My Lords, to justify his spending priorities, the Chancellor quipped:
“The sun is starting to shine and we are fixing the roof”.—[Hansard, Commons, 18/3/15; col. 769.]
This blinkered perspective deliberately ignores the growing crisis of underinvestment in the social infrastructure on which the economy rests. The 60-minute Statement made no mention of vital areas such as childcare, social care, education, the disabled and health. Even if one accepts that a bit of roof repair is going on, can it make sense to fixate on the roof while causing the social foundation to crumble?
What has life been like for the last five years under this coalition Government if you are a woman with children on a low or modest income or you are disabled? As my noble friend Lord McFall said, quite rightly, the success of any economic strategy is measured in its effect on people and their lives. So how have disabled people fared?
After many years of progress under both Tory and Labour Governments, with the DDA, Making Rights a Reality for Disabled People and the signing of the United Nations convention under a Labour Government, now, under this Tory-led coalition it feels as though we have gone back to the dark ages. Disabled people have been—I do not think it is an exaggeration to say this—vilified, while the support that they rely on has been slashed without a care for the long-term or human consequences. According to campaigners, disabled people have been hit nine times harder than non-disabled people by austerity cuts. Such support as has remained in place is increasingly confined to the most severely disabled. Surely, such an approach is simply counterproductive.
Those seeking work have faced reduced employment support. Thousands of disabled people have been affected by welfare changes. Councils have experienced significant budget reductions and have had to reduce access to social care for disabled people and their families as a result. Two-thirds of those hit by the hated bedroom tax are disabled. That is 440,000 people. There is no automatic exemption for disabled people, except for those with an overnight carer. We are proud that when Rachel Reeves gets to the DWP she will scrap the bedroom tax, before she goes on maternity leave. Noble Lords know that Labour is a modern party.
This Government’s policies have led to greater isolation, reduced social participation, worse health outcomes and less chance of disabled people being able to participate economically. Yet even as disabled people are taking the hit, every day there is a drip-drip story in the media, which repeatedly portrays them as scroungers, skivers and frauds. On these Benches, we have said clearly that it is wrong, cruel and shameful. It underlies unacceptable levels of hate crime against disabled people and we need to call time on it. The result of this general election will do just that.
Turning to how women have fared over the last three years of George Osborne and his Lib Dem cohorts, everyone is aware that David Cameron and this Government have a problem with women. Even so, it is amazing that they have hit women and their families hardest with their austerity programme. Research from the House of Commons has found that £22 billion out of the £26 billion—85%—raised over this Parliament from tax and benefit changes has come from women’s pockets. According to the IFS, families with children have been hit hardest by all of David Cameron’s choices, which is a clear betrayal of his promise to lead the most family-friendly Government ever.
Forty-four years after the Equal Pay Act was passed, women still earn just 81p for every £1 earned by a man. The Chancellor said that the gender pay gap is falling, but this is mostly due to a greater fall in men’s wages than women’s. Self-employed wage statistics are not included in this figure, so there is still cause for great concern. Progress on closing the gender pay gap slowed under this Government. While I welcome the recent turnabout on equal pay transparency, we have to ask why we have waited so long. Let us look at actions and not words: even David Cameron thinks that it is acceptable to pay one of his own Cabinet Ministers less than her male predecessor—namely, our Leader in your Lordships’ House being paid over £22,000 a year less than her predecessor.
I agree with my noble friend Lady Smith that the story of this recovery has been one of low-waged, insecure, temporary work, which has hit women particularly hard. More than one-quarter of all working women are now on low pay and make up the majority of workers on zero hours contracts. Yet the Government have refused to back our plans to ban exploitative zero hours contracts, to provide incentives to employers to pay living wages and to raise the minimum wage to £8 an hour. A Labour Government will do those things. More women are moving into part-time work than ever before and more young women are being left behind under this Government. Half a million young women aged between 18 and 24 are not in education, work or training, which is higher than when Labour left office.
While this Government boast about the apprenticeships they have created, they are prepared to tolerate a stark gender divide within apprenticeships, with women overwhelmingly in the lowest paid occupations. For example, 58,000 women took up apprenticeships in health and social care, and 25,000 went into children’s care, but only 400 took a position in engineering. A truly woman-friendly Government would recognise this gender segregation as a problem and would tackle it.
Key to a woman being able to work, if she is a mother, is childcare. Childcare costs have soared under this Government, with the price of a nursery place up 30% since 2010. There are 720 fewer Sure Start centres than in 2010 and the number of registered childcare places has fallen by more than 40,000. What will Labour do when it is in government? We will support families to better balance work and childcare. We will extend free childcare for the three and four year-old children of working parents to 25 hours to support more parents back to work. That will be on top of tax-free children. We will fund that by increasing the bank levy. We will guarantee access to wraparound childcare, such as breakfast clubs and after-school clubs. We will support both parents to share in those important first weeks with their newborn baby by doubling paternity leave to four weeks paid at the minimum wage. We will pay for this in the savings we will make from more women returning to work because of the 10-hour extra free childcare to which they will be entitled.
The Chancellor claimed in his Budget speech that the Government had been a success for women, with the smallest pay gap and the largest number of women at work in our history. These are incidental successes. There are more women at work than in our history because there are more women, not because the
Government have created more jobs. The Government have shown little sign of giving any specific attention to women in the economy even though they have been under particular strain over the past five years.
For one of the most potent examples of how this Government’s lack of awareness of the impact of their policy on women you only have to look at what has happened to women’s refuges. Services and networks protecting women against domestic violence are under terrible strain and the most vulnerable women are being set back probably about 40 years. I have already mentioned the impact of cuts on women seeking refuge from domestic violence in places such as Chester and Gloucester. It is a disgrace and it is serious.
The current austerity agenda and programme of deep spending cuts has left women facing a triple jeopardy—cuts to jobs, benefits and essential services—locking them into poverty. Women have fared extremely badly under the Government’s austerity programme. This is absolutely not a price worth paying.