Women are worse off after four years of this government. Photo: Getty
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Women are worse off after four years of George Osborne's spending decisions

The gender pay gap is widening again and the Chancellor’s Budgets have hit women a staggering four times harder than men.

It has been pretty galling to witness George Osborne touring the country this week trying to claim that the recovery is working for women. You would be forgiven for thinking that women are better off after four years of this Tory-led government. Yet we know the reality is quite the opposite.

The latest analysis by the House of Commons Library shows quite clearly that, since 2010, George Osborne's budgets and spending reviews have hit women a staggering four times harder than men, with cuts to childcare support for working parents, the maternity grant and even maternity pay cut in real terms. Meanwhile, the top one per cent of earners – most of whom are men – have been given a £3bn a year tax cut.

Yet the grim reality for women doesn't stop there. It is frankly quite shocking that, on average – in 21st-century Britain – a woman still earns just 80p for every £1 earned by a man. After five years of progress, last year we saw the pay gap between men and women actually increase for the first time since 2008. So, based on their performance over the last four years, women could be waiting another 60 years or more under Conservative governments to finally reach a level of pay equality.

It is also clear that George Osborne's complacent claims ignore some far more worrying trends.  We often hear praise for the rise in employment, yet statistics show that the rise under this government has been fastest for those in self-employment. Yet we know that self-employed women earn on average 40 per cent less than self-employed men.

And there are also massive regional differences in the employment figures as a whole, with the reality being that in my own region of the northeast, for instance, the number of unemployed women is at its highest for three years.

And, of course, we know that for many of those that are in work life has never been tougher as the broken link between earnings and growth has hit women hardest. As the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission pointed out this week, 60 per cent of those on low pay – earning less than around £8 per hour – are women, as are 54 per cent of those who report as being employed on zero hours contracts, according  to the  Office for National Statistics.

No wonder then that nearly half of women surveyed by the Fawcett Society this summer said that they feel worse off now than they did five years ago.

So to tour the country proclaiming a success story for women under this Tory-led government smacks not only of desperation, but also goes to highlight  just how out of touch they really are.

The government talks about catching up with Germany in terms of the number of women in work, but brushes over the fact that we lag behind some 22 other OECD countries in terms of the number of mothers in work, reflecting the fact that there is a gulf – some 10 percentage points – between female employment and maternal employment in the UK.

With childcare costs having soared by 30 per cent since 2010, parents are on average spending more on childcare than they are paying off their mortgage.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that two thirds of mums surveyed by the Resolution Foundation and Mumsnet say that childcare costs prevent them either getting back in to work or taking on more work.

Parents – but especially mums – are facing a childcare crunch, and by next May they will have seen no new help with these costs in a whole Parliament under this Government.

So what difference would a Labour government make? Well, for a start, we have a clear, costed plan to expand free childcare for working parents of three and four-year-olds up to 25 hours per week, while guaranteeing access to breakfast and after school clubs for primary school children.

Our plan will also tackle low pay – which we know disproportionately hits women – by raising the minimum wage to £8 per hour by 2020 and taking the necessary action to make sure that the minimum wage is actually enforced, whilst tackling the proliferation of abusive zero-hours contracts which we know leave women in particular vulnerable and unable to plan their childcare needs.

We will also scrap the coalition’s ill-thought-through married couples tax allowance – which won’t benefit two thirds of married couples or five out of six families – and instead use the money to introduce a lower 10p starting rate of income tax. This would be a tax cut for 24m people on middle and low incomes. A tax cut that benefits more women, more married couples and more families.

Labour will also directly tackle the gender pay gap – which has worryingly increased under this government – by bringing in pay transparency rules for large employers.

George Osborne can try to pull the wool over people’s eyes, but he'll be hard pressed to convince women they are better off under his chancellorship. Women know they have been hit hardest by the choices the Tories have made – they feel it every day in their pockets. He’ll be even harder pressed to show that things will be any different if women were to give them another five years because it is clear where their priorities lie next May – more cuts to tax credits hitting working women on modest incomes and a promise to keep their £3bn tax cut for the very highest earners – over 85 per cent of whom are men.

Catherine McKinnell is MP for Newcastle upon Tyne North and shadow Treasury minister

 

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

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.