Women are disproportionately affected by squeezed state provision. Photo: Getty
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Austerity is a feminist issue – women will be hit twice as hard as men by cuts

The latest Budget measures give a painful insight into the relationship between the UK’s austerity experiment and women.

Buried amid coverage of last week’s Budget was a telling statistic: women will be hit twice as hard as men by Osborne’s chosen measures. According to House of Commons research commissioned by Labour leadership candidate Yvette Cooper, direct taxes and social security cuts will take £9.6bn net a year from families – £7bn of which is from women.

The media largely had more important things to focus on. The Sun, for one, was busy superimposing George Osborne’s head onto a six-pack.

From the coalition to their first majority Budget, the Conservatives have orchestrated policies that have wildly, disproportionately hit women: from cuts to tax credits to caps on and cuts to benefits, and pay cuts in real terms. Scan most coverage – either given to feminist campaigns or economic analysis of the cuts – and we would hardly know it.  

But to discuss austerity with "gender blindness" is to ignore what is actually happening. Mothers skipping meals to feed their kids. Women queuing at food banks for sanitary towels. Carers – 72 per cent of whom (receiving Carer’s Allowance) are women – struggling to look after disabled family in poverty.

We are witnessing an economic and cultural assault on women.

As the Fawcett Society put it to me – before we even include the latest round of measures – 85 per cent of all the cuts have been at the expense of women, according to calculations by the House of Commons Library.

“Whilst women are more dependent on public spending than men and would therefore be more sensitive to cuts regardless, the strategy chosen by the government has also hit services women are particularly reliant on,” they added.

Social care has already been cut by 23.4 per cent over the past five years, according to the Women’s Budget Group. Social housing by 33.8 per cent. Early years education and childcare has been cut by 19 per cent. There is a reason this slicing of local government services have been dubbed a "death by a thousand cuts".

Women, similarly to disabled people – many of whom, as obvious as it is to state, will also be women – tend to be reliant on multiple public services. They are also primary caregivers and often the lowest earners.

It would not take advanced thinking to grasp that taking a hatchet to state support would disproportionately hurt women. Indeed, as recently as May, a group of 11 women’s rights charities, including Women’s Aid, the Fawcett Society, and Rape Crisis, were warning that very thing.

If you impose an ideological project to simultaneously cut public services and benefits, then it is women – particularly marginalised women, such as single mothers or those in poverty (again, not typically binary groups) – who will find their living conditions worsening.

Listen to the recent rhetoric around benefits and you would be forgiven for thinking this was intentional. The recession provided not only a long-term economic excuse to dismantle state support but, increasingly, a moral one. Look close enough and this is often framed in a gendered way. Women are not only now part of "dependency culture" but, as mothers of future "welfare dependents", are reproducers of it. Less beautiful family, more irresponsible leaches. As Dawn Foster put it in a discussion on working class feminism: the middle class “have children”, whereas the working class “breed”.

The new Budget brought in two cuts that further this agenda: the benefit cap, which cut the amount in benefits families can receive further to £20,000 (£23,000 in Greater London); and the limiting of child tax credits to two children (for those born after April 2017). Both share a message for women who have the audacity to have multiple children while being working class.

It's telling that, in an anti-benefit climate so hysterical the Labour party is currently considering abstaining over the Welfare Bill rather than voting against it, Osborne is barely trying to hide this. As he announced the latest cuts, the Chancellor knew he could be explicit: the social security system “should not support lifestyles and rents that are not available to the taxpayers who pay for that system”.

The punishment for the "lifestyle choice" of structural inequality – a gendered and class-based pay gap, high-cost childcare, on top of high rents – is watching your children be pushed into poverty.

It gives some insight into where we currently are that the Department for Work and Pensions will develop "protections" for women applying for tax credits who "have a third child as a result of rape". It is unclear what evidence a rape victim will have to provide the government to receive her benefits.

Osborne is actually set to claim this week that women are key winners from his choices. Specifically, that they will make up two-thirds of those who will benefit from the new so-called national living wage, according to Treasury analysis. That shows quite some nerve considering these calculations don’t take into account the money he’ll remove from the same women through cutting tax credits.

In fact, a low-earning single parent – usually women – working 20 hours a week at £9.35 an hour to support one child will be £1,000 a year worse off by the end of this Parliament, the Resolution Foundation calculated last week.

These latest austerity measures highlight the class dimension of a long-standing wider feminist concern: "benefit claimant mothers" can be vilified while the same government makes it harder for women to stay in or find work.

As Giselle Cory, senior research and policy analyst at IPPR, pointed out on the Staggers, the latest Budget does a good job of exacerbating the gender inequality set out in the DWP’s flagship benefit system, Universal Credit: poor incentives for the lowest earner in a couple – namely, low-income women – to go out to work.

It’s being made no easier for single parents (again, usually women). Under Universal Credit, parents – including lone ones – will be required to return to work when their child turns three and "prepare for work" by training or having interviews when their youngest turns two.

It says something of the "no win" position in which the Conservatives are putting low-income mothers that, as they are being pushed into work, the government is excluding them from the latest extension of free childcare (only three and four year olds in "working families" – not jobseekers – will be eligible).

It would be easy to feel a sense of defeatism at this point. But women – from Focus E15, the young mothers who occupied an empty block of council houses in Newham, east London for the right to social housing, to carers protesting disability cuts – are at the centre of the fight back.

Just as economic analysis has routinely shut out female experiences, a cultural version of "woman problems" – from body image to representation – is often pushed to the forefront as our economic inequality is sidelined. But the latest Budget confirms what the past five years has been quietly screaming. Austerity is a feminist issue.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”