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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:43 pm on 9th March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Donaghy Baroness Donaghy Labour 3:43 pm, 9th March 2017

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for introducing the debate. I hope that I will not be considered a fraud by taking part in a topic which has a global dimension. My international involvement in women’s campaigns took place in the 1980s and 1990s, and I will be concentrating today on the impact of government policies on women in the UK.

In all the globe-trotting that I did, whether it was to a women’s conference in New York in the 1980s, with Gloria Steinem as the guest speaker and where I think I made a speech about the Greenham Common women, or to South Africa—I was in Soweto in the late 1980s to witness the founding of NEHAWU, a healthcare workers’ union with a majority of women members—I learned three things: first, that it is inspiring to be among women who are dedicated and supportive of each other; secondly, that role models are important; and, thirdly and most importantly, that women globally need no lessons from us in the UK about how to improve their lot. I was humbled by their commitment and by the sacrifices they had made.

However, in my contribution I want to say more about the pay gap in the UK, the care economy and the gender impact of taxation and social security policies. I turn, first, to the pay gap in the UK. Tuesday was a significant day in more ways than one—not just because of the debate on Brexit, where women had to fight to be heard on both sides of the debate, but because it was the day when the average woman worker stopped working for free before they caught up with men. In the 66 days since the start of this year they have been working for free.

The reasons are the same as they were when the Equal Pay Act became law 45 years ago: the undervaluing of roles predominantly undertaken by women, unequal caring responsibilities and outright discrimination, and all the factors recently confirmed in a report by the Fawcett Society. One key way in which this discrimination could be tackled was by making a claim to an employment tribunal. However, the introduction of fees by the former coalition Government has seen the number of applications fall by 80%. From January to March 2014, just 1,222 sex discrimination claims were made compared with 6,017 in the same quarter in 2013. This is a denial of justice. The introduction of mandatory pay-gap reporting is welcome, but it will work only if there is a requirement to publish an action plan on how employers intend to deal with the problem, with penalties for those who take no action.

I turn to the care economy. A new report by the UK’s Women’s Budget Group for the International Trade Union Confederation shows that investing public funds in childcare and elder care services is more effective in reducing public deficits and debt than austerity policies. If 2% of GDP was invested in care industries in the UK, it could create up to 1.5 million jobs. The women’s employment rate would rise by more than 5 points in the UK and the gender employment gap would be reduced by up to 25%. This is surely better than the Government’s unimaginative and unnecessary austerity policies.

Not surprisingly, we even have gender bias in economic thinking. As the ITUC report states:

“Under the UN-mandated System of National Accounts, investment in physical infrastructure counts as capital stock, whereas investment in social infrastructure is considered as government annual current spending”.

One is an investment, the other a cost. If the 2% of GDP on the care economy was applied in other countries, it would mean 24 million new jobs in China, 11 million in India, 2.8 million in Indonesia and just over 400,000 in South Africa.

The gender impact of taxation policies is one of the most insidious forms of sex discrimination. The Women’s Budget Group has welcomed the Chancellor’s promise to consult on ways to ensure that the taxation of different ways of working is fair between different individuals. It is to be hoped that those consultations will be meaningful. As the group has said:

“Income tax cuts benefit men disproportionately more than women because women earn less than men and rely more on public services that tax revenues fund”.

It continues to say that,

“poorer local authorities can raise less money but need to fund greater use of vital services Women stand to lose most from this inequality”.

A year ago, my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett asked a question about the impact on women of the raising of personal tax allowances. Of those who will not benefit at all from any rises in such allowances in this Parliament, 66% are women and 41% have dependent children. Raising the higher rate threshold benefits men. According to Treasury figures, 68% of those taken out of the higher rate tax band last time were men. That proportion will rise as the threshold is raised further to 2020. Those extremely costly measures worsen gender equality in two ways. They raise the disposable income of most men and erode the tax base for those who rely on government funds for benefits and public services. By 2020, the lost revenue due to the changes to personal income tax thresholds since June 2010 will be approximately £19 billion. This will be paid for by freezing working benefits and by cutting work allowances and reducing income disregard under universal credit. The latter alone will cost £3.5 billion a year. Both of these affect women: we still have a long way to go.