The government’s austerity agenda has been beyond catastrophic for women – we can ill afford to allow it to continue, says LISA NANDY
IT’S often said that David Cameron has a women problem, but it might be fairer to say that women have a David Cameron problem.
In the four short years since Cameron became prime minister his government’s austerity programme has left women bearing the heaviest burden of cuts.
In the 2010 Budget alone, the Fawcett Society found an astonishing £5.8 billion of the £8bn “savings” would come from women.
The coalition has allowed women in Britain to become the shock absorbers for its disastrous policies. And when you look at the numbers it’s not hard to see how.
Women are more likely to work in the public sector and rely on public services.
They tend to earn lower wages, work part time and shoulder greater responsibility for childcare.
For women in my Wigan constituency and across north-west England, the impact has been catastrophic.
Women make up 75 per cent of local government workers and 80 per cent of adult social carers, so cuts to jobs, wages and pensions and the rise of zero-hours contracts have been devastating.
Ninety per cent of lone parents are women, so cuts to child benefit and the introduction of charges to use the child support agency hurt children and their mothers.
Women are less likely to have savings, so the introduction of a two-week delay to paying jobseeker’s allowance has harmed women the most.
Above all, it is not a good time to be a young woman. Since the recession the number of young women out of work has nearly doubled in north-west England.
This situation is not inevitable. A series of choices — cuts to domestic violence refuges, the Child Support Agency, carer’s allowance, early years provision and pensions — is a result of deliberate gender-blindness, once a familiar feature of policy-making, which the last Labour government tried hard to stamp out.
It’s not hard to see where this leads. Take this government’s decision in 2013 to introduce fees for employment tribunals.
The very fact that it now costs up to £1,200 for a worker to access justice is a scandal.
However, this has a particularly detrimental impact on women as it is so often the only way women who have been discriminated against in the workplace can receive any justice.
So what has the introduction of tribunal fees achieved? Since their introduction just over a year ago, discrimination cases brought to tribunal have fallen by 90 per cent with the remaining 10 per cent that do go to tribunal being pursued by trade unions.
Is this because in some miraculous turn of events employers have suddenly overnight stopped discriminating against their workers?
Or rather is it that this government has pushed justice out of the reach for thousands of workers including a significant proportion of women in Britain?
And what kind of knock-on effect will this have in the workplace if employers now know that the chances of being taken to tribunal have been slashed?
It’s not unreasonable to suggest that this will have a significantly damaging impact on women’s rights in the workplace.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Take the Labour government of 1975, committed to gender equality, bravely using legislation to change social attitudes, rather than follow them.
It’s why legislation like the Sex Discrimination Act was a game-changer, fundamentally shifting power dynamics which had previously worked against women.
But four decades after landmark legislation like this and the 1970 Equal Pay Act, women still earn just three-quarters of men’s salaries for doing the same job or 81 pence for every pound received by a man. Only last week in Parliament Sarah Champion MP brought forward a 10-minute rule Bill of equal pay transparency.
It’s a shocking and striking demonstration of how good legislation can be undermined by subsequent lack of commitment and focus on its delivery.
In all sorts of ways this government has turned the clock back, slowing and at times reversing years of progress.
Partly this is because there are too few women as policy-makers and shapers.
It’s no accident that the only party that has made significant strides in getting more women into Parliament is the Labour Party, with more women MPs than all the other parties combined.
Despite their controversy, it is clear that all-women shortlists were critical in achieving this.
In towns like mine, no woman had ever been elected to Parliament until an all-women shortlist was imposed in 2010.
Just as Westminster needs to change, so too does society, to ensure women’s voices are heard much more loudly in the public debate.
A 2012 report by Women in Journalism found that 75 per cent of “experts” quoted in news stories were men, while 80 per cent of “victims” quoted were women.
This cultural shift only comes with national leadership. One lesson from the new Labour years was that the state on its own is not enough — it’s only as strong as the number, range and diversity of people who can participate.
But if the last four years have taught us anything, it’s that government cannot simply “get out of the way,” or the “David Cameron problem” becomes a problem for us all.