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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:22 pm on 10th March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill Labour 6:22 pm, 10th March 2020

My Lords, I congratulate both noble Baronesses on their new roles. I too welcome the opportunity to mark International Women’s Day to raise the issue of women’s decreasing life expectancy. The Marmot review of health equity in England makes the shocking finding that, in the last decade:

“Life expectancy for women in the most deprived 10 percent of neighbourhoods decreased in every region”,

bar three. Life expectancy has stalled for the first time in more than 100 years. Healthy life expectancy has also declined for women since 2010, and the percentage of life spent in ill health has increased.

This is a worrying reversal of the established trend for life expectancy at birth, which has been increasing since the beginning of the 20th century. There was around a one-year increase every five and a half years for women from 1981 to 2010, but that has now slowed to a one-year increase every 28 years from 2011 to 2018. Marmot says that

“in England, health is getting worse for people living in more deprived districts and regions, health inequalities are increasing and … lives for people towards the bottom of the social hierarchy have been made more difficult. Some of these difficulties have been the direct result of government policies”.

Austerity-driven cuts in services and changes in benefit provision have had a direct and adverse effect on the most deprived women in society. Real cuts in income are damaging women’s health, and more children are living in poverty.

Michael Marmot highlights the impact of

“rising child poverty … the closure of children’s centres … declines in education funding, an increase in precarious work and zero hours contracts … a housing affordability crisis and a rise in homelessness” and the increasing need to resort to food banks as all contributing to the decline in women’s health. Benefit cuts and sanctions that push single mothers into poorly paid part-time jobs in which they end up having to juggle families and work are taking their toll. Research has shown that most jobseekers are keen to work and do not require the threat of sanction. Instead, sanctions cause further poverty and, in some cases, destitution—manifested in increased debt and use of food banks, as well as worsening mental health.

A five-year study of welfare conditionality conducted by the University of York from 2013 to 2018 criticised the use of conditionality in England’s employment support system. Another recent study by the University of Liverpool found that universal credit is linked to a rise in psychological stress and has created soaring rates of depression in claimants. The report finds a 6.6% increase in mental health issues among recipients since the introduction of UC, a third of whom become clinically depressed. The stress level is understandable when we imagine the impact of having to wait five weeks to receive the first payment, the resulting mounting debt, the need to resort to food banks, falling behind with rent and, in the worst cases, eviction and homelessness.

The OECD report How’s Life? 2020 points out that “deaths of despair”—those resulting from

“suicide, acute alcohol abuse and drug overdose”— have increased for women in more than a third of countries. In England, the highest suicide rates among women in 2018 were in Yorkshire and the Humber and the south-west. The Government argue that the way to reduce child poverty is for parents to work, helped by free or reduced-cost childcare places. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says these schemes do not effectively target the most needy. In fact, rates of children in poverty living in working households have increased since 2010. Among lone-parent families in full-time work in 2010-11, after taking housing costs into account, child poverty rates were 18%, but this increased to 30% by 2017-18.

While more women are in work now, average weekly wages have not recovered to the 2010 level. According to the Resolution Foundation, since 2008 there has been a reduction in average real weekly earnings as well as a large reduction in benefits available for working-age people and children.

The nature of work needs to be considered. Being in poverty and working in poor-quality employment have marked effects on physical and mental health, including on children in the families concerned. Zero-hours contracts are highly insecure and add to the stress levels that poorer women are increasingly struggling with. Overall, more people are now on these contracts, the number having increased from 168,000 in 2010 to nearly 900,000 by late 2018. As Marmot says:

“An established evidence base has demonstrated that insecure work, characterised by short-term, or no, contracts and consequent high risk of losing the job and associated anxiety are harmful to health”.

He calls on the Government to create fair employment and good work for all by investing in good-quality active labour-market policies; reducing conditionalities and sanctions in benefit entitlement, particularly for those with children; reducing in-work poverty by increasing the national living wage; and reducing the high levels of poor-quality work and precarious employment. Marmot says that

“over the last decade government allocations of funding have declined most in poorer areas and this must be reversed”.

The Government have the opportunity tomorrow to address these issues in the Budget—as well as to prepare for the impact of the coronavirus—and must recognise how much investment is needed to level up the life chances of the poorest, especially women, having been responsible over the last decade for lowering life expectancy through their policy of austerity.