Cuts are a feminist issue, Victoria Macdonald

12 Aug 10
The Fawcett Society is taking the government to court over what it believes are spending cuts that disproportionately affect women. Could others follow?

The Fawcett Society is taking the government to court over what it believes are spending cuts that disproportionately affect women. Could others follow?

Feminism is apparently fashionable again. It must be true because I heard it on the Radio 4 Today programme. Women are going to workshops and attending weekend conferences and books are being written. There is, it is being said, a buzz of excitement around the ‘F’ word.

This is all very timely because soon there could be a fight in the High Court that will have an impact on possibly millions of women in this country. So the more support the better.

In essence, the Fawcett Society believes that the coalition government failed to assess the impact on women of its emergency Budget. It will not, the society claims, tell us whether its cuts and changes to the tax system will increase or reduce inequality between the sexes, which falls under the Gender Equality Duty, sections 76A and 76B of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

While this predominantly white, wealthy, privately educated male Cabinet is not a very good advertisement for any form of equality, it is preferable to believe that their actions, if women have been disproportionately affected,  were not deliberate. But it might be worse if it turns out to have been unthinking. This is the twenty-first century after all and there are laws.

The Fawcett Society, by the very nature of its remit, is focusing on gender equality but there is a much broader issue at stake. If women have been affected more than men then so too will people from ethnic minorities and those who are disabled or elderly – for the same reasons.

It is not difficult to add up. All these groups use public services more than any other and a greater proportion of their income is made up of welfare payments and tax credits. The winter fuel allowance, for instance, has only been guaranteed for another year.  Eleven thousand jobs are to go in the NHS. Legal aid is under threat. Council house tenancies are under review.

It is, of course, unlikely that the Fawcett Society will bring about any serious changes to the Budget even if it is granted a judicial review. You can already see the grey men in their suits saying the state of the economy is far more important than women’s rights.

But the challenge will still make an invaluable point. The Fawcett Society says: ‘In choosing to reduce the deficit primarily through cuts to spending and welfare, the chancellor made a decision that was bound to hurt those in poverty most, and risks increasing inequality.’

And figures obtained from the House of Commons library’s gender analysis, commissioned by Labour MP, Yvette Cooper, show that 72% of the cuts and tax and benefit changes announced in the Budget will be met from women’s income as opposed to 28% from men’s.

It is a fair bet that the chancellor will think this is all nonsense. Remember, he believes it was a fair Budget. The argument will be that society as a whole has a responsibility to deal with the parlous economic state we find ourselves in and that there should be no special pleading.

But just as we all know that everyone is meant to be treated equally by law, so we know that this does not happen because society has not moved at the same rate as the legislation. Sexism might not be as overt as it once was but it still happens.

There was grist to the mill for the society when a leak revealed that Home Secretary Theresa May had written to the chancellor and other colleagues ahead of the Budget to warn that there was a ‘real risk’ that deep spending cuts would break the law by discriminating against women and minority groups.

While she supported the objective of spending cuts, she felt compelled to tell her coalition colleagues that, under the Equality Act 2010, if there are no processes in place to show that equality issues have been taken into account, there is a risk of legal challenge by ‘recipients of public services, trades unions or other groups affected’.

And so it has come about, although the society’s argument for the sake of judicial review is more finessed. Some argue that in these tough economic times it is men who have been more affected because they make up larger parts of the manufacturing industry. They cite an Office for National Statistics report, which found that three times more men than women have lost their jobs since the recession.

But that misses the point that women start from a lower base. Not only are they more affected by public service and welfare cuts, they continue to be lower paid, lower skilled and over-represented in part-time and contract work.

So, they might not have lost as many jobs as men, but what sort of jobs are they doing in the first place?

Victoria Macdonald is social affairs correspondent for Channel 4 News

Did you enjoy this article?