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Britain's own war on women

Since 2010, women - old, young, rich, poor - have received blow after blow to their economic independence and social wellbeing.

A woman and daughter at Liverpool foodbank over Christmas. Photograph: Getty Images

I have a close friend, unemployed with two children under three, who will be waiting anxiously tomorrow as politicians decide whether or not to limit rises in benefits and tax credits by one per cent.

Just before Christmas she sent me a clipping from a story heavily misreported in the tabloids. Sharon (not her real name) was perplexed. It was the story of Leanna Broderick, a jobless single mum who had managed to save £2,000 (from benefit payments) to pay for Christmas for herself and two young daughters. 

“How could she spare £2K for Christmas? That is impossible,” Sharon said. The Daily Mail gleefully set out in a table accompanying the article how the allegedly feckless Leanna used her benefits to fund a luxury lifestyle. Yet what the table revealed was just how little money she had to live on - most of the benefits (£444 housing benefit, £80 council tax benefit) are paid directly to a landlord or the council. Others, such as the £24 a month for milk and vegetables, come in the form of vouchers. What’s left, about £180 a week, must cover household bills, food, clothes for her children, and any other living costs.  

Sharon was particularly alarmed by this story because she feared the backlash on struggling mums like herself. She spent last year searching for a job that would cover the cost of full-time childcare, or offer part-time hours to fit the 15-hours-a-week of state-funded childcare she receives. Trips to the job centre and frantic calls to the DWP leave her frustrated and trapped. Most of all she feels alone; the professionals in the government supposed to help had no answer to her question, how do I find a job that fits around two young children? Often, Sharon shouts into the silence at the end of the phone, am I really supposed to stay on benefits till they start school? 

A recent Single Parent Action Network study tracked the experiences of single parents transitioning from income support to jobseekers allowance over a three-year period. Most of the parents taking part made similar complaints about the dearth of part-time jobs, inflexible employers, and lack of support from Jobcentre Plus. One supermarket offered a mum a 6am shift, then when she explained she would need to take the children to school at 9am, offered her 2-6pm shift instead, meaning she wouldn’t be able to pick them up at 3pm. Another single mum who took part in the study said: "Nobody seemed to have all the information. Everybody wanted to try to put you in touch with a different person or a different department."

These struggles exist even without a government willfully ignorant of the collective effect of its policies on women. What is the fate of women like Sharon under this government? 

According to the Women’s Budget Group, the future is bleak. Since 2010, women, old, young, rich, poor, have received blow after blow to their economic independence and social wellbeing; this looks set to continue. In its analysis of the Autumn Financial Statement the Women’s Budget Group found that women will pay for 81 per cent, just over a billion pounds, of the money raised by the Treasury in 2014/15. Cumulatively, women have paid over three-quarters of the cost to household income from net direct tax, benefit, pay and pension changes introduced by the Coalition since 2010. 

Women will also pay about two-thirds of the money raised by uprating most working age benefits by 1 per cent for three years from April this year, according to the House of Commons library. "The Chancellor mislabels them 'shirkers'. But these people are not shirkers: they are people in working households on low incomes, they are mothers providing necessary care for children, they are unemployed people desperately searching for suitable jobs in a context of high unemployment," say the Women’s Budget Group. This comes at a time when unemployment for women is at its highest rate, 7.7 per cent, since 1994. 

It is not just poor, unemployed women saddled with the cost of the government’s economic policies. Working women’s maternity rights will be rolled back by the government’s proposed Employee Ownership scheme. Within this scheme women will have to give four months' notice if they want to return to work earlier than planned, double the current notice period. This affects the 84 per cent of women on maternity leave who return to work within one year. How to tell, in that fragile first year of a baby’s life, four months in advance if the child is ready for alternative childcare arrangements? 

The Women’s Budget Group reckons that many women will be forced to take longer leave than planned, or not return to work at all. Speaking in today’s papers, Yvette Cooper’s says that low-paid new mums will lose £1,300 from combined cuts to maternity pay, pregnancy support and tax credits.

The onslaught of policies detrimental to women not only undermines gender equality, in the long term it threatens economic stability. Slashing benefits that could support single mums while they look for decent work will entrench their children in poverty; cutting maternity rights will make it more difficult for mothers to return to work. Cuts to state provision of child and social care mean the burden will fall on women, who will have less time to develop their employment prospects, and are more likely to spend old age in poverty (see this OECD report for more on this). 

Instead the government must strive for a balanced recovery focused on social infrastructure investment and fairer, more effective tax policies, and not just on lifting banks and businesses out of economic stagnation.