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Towards An Economy That Works For Women

Last year, we saw celebrations across the country of the 100th anniversary of some women winning the right to vote for the first time. Next year will mark 50 years since the landmark Equal Pay Act. While there’s certainly much to celebrate for many women in the UK, for others, things have taken a turn for the worse.
 
After nearly a decade of austerity policies, we know that it’s women who’ve been hardest hit by cuts to social security and public spending. Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) women and disabled women have been hit worst of all, while men have benefited disproportionately from tax cuts over the same period.

We have now been told that austerity is coming to an end. Both Sajid Javid for the Conservatives and John McDonnell for Labour have made commitments to increase public spending if their parties win the next election. After ten years of austerity, which has resulted in increased poverty, rising homelessness and a crisis in public services, a change of direction is long overdue.
 
But it is vital that women, particularly poor women, BAME women and disabled women, who have been hit hardest by austerity, to benefit from any increase in public spending. Whoever wins the next election, it’s time for an economy that works for women.
 
Local government is responsible for providing or funding many of the services and local infrastructure crucial to the daily lives and wellbeing of women and those they care for – children, families and vulnerable adults. But central government funding for local authorities fell by over 49% between 2010/11 and 2017/18, with councils in the most deprived areas suffering the greatest cuts. The impact of these cuts since 2010 on housing, education, social care, childcare, transport, leisure and youth services has been destructive and debilitating for women – whether as former employees in these services, as primary users themselves, or as primary carers of children or elderly and disabled relatives. As for the impact of cuts to local authorities on women’s refuges, 17% of specialist women’s refuges were forced to close between 2010 and 2014.
 
Demand for social care, for elderly or disabled adults, has increased over the past decade, but the failure of successive governments to fund, or plan for, these rising care needs has pushed adult social care to breaking point. 1.4 million people now have unmet care needs, an increase of 48% since 2010. Women bear the brunt of the care crisis, as the majority of both formal care workers and informal carers, and those in need of care.

We can do things differently. Looking back at the political legacy of this decade, we must remind ourselves that the economy is not a given, nor a ‘black box’, or a wild animal which must be cautiously tiptoed around. The economy is designed by humans, and so can be redesigned – with equality, wellbeing and sustainability at its heart.
 
Earlier this year, the Women’s Budget Group set up a first-of-its-kind Commission on a Gender-Equal Economy, which is developing a coherent set of economic policies which would bring about a gender-equal economy across the four nations of the UK. The Commission is underpinned by a belief that we can do things differently - and learning from best practice around the world is a key part of this.
 
For example, we can look at Iceland, where well-paid, non-transferable parental leave ensures that fathers are equally responsible for childcare from the get-go. Or New Zealand, which this year became the first country in the Western world to design its whole budget according to wellbeing priorities. Or even within the UK itself, we can look to Scotland, where free personal care for the over-65s has been in law since 2002 and was rolled out to adults of working age who need it to earlier this year.
 

The next government must set up a National Care Service, with provision for Independent Living Services which can be tailored to individual requirements to facilitate disabled people’s independence. This would address the urgent care crisis, support the right to independent living for disabled people and, boost employment. We need to see central government restore funding to local government to a level which enables councils to meet their statutory obligations and provide the preventative, non-statutory services which are vital to the wellbeing of women, children and those in need of care. We need to see a government that includes funding for  public services within its definition of investment. Our health, care and education systems make up our social infrastructure which, like physical infrastructure, require spending now for social and/or economic benefits in the future. Spending on services that lead to long term improvements in people’s health, education and well-being are therefore investments in our social infrastructure.

This election is an opportunity for the next government to truly bring about an end to austerity; an opportunity to invest in our crucially important social infrastructure; an opportunity to move towards a truly gender-equal economy.

By Marion Sharples, project manager of the Women’s Budget Group’s Commission on a Gender-Equal Economy

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