A neoliberal assault on women

The coalition's cuts will hit women hardest, says Tim Hunt, as he lays out a gender audit of the budget

July 25, 2010
7 min read


Tim HuntTim Hunt is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.

Within hours of the 22 June announcements it was clear that the burden of the regressive emergency budget would fall disproportionately on women. A study published by the House of Commons Library in early July went some way to confirming this. The gender audit of the budget, commissioned by shadow minster for work and pensions Yvette Cooper, concluded that more than 70 per cent of the revenue raised from direct tax and benefit changes is to come from female taxpayers. This research excludes the effects of public service cuts; the full impact on women is set to be much worse.

Hitting the family hard

While all departments (apart from the NHS and overseas aid, they claim) face major cuts in their annual budgets, the immediate pain will be felt most by those with young children and single parents, nine out of 10 of whom are female.

The picture was gloomy even before the cuts: 52 per cent of single parent families are below the government-defined poverty line and in one survey more than half the mothers questioned said they are not adequately prepared to cope financially once the baby arrives. Benefits cuts are set to exacerbate the situation, with the coalition budget attacking women and single parents on several fronts.

First, income support will be cut for all parents – when their children reach school age they will be moved onto jobseeker’s allowance. This will mean that single parents will effectively be forced into work or face their benefits being cut off completely.

Second, the health in pregnancy grant, a £190 payment to all pregnant women beyond their 25th week of pregnancy, will be abolished next April. The government will also restrict eligibility to the Sure Start maternity grant to the first child only. The grant is a one-off £500 payment for those on a low income to help towards the costs of a new baby. The new ‘toddler tax credit’, which would have provided an extra £4 a week for families with children aged one or two, is also to be scrapped, along with the child trust fund. Child benefit has been frozen for three years – an effective cut in real terms.

All this means that the lowest income families with new babies will now be £1,293 a year worse off. Those with second children on the way will be hit even harder. And this before you take into account changes to housing benefit: lone parent families are three times as likely to live in rented accommodation as families with two resident parents.

Liz, a mother of two and a part-time NHS worker, told Red Pepper: ‘The impact on women who are lone mothers smacks of total ignorance of the knock-on effects on children. The expectation to work does not take into account the support needed to let this happen, particularly if service cuts will lead to further deterioration in provision. There’s the potential cost of a rise in mental health issues and child protection issues resulting from the lack of support.’

The education sector has already seen cuts that hit women disproportionately hard. Manchester’s Mule reported in June that workers at Manchester City College had described proposed cuts at the college as ‘fairly overt sex discrimination’ after crèche workers faced compulsory redundancies. A source told the paper: ‘It is an undisputed fact that most childcare arrangements fall onto the shoulders of mothers in society. By changing holidays and increasing working hours, the college has not taken childcare needs into account.’ The state was effectively turning back the clock and shifting the burden back on to women.

A similar situation arose last year at Sussex University, which announced cuts of £8 million over two years due to reductions in government funding. Among the 115 redundancies announced were plans to axe the campus nursery and crèche.

Employment problems

Even before the cuts were announced it was obvious that women would bear the brunt of the austerity measures focused on cutting back the public sector. Sixty-five per cent of workers in the public sector are women and around four in ten women work in the public sector, compared with fewer than two in ten men.

Most Whitehall departments face cuts of between 25 and 40 per cent and unions estimate that this will lead to around a million job losses over the next few years.

The Office for Budget Responsibility (see page 13) puts the figure slightly lower at 610,000 by 2016. The analysis by this newly independent body, set up by the Treasury, suggests just 4.92 million people will be working in the public sector in 2015-16, compared to 5.53 million today.

And the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) suggests that a majority of the staff likely to lose their jobs will be women in part-time work or on low wages.

Those remaining in work could also find it difficult. The CIPD has warned that there will likely be ‘ongoing real wage cuts in the public sector’, with the government announcing a two-year pay freeze for all but the lowest paid.

Ceri Goddard, the Fawcett Society’s chief executive, says: ‘Against a backdrop of unequal pay – women are still paid 16.4 per cent less for full time work and 35 per cent less for part time work than men – the impact on women will be huge.’

A difficult retirement?

The cuts will also have an impact on women into their retirement. The political blog Left Foot Forward reports that pensioner poverty is already ‘far more prevalent among women than men, with women’s average income in retirement just 62 per cent of the level that the average retired man will have to live on’. Public sector pensions currently improve women’s overall level of pension provision but with the loss of jobs will come loss of pension rights and the gender gap may widen further, plunging more women pensioners into poverty.

The BBC is now trying to close its final salary pensions, a move that could pave the way for similar cuts in the public sector. The corporation has proposed that pensions are based on how much an employee has paid in and that they increase by a maximum of one per cent per year rather than being linked to final incomes. Unions are now worried that this model will be adopted across the public sector, disproportionately affecting women in an area where there are already gross inequalities.

Katie, an NHS worker from Manchester, told Red Pepper: ‘They say the NHS is protected but we know cuts are coming. We’re all worried about our pensions because cuts there will have a huge long-term effect across the public sector.’

More to come

We have yet to see the true extent of the cuts, which could be as deep as 40 per cent for some departments. What we do know is that Osborne aims to cut £99 billion from annual government spending by 2016.

The emergency budget was just one aspect of the recent neoliberal attacks on the state, now dressed up as the ‘Big Society’, the depth of which Thatcher could only have dreamed. But in among the swinging axes and falling debris, there are the green shoots of a grass-roots recovery. Over the page we look at some of the organisations that are starting – or continuing – the fightback.


Tim HuntTim Hunt is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


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