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.
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