Sean O'Grady: In this together – but Mr Osborne should put women and children first
You can call it a patriarchal offensive if you wish; I would say it was an unfortunate accident of the way the economy happens to be structured
Monday 14 March 2011
Is George Osborne a sexist? I ask because the Budget is coming up, and I wonder whether he will, like last year, fail to produce a proper gender impact assessment on it. From what little exposure I have had to the Chancellor the answer to my question is no, although I have to point out that there is only one woman in his Treasury's ministerial team, the preternaturally able Justine Greening. It's also worth mentioning that the Treasury has, for the second time in a year, failed to appoint a woman to the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee.
I'm quite prepared to believe that the Treasury made strenuous effort to approach female candidates for the posts, and had a woman on the interview panel, but you can see why some people might think that the female voice at the top of policymaking is silent. While I'm at it, the Treasury Select Committee has just the one female member, Andrea Leadsom, though some take Jesse Norman to be a woman because of his name. He isn't.
Now, there is no genetic reason to believe that a woman has a better feel for timing the interest rate cycle, say, than a man. Nor is there any need for these bodies be "representative" in some sense, and certainly not at the expense of expertise. It does seem a bit odd that women are so scarce at this level of seniority in policy-making. By contrast, women are well-represented in economic journalism in broadcasting, though less in print. There seem to be few City economists who are women; but plenty in academia, consultancies and think-tanks. There is talent.
So while the Chancellor may not be an MCP, and the Treasury and the Bank of England may not be institutionally sexist, the scarcity of women at the top may be one small reason why the Treasury failed to conduct a Gender Impact Assessment on last year's Budget and the Comprehensive Spending Review. The Fawcett Society, among others, became very agitated about this and launched a legal challenge, which failed.
Even so, the judge told the Treasury that it should get its act together for this year's Budget. Well, let me save everyone some time and effort on this. You can see perfectly well that the Government's deficit reduction programme has to disproportionately disadvantage women. This is because, broadly speaking, the public sector is a machine that redistributes income from men paying taxes to women employed in public service and the main beneficiaries of benefits, social care, education and health. This is, in turn, because, for whatever reason, women tend to earn less, have less money of their own, live longer than men and are disproportionately found in the NHS and local government.
If I were Chancellor of the Exchequer I would quite happily throw my hands in the air and say that yes, shrinking the size of the public sector necessarily impacts women, but that it still has to be done. Given the nature of things, it is virtually impossible to shrink the public sector without hitting women harder than men. Aside from defence – some 90 per cent of the armed forces are male – the gender impact is much greater for women than men every time. But, to borrow a phrase made famous by a lady not for turning, "there is no alternative". You can call it a patriarchal offensive if you wish; I would say it was an unfortunate accident of the way the economy happens to be structured.
Of course, the real Chancellor can't admit the impact his policies have to have on women because it is political poison, and might have stymied the entire economic strategy. Anyhow the Treasury, it seems to me, just couldn't be bothered adding to its already heavy workload last year by having to conduct detailed research on the sectoral impact of every single spending programme, tax measure and social benefit.
As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has discovered, it is extremely difficult to attribute cuts to societal groups. Is the fact that we have aircraft carriers but no aircraft more embarrassing for men or women? Such exercises can be taken to absurdity. The Women's Budget Group, for example, has set about the insane task of a gender impact assessment of raising fuel duty, which really is beside the point.
Where the Fawcett Society, the Women's Budget Group and the unions have more of a case – and the Treasury is on fragile ground – is on the gender impact of certain key social polices. Here the lack of women in policy-making, and, more to the point, the lack of women from the bottom of the social pile, is much more dangerous.
Without falling into a crude class war shtick about a millionaires' government, it is still true that few in the front rank of the Coalition have been through the kind of tough childhood that, say, David Blunkett, John Reid or Alan Milburn had in the last administration (though Mr Milburn is a Cameron adviser now).
It may just be more difficult for this cabinet to immediately twig the practical effect that their polices will have on poorer families, which are usually headed by women, especially lone parents. In fact, male single parents actually do marginally worse than female single parents from the cuts, which I suppose proves that the Government's policies can't be sexist: but given that women single parents far outnumber males, there is still a "gender impact" – though not a discriminatory one as such. A subtle point.
The Government's willingness to delay the implementation of its housing benefit reforms, thanks to pressure from bodies such as the Citizens Advice Bureaux, suggest that this is not a dogmatic regime, but one capable of bending under the force of rational argument.
Gender assessment of the housing benefit changes might have highlighted their impact on lone parents and child poverty – and prevented the Government from messing up in pushing reforms too fast.
I'm a convert to gender impact assessment, as should anyone be who wants to ensure that vulnerable groups such as single parents are not hammered because of unco-ordinated changes. Gender assessment fosters "joined-up government". I'm sure Mr Osborne is in favour of that; maybe, like me, he could be an unlikely feminist.
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