David Cameron and George Osborne attend the UK-India Business meeting in New Delhi on July 29, 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron and Osborne can’t avoid the truth that their policies have hit women hardest

The Tories’ tax and benefit changes have cost women four times as much as men – little wonder when they are so absent from the top table.

They say a picture tells a thousand words. And the image last month of David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions - trying to deny his government was out of touch while surrounded by an all-male frontbench - said it all. The lack of women at the top of the government goes to the heart of a deeper problem. As we celebrate International Women's Day, it's worth assessing the impact on women of the decisions this government has taken over the last four years.

And nowhere is this starker than in the choices the Chancellor has made. The latest analysis by the House of Commons Library shows that since 2010 George Osborne's Budgets and Spending Reviews have hit women four times harder than men. Childcare support has been cut back, children's centres closed and even maternity pay has been cut in real terms. Yet at the same time this government has given a £3bn tax cut to the top one per cent of earners - 85 per cent of whom are men.

It's little wonder the government has made such unfair choices when women are so absent from the top table. There are no women sitting on the key committees making decisions on public spending, banking reform or infrastructure investment - and only one on the Economic Affairs Committee. George Osborne has not appointed a single woman to the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, which is why there have been no women members of the MPC since June 2010. This is the first time there have been no women on the committee that sets interest rates since 1997 - something which Ed Balls has said he is determined to put right if Labour wins the next election.

Take the Conservative Party's flagship tax policy - the married couple's tax allowance. David Cameron uses it as a fig-leaf to claim his government is helping families - despite the huge hit to household budgets he has delivered. But not only is it a policy which doesn't help millions who are widowed, separated or divorced, it doesn't even help two-thirds of married couples. Only one in six families with children will be helped. And startling figures from HM Revenue and Customs show that most of the gain - 84 per cent - actually goes to men rather than women.

Women are being hit hard by the cost-of-living crisis. As my colleague Gloria de Piero has shown today, women are over £26 a week worse off in real terms since 2010. After significant progress under Labour, when the gender pay gap fell by over 7 per cent, the pay gap between men and women is now increasing again. At the same time, the cost of childcare places has risen by an average 30 per cent on David Cameron's watch - five times faster than pay. The truth is that for women across the country this is no recovery at all.

So we need action in this month's Budget to tackle the cost-of-living crisis and earn our way to higher living standards for all, not just a few. Labour will help make work pay for women and their families by strengthening the minimum wage, incentivising employers to pay the living wage and tackling the abuse of zero-hours contracts. We'll help mums and dads balance work and family life by expanding free childcare for working parents of three and four year olds and guaranteeing before and after-school care for primary school children. And we'll balance the books in a fairer way by reversing this government's £3bn tax cut for the top one per cent of earners.

George Osborne's Budget is one of his final opportunities to turn the tide on this government's failure towards women. But after their woeful record of the last four years, I'm not holding my breath.

Catherine McKinnell is shadow economic secretary to the Treasury and MP for Newcastle upon Tyne

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.