First 100 Days - Ensuring Gender Equality
Dr Diane Elson
Diane Elson is the Chair of the UK Women’s Budget Group and Professor Emeritus of sociology at the University of Essex.
The UK Equality Act (2010) protects people from discrimination on grounds of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. The Public Sector Equality Duty (2011) requires all public bodies to have due regard to the need to prevent discrimination and advance equality. But since June 2010, the Coalition government has decided that cutting public spending is more important than these obligations, and has introduced cuts to social security and public services that deepen many of these inequalities. Single women (especially single mothers), people with disabilities, children in ethnic minority families, and pregnant migrant women have been particularly hard hit¹.
A progressive government should immediately announce that it will take seriously the Public Sector Equality Duty and reverse those cuts that have done most to undermine the equalities agenda.
However, to make sustainable progress in advancing equality requires not only action to make good the damage done, but also action to fundamentally reorient the UK economy; so that it is based on mutual care and support, and respect for dignity and rights. This must be done in ways that reduce inequalities, not only today, but also for future generations.
A progressive government must begin to reverse the damage done by cuts to spending on social security and public services within its first 100 days in power. In particular, the bedroom tax and the household level benefits cap should be immediately abolished. Plans for further cuts to local government budgets must be withdrawn and additional funding made available to local government so that they can re-vitalise Sure Start Children’s Centres and reverse cuts to funding for care for frail elderly people and for services to combat violence against women and support survivors of that violence. Funding should immediately be restored for publically provided English language classes for migrants. Pregnant migrant women, including those who have been denied asylum and those who are undocumented, should have free access to maternity services guaranteed.
A progressive government should announce that Universal Credit will not be implemented in its current form. At the very least, it must be changed to ensure that women with employed partners gain from earning – as it stands the payments made will be reduced at a higher rate than under tax credits if they do start earning. The arrangements for payment should also be changed so that not all the money goes to one person in a household – something that may hinder women from leaving an abusive relationship. But a progressive government should look beyond remedying the worst aspects of Universal Credit and announce that it will seek to create a social security system that results in fairer sharing of caring and the costs of caring – both between women and men, and between families and the wider community. It should provide an adequate independent income for all over the life course, so that people do not have to be dependent on other family members.
Inequalities in care needs and in the paid and unpaid work of caring are a major obstacle to the advancement of equality.
To begin transforming the economy to support equality the government should announce that it is preparing a plan for major investment in social infrastructure – care, health, education and training services, social security and housing, complemented by investment in renewable energy and environmentally friendly public transport. This would improve wellbeing and productivity, both in the short run, but also in ways that persist over time, benefiting people not only today but in years to come.
To maximise the way this investment would reduce inequalities, it is essential that a progressive government should improve the terms and conditions of work for the paid work force who staff the social infrastructure (among whom women are the majority, including many ethnic minority and migrant women).
This should cover both those directly employed in the public sector and the increasing numbers employed by subcontractors in the private sector. This could be done by strengthening worker’s rights throughout the economy. The government should introduce measures to ensure that all workers, regardless of type of contract, should enjoy basic rights including collective bargaining rights. The minimum wage must be raised to a level that ensures a decent standard of living.
In addition to investment in social infrastructure, the government should improve support for people – currently mainly women – who provide unpaid care in families and communities. But to work towards a more equal division of unpaid care work, men should also be supported to contribute more to this work, for instance through well-funded care leave schemes and a reduction in full-time working hours.
The increase in public spending would in part pay for itself: by increasing employment and earnings, it would raise more revenue from income tax and national insurance and save money on social security. In addition, reversing some of the tax reductions introduced since June 2010 would save billions. The rise in the threshold for personal income tax costs around £12 billion a year from 2016/17² onwards and this benefits only those who pay tax. It does not benefit those with incomes below the tax threshold, 63% of whom are women³. Corporation tax cuts will cost around £7.9 billion a year from 2015/16⁴. The biggest contribution could come from taking effective action on tax debt, avoidance and evasion, estimated to be able to bring in almost £120 billion a year⁵.
Implementing an equalities agenda cannot be confined to token gestures, like getting more women on to boards of public companies. A progressive government would set in motion a transformation of the economy that would embed equalities in everyday life for this and future generations.
1 For evidence see, Ruth Pearson and Diane Elson (2015) ‘Transcending the impact of the financial crisis in the United Kingdom: towards Plan F-a feminist economic strategy’, Feminist Review, No 109,pp 8-30; Gwyneth Lonergan (2015) ‘Migrant women and social reproduction under austerity’, Feminist Review, No 109,pp124-145; Kalwinder Sandhu and Mary-Ann Stephenson (2015) ‘Layers of inequality- a human rights and equality impact assessment of the public spending cuts on black, asian and minority ethnic women in Coventry’, Feminist Review, No 109,pp 169-179.
2 Paul Johnson, IFS Budget Analysis 2014: Introductory remarks http://www.ifs.org.uk/budgets/budget2014/opening_remarks.pdf
3 UK Women’s Budget Group, Budget 2014-Giveaways to Men Paid for by Women. http://wbg.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Budget-Briefing-2014.pdf
4 Helen Miler and Thomas Pope, 2015, Corporation Taxes and Challenges, IFS Briefing Note BN163 http://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/publications/bns/BN163.pdf
5 Richard Murphy, The Tax Gap, 2014 http://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Documents/PCSTaxGap2014.pdf