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.

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.

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

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi reports and writes on immigration, women and economics, housing, legal aid, and mental health. Read her latest work here. Her blog rebeccaomonira.com was shortlisted for the 2012 Orwell Prize. She tweets @Rebecca_Omonira.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.