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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.