Bad news for most: The Chancellor’s spending review holds little hope for women
Last week members of the Women’s Budget Group met to watch and discuss the Chancellor’s spending review for 2015 – 2016. Predictably it held few surprises: more cuts, more austerity and a few titbits to keep the voting public happy in advance of the 2015 election.
Of course there was some good news – the budget for the NHS remains safe from cuts and overseas development spending continues to be set at 0.7% of GDP. For every public sector job that has been lost, three private sector jobs have been created, and the Chancellor also announced a huge investment in physical infrastructure – roads, rail and nuclear power stations. Which has got to be good, right?
Well not quite.
The Chancellor’s ‘good news’ announcements cover up a multitude of sins. Again we see local authorities bearing the brunt of the cuts with their budgets being slashed by a further 10%. Local Governments provide essential services to women and women’s organisations. Successful programmes like Sure Start now have a future as uncertain as the children they support.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport faces a cut of 7% but many of us balked when Osborne announced that ‘elite sport’ would be protected whilst many local sports clubs face cuts or even closure. All of these reductions take place whilst the Chancellor has somehow found enough money to protect the defence budget.
As always, where some budgets have been saved or even increased others face three more years of austerity. Investment in physical infrastructure will obviously create jobs, but these construction jobs are mostly likely to be filled by men… more jobs for the boys. Unless the Chancellor is also willing to invest in the education and training needed to get more women into the construction industry it is clear few women will benefit from this expenditure. Nowhere did we see any mention of increased investment in social infrastructure such as care for children and elderly people. This sort of spending would create more new jobs – especially for women – than construction, would respond to an urgent and expanding social need and would provide a larger stimulus to the economy.
The only social infrastructure announcement was a joint £3bn commissioning plan between NHS and councils for social care. But this is not new money, it’s simply siphoned off from the already pressurised NHS budget. And although the NHS has been ‘protected’, the Chancellor’s ring-fencing makes no allowance for the fact that health service costs rise faster than inflation and the health service faces an increased demand from an aging population and a rising birth-rate.
Of course Osborne failed to mention how ‘protecting’ the NHS has already caused the destruction of thousands of nurses’ jobs. But if he had, he might have argued that for each public sector job lost three new private sector jobs have been created. If this is the case, why has this not resulted in increased economic growth? It can only be because the new jobs are lower paid, more precarious and part-time when rising costs of living and stagnant wages mean most people need full-time employment. Further public sector job cuts will mean yet more women pushed into low-quality jobs. For those who stay in the public sector, loss of pay progression will harm the lowest paid workers and entrench existing gender pay inequalities.
It was no surprise to see the welfare budget take another battering. But most troubling was the plan to make the unemployed and precariously employed wait seven days before giving them access to Universal Credit. This is set to save the Government £250m a year but it only continues take money away from those who need it most. This announcement will hit women – especially those with young children – particularly hard since they are often the ones in low-paid, insecure jobs who will not be able to wait a week to feed themselves and their family. In a context where the majority of children are already expected to be living below the Minimum Income Standard by 2015 this can only make matters worse.
Finally, the Chancellor’s decision to force job seekers who don’t speak English to attend compulsory lessons or lose their benefits left many of us incredulous given the Government’s 2011 cuts to English as a Second Language (ESOL) courses. Research examining the impact of cuts on black and minority ethic women in Coventry suggests that it is increasingly difficult for people to access English classes. Some courses have been cut others have lost their crèche provision. Plus the numbers of Job Seeker’s Allowance claimants who do not speak English are small and thus, the saving minimal. It is just another example of benefit-scrounger bashing; exactly the sort of ineffective policy we might expect from a Government desperate for votes in 2015.
Yet again the Chancellor has failed to gender-proof his budget. 2015-16 will see an investment in a huge roads programme but this spending review will still leave millions of women on the road to unstable employment and poverty.