Fiscal freedom is a feminist issue

11 Apr 19

We don’t consider how policy decisions affect women disproportionately, but giving councils fiscal flexibility can help to ease the pain, writes Bethanie Roughley.

Last week it was announced that the Government Equalities Office had moved into the Cabinet Office, placing equalities “right at the heart of government”. Ministers are committed to ensuring that all citizens can reach their full potential “whatever their gender, race, background or abilities”.

However, calculations by Yvette Cooper revealed that changes in the tax and benefit system since the Coalition government in 2010 have resulted in women being hit three times harder than men. Out of the £16bn welfare reform savings banked during that Parliament, £12bn came from women’s pockets. 

A House of Commons Briefing Paper responded to these figures, arguing that the disproportionate impact on women was “not the result of policies specifically targeted at women” but because women relied more on those types of benefits. This is a very weak defence. The government would have known that women rely more heavily on those benefits. Instead they ignored this, reflecting how women are often ignored throughout wider society.

Since deficit-reduction public austerities began in 2010, the local government workforce has borne the brunt of public sector job losses – with close to a million redundancies in English councils, pay freezes, and ceilings for those unaffected.

Clearly, the significance of these cuts is not just a moral or economic one, but a gendered one.

Over three quarters of council and school employees are women. Among single parents, 91% are women, and women within households largely still have the primary responsibility for childcare. Cuts and privatisation to services such as childcare, women’s refugees, parks, school meals and street lighting are most heavily relied upon by women.

Whenever central government budgets are announced, they often refer to the impacts on “households”. “Lower fuel and food prices are welcome news for households, boosting real household incomes and helping family budgets stretch further”, for example.

But what about those pushed aside by the exclusionary term “household”: homosexual couples, single parents, disabled women, BAME women?

Just as the government ignored women by changing taxes and benefits in 2010, the government and media continue to ignore the struggles that women face.

These women are hidden from view while cuts and policy changes continue to impact their lives. BAME women are more likely than white women to live in poor households and have more dependent children. Workforce discrimination means they are more likely to face unemployment and so have greater dependency on essential services that have been severely cut since 2010.


'Just as the government ignored women by changing taxes and benefits in 2010, the government and media continue to ignore the struggles that women face.'


‘Invisible Women’ by Caroline Criado Perez highlights the absence of women in data: disabled women, BAME women and working-class women. She argues that the gender data gap is a cause and consequence of “a kind of not thinking … men go without saying, and women don’t get said at all”. Humanity is automatically equated to male – and this is present in everyday life – films, literature, science, economics and the news. This silence impacts on women’s lives daily.

No-one can deny the need to manage a difficult fiscal climate in the aftermath of the financial crisis, but disguising policy changes as neutral rather than a gendered issue is highly problematic. When the government announced public sector pay freezes, they did not mention that 78% of all council employees are women. When the government announced cuts to corporation tax, they did not mention that 19% of SMEs were led by women in 2017.

The picture is getting worse for women. New figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that life expectancy for women living in the poorest areas fell by 100 days, whilst there has been no fall in life expectancy among men in the same areas. Whilst the ONS does not hypothesise why this is the case, this could be due to poorer women’s limited access to adequate money and resources, transport, work and decent housing standards. This is shocking and needs to be addressed urgently.

Local areas hold the key to solving these problems. Place-based approaches can address the unique needs that women face where they live and work.

Women are hit hardest by a “hat-trick” of policy changes: job losses, benefit cuts, and public service cuts. Services that women rely on include social care, libraries, early years care services, sexual and reproductive services, and healthcare services.

Reducing bus services is a gendered policy choice, because women are more reliant on bus transport than men. These cuts make it more difficult for women to work, contribute to their community and are put under greater strain given that women carry out 60% more unpaid work than men. Both central and local government have a duty to continue providing services that many women rely on.

Councils need more funding and resources to continue to support these services. But as Theresa May famously said, there is “no magic money tree”.

Councils need greater flexibility to deliver their own resources. This can only be achieved when central government releases its grip on local government’s ability to fund itself from local revenue streams. Fiscal freedom is not just a local issue, but a feminist issue.

If the UK is committed to helping women achieve more, the political infrastructure of our country needs to support women in ways that go beyond cutting child services and freezing women’s pay.

We can only hope that moving the Equalities Office into the Cabinet Office is more than just rhetoric and that this change really does bring the struggles that women face to the forefront.

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