Coalition Policy: An Assault On Women?
In the past few weeks, the coalition government has begun the process of setting out its policy agenda for the years leading up to the next election. Their announcements, though expected, have proved highly controversial. The Browne Review on Higher Education and the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) threaten to break the consensus of universal benefit, and universal access to education. Instead of uniting the country, it threatens to undermine the basic tenants of our welfare state. Nowhere, we venture, is the message more stark, than the reported impact the review will have on women.
The CSR announced that cuts were inevitable in all government departments, excluding health, education, and foreign aid. The economic merits of this review are debatable; however, the greatest fear is that its social impact will be overwhelmingly negative. The House of Commons library has calculated that over two thirds of the money saved from cuts to welfare -£5.7bn-, will come from women, compared to £2.7bn from men. Many thousands of women rely on government assistance in order to provide a decent standard of living for themselves and their children. Nearly three quarters of tax credits are paid to mothers, as well as 94% of child benefit. In a society that has strived to eradicate gender inequality, this is patently unfair.
The Browne review is similarly divisive .Uncapped tuition fees would limit the opportunities for students from poorer backgrounds. This is self evident. Less publicised is the impact of the cap on women. For a government which seems to be basing its entire economic policy around how undesirable it is to be in debt it is odd that they are so openly advocating an approach that would see the average student leave university with well over £40,000 debt. At the current capped level of tuition fees, it takes women on average four and a half years longer to pay off their student debt than it does for a man on the same pay. If fees are doubled, the average female graduating at 21 will have only paid off her fees after 39 years, around about the same time that she will be receiving her free bus pass.
The Labour Party supports gender equality. It has worked tirelessly in government to promote and defend the rights of women. It was the Labour Party who introduced the first equal pay laws in 1970 under Harold Wilson. We forged the links with the suffragist movement. We passed the Sex Discrimination Act. We introduced the State Earnings Related Pension Schemes. In the present parliament the Labour Party has more women MPs than all other parties combined. Yet there is still work to be done. In 2010 women on averaged earned 23% less per hour than men. Maternity leave is overwhelmingly biased towards the mother; men should be allowed to share that burden.
It is clear that the Coalition is prepared to stand behind these policies as the only available choice. In doing so, they are complicit in advocating policy that attacks women. No one can suggest that they are anti- women, that would be absurd. However, it is entirely possible that they believe women’s labour is somehow disposable or of lesser value. Many women, working in the retail, clerical, and public sector work who lose their jobs, are merely victims of an economic climate exacerbated by government policy. The assault on women is merely the extension of the Thatcherite idea that unemployment is a price worth paying. We in the Labour Party will defend the rights of women because it is the core for a fair and equal society.
Article by Chris Olewicz and Huw Wales, members of Sheffield Labour Students.
Edited by Vicky Shreeve.