It has been a bleak week. I sat and watched as the same Tories who had cheered for the unfunded tax cuts proceeded to cheer for the spending tightening and tax rises that have had to be put in place to deal with their recklessness.
I looked behind me in the chamber of the House of Commons to see if there was a flashing “cheer and clap now” sign prompting them to act like a frenzied quiz-show audience. There is little to cheer about in the news that there will be a 7 per cent fall in people’s disposable income in the UK. But cheer they did.
Women are referred to directly in the autumn statement documents once. A fleeting and passing mention of how their presence in the labour force has increased since 2008. Nothing about how women are more likely to be in part-time work, or that caring responsibilities are more likely to fall to them – and might have something to do with productivity problems or welfare dependency. Nothing about how the vast majority of those in wage-squeezed public sector work are women. Economically, their specific circumstances are of little concern, it would seem.
Jeremy Hunt did mention them in his speech, though he didn’t realise he was doing it. He talked about working-age adults who are not in the workforce, and how he was going to do a review to find out why.
Well, save yourself some of the cash on that review, chancellor. Many will be women who cannot work because they have caring responsibilities for their children, or for their ill or disabled relatives. Yet in the autumn statement, there was not a single mention of childcare, wraparound care for parents of school-age children, or alleviating the crippling care burden of ill relatives.
Hunt banged on about wanting to do anything that would encourage growth. He defended HS2, and reannounced for the millionth time the project to build the Sizewell C nuclear power station. Infrastructure projects did not face the chop, but he fails to see that one of the biggest growth problems in our country, and one that prevents us from having a more active workforce, is access to care.
He said: “I am also committed to helping people already in work to raise their incomes, progress in work and become financially independent. So we will ask over 600,000 more people on universal credit to meet with a work coach.” As if somehow women working part-time around their kids are going to be absolutely fine with all their caring responsibilities once they have had a half-hour appointment at the jobcentre.
The day after the Budget, a woman came into my office. She is the mother of twins in primary school, her son has special needs, and she has waited years for the necessary support for him to be put in place. She is still waiting. The school cannot, without extra resources, manage him at lunchtimes, so every day she must pick him up at lunchtime and take him home, then return him to school. She is turning down extra paid work because the budgets of local authorities and schools have been so squeezed that her child cannot be catered for or supported. I am sure the work coach will be able to make all that go away.
The PM and the chancellor simply don’t have a clue. If their kid needed help, they would pay for it. They have never had to cut a day’s work in Westminster short to fetch their kids because they didn’t have childcare or – frankly – some other woman to do that work for them.
The chancellor kept on and on about how tough decisions have to be made, and how his party will always protect the vulnerable. But you cannot protect the vulnerable with a Budget that only gives any uplift to the NHS and education.
The vast majority of domestic abuse and rape survivors rely exclusively on local authorities for the support and housing that enable them to break free. The budgets that fund the police and justice system that they rely on to keep them safe already cannot save them. So how are squeezes on those departments going to help the police better respond to domestic abuse calls? Or the rape victim already waiting five years to have her case heard in court, while her perpetrator walks free?
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Yes, tough choices have to be made, and not everything can be funded, but to pretend that this is a Budget that protects the vulnerable is simply ignorant of the vulnerabilities women face – in their homes and on the streets. Non-doms kept their status of not having to pay tax, while child rape victims were told that funding for the services and institutions they rely on will have to be reduced. That doesn’t seem like a tough choice to me.
According to the government assessment done in 2017, domestic abuse costs our country £66bn a year. Of this, £14bn arises directly from lost output due to time off work and the reduced productivity of its victims. The chancellor protected non-doms because he said it was good for the economy. If only he felt the same about protecting victims of domestic abuse.
I don’t just want him to mention or consider women’s work or economic activity because I am a banner-carrying feminist. I want him to do it because it is sound money management and savvy economics. When will they ever learn? Maybe some members of this government would benefit from an appointment with a work coach, to see if they could do more in their jobs. Their Budget seems to be missing about half the population.
Jess Phillips is the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley