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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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear