with women and women of colour being the worst affected.

“Women’s Budget Group analysis with Runnymede Trust at the UK level shows losses of thousands for women due to Universal Credit rules and other changes to benefits.

“And of course the benefits cap and the insidious rape exemption have not been retracted despite the focus on the inequality and degradation of these policies by women’s groups and campaigning MPs such as Alison Thewliss.”

Commenting on the announcement of investments in City Deals for Dundee/Tay City and Stirling, among others around the UK, O’Hagan said: “[These] must be seen as motors for change in these areas and as vehicles to tackle women’s underemployment, and advance employment opportunities for women, disabled people, and ethnic minority people.

“Previous City Deals were not subject to equality impact assessments, which was a huge missed opportunity to ensure that significant public investment will be directed to address persistent inequalities in modern apprenticeships, occupational segregation, employment opportunities and wage rates.”

O’Hagan noted that the only explicit mention of women was the statue to commemorate women’s suffrage campaigner Millicent Fawcett. “While welcome, it’s presented by the as a conciliatory sop when women’s incomes and economic security are being devastated,” she said.

READ MORE: Women across Scotland march for pension equality as quarter of a million fight for justice

WASPI campaigners were also disappointed that the budget failed to make any commitments regarding their campaign to support women born in the 1950s who have lost out as a result of changes to the state pension age.

Rosemary Dickson of the Glasgow and Lanarkshire WASPI campaign told CommonSpace the budget was “ineffectual” and said: “The fact we were ignored was demoralising.”

The WASPI women call for a ‘bridging’ pension to provide an income until state pension age and compensation for losses for women who have already reached state pension age, but despite growing cross-party support, Hammond did not make mention of the campaign in the budget.

When members were asked their views, Dickson said: “The overwhelming opinion was: nothing. What has this budget done for us? Absolutely nothing.”

Dickson said the government’s failure to address the WASPI campaign’s requests was evidence of a “false economy”. She said: “The WASPI women of all political persuasions and backgrounds are bearing the brunt of austerity and their lost pensions are subsidising it.

“The magic money tree can be shaken when they need it for EU withdrawal and a no-deal, but we aren’t getting to shake the tree.”

The budget, Dickson said, “shows the disconnect between the government and the ordinary people and the important issues.”

For now, WASPI campaigners are pinning their hopes on the next backbenchers’ debate on the issue in the House of Commons on 14 December, which will be the first time MPs will cast a vote on the question.

Picture courtesy of EU2017EE Estonian Presidency

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