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

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.