What would have happened if the Budget had not coincided with International Women’s Day? This happy alignment provided an opportunity for the Prime Minister and Chancellor to announce high profile measures to help women: £20m for domestic violence organisations, £5m for a new “returnships” scheme which will help people – mainly women – return to work after taking a career break, and a further £5m to celebrate next year’s centenary of the women’s vote.
Philip Hammond acknowledged the worldwide push for gender equality within a minute of standing to deliver his Budget, pointing out that a higher proportion of women are in the UK workforce than ever before. Earlier, Theresa May had said it was women who were “driving our economy forward”, securing 77 per cent of new jobs last year and making up a higher proportion of FTSE board membership than ever before. There was plenty for the Government to feel good about.
But as welcome as these new measures will be, there was little else from the Budget for women to celebrate. Women will not be fooled by measures that amount to little more than gesture politics when they feel the squeeze elsewhere.
The £20m for women’s refuges comes after repeated cuts to domestic violence organisations since 2010. In London, as The Independent revealed last month, councils reduced funding for services for women suffering abuse by an average of 38 per cent since 2010, and the grim picture is similar across the country.
The idea of “returnships”, which was proposed by a cross-party group of MPs, is an important lever to get women back into the workforce – but £5m will not go far to make a big difference. What’s more, there needs to be a significant change in the culture of the British workplace for the male-dominated managerial class to take seriously the issue of women trying to restart their careers after taking time out to have children or look after an elderly parent. A £2,000 tax break for childcare is important for families, but this was a mere re-announcement; Hammond’s predecessor George Osborne first made that commitment three years ago.
Another of the Chancellor’s major announcements was a rise of 1 per cent in national insurance for the self-employed, a move which will disproportionately affect women.
Nearly 60 per cent of the part-time self-employed are female workers, who are likely to be already low paid. And there was no change to the public sector pay cap, which has meant a real terms squeeze in wages for these workers, 62 per cent of whom are women. As Jeremy Corbyn pointed out in his Commons response today, official figures show that women have contributed 86 per cent of net gains to the Treasury from tax and benefit changes.
Hammond’s first Budget was big on help for what Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, (somewhat divisively) calls “boys’ jobs”, roles in construction and technology which are part of the “physical infrastructure” of the UK, while failing to sufficiently fund more traditionally female sectors such as care, education and health, or what Walker calls the “social infrastructure”. Of course, it would be wonderful if more women worked in construction and more men worked in nursing, but that is where we are.
Yes, there was more money for female-dominated public services – but not enough. There was £2bn for social care, but this is to be paid over the next three years with half of it front-loaded for 2017-18; that is not sufficient to meet the huge challenge of underfunding and an increasing elderly population, whose care often falls to women where the state fails. The £100m for GPs to act as gatekeepers at A&E departments will help ease the pressure on hospitals, and that is important. But the NHS needs significantly more money than that to stop our health service collapsing. While increasing the burden for the self-employed, Hammond missed an opportunity to increase taxes elsewhere to pay for health and social care.
Next year, events to mark the centenary of votes for women will be boosted by Hammond’s International Women’s Day handout of £5m. But what is more significant is the money that is being taken away from women all year round.
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