Sarah Champion MP speaks out against economic gender inequality

Today, Sarah Champion MP led a debate in Parliament on the economic inequality against women of this year’s Autumn Statement.

She said:

“The advancement of equal rights for women is often associated with certain historical milestones such as the right to vote, the movement to end violence against women and girls and reproductive rights.

While these are obviously hugely important, the key facet of the ongoing battle for gender equality, is gender economic equality.

Many modern women never question their right to open a bank account, own property, or even buy wine or beer in a pub. These rights that are now taken for granted, had to be hard won.

For much of history, and even up to 40 years ago, women were not allowed to handle money and having a job was seen as a sign of financial desperation.

It was only in the 19th century that women were allowed to own their own homes.

Until The Married Women's Property Act of 1882, common law in Britain deprived women of the right to keep their own property or even hold their own money.

As late as the 1970s, working women were refused mortgages in their own right, and were only then granted mortgages if they could secure the signature of a male guarantor.

It's only since 1980 that women were able to apply for credit in their own names.

Mr Speaker, it wasn't until 1982 that women were allowed to spend their own money in pubs without fear of being refused service.

These changes involved fearless and outspoken people challenging the status quo, questioning out of date assumptions and pushing governments and society to the realisation that economic equality and independence for women must be the norm.

Today, Labour are pushing for the next step in this battle for economic equality - for the government to ensure that their policies advance, rather than hinder, progress.

Unfortunately Mr Speaker, all the evidence points to the party opposite turning back the clock on gender economic equality. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in their major financial announcements such as the Autumn Statement.

Research from the House of Commons library commissioned by this side of the House has revealed that as of the most recent Autumn Statement, 86 per cent of net savings to the Treasury, through tax and benefit changes since 2010, will have come from women.

This figure is up on last year's autumn statement when that figure was 81 per cent, but has remained the same as the Budget earlier this year.

If you happen to be a woman from a black and minority ethnic background, you are set to lose out even more under this government.

Joint analysis from the Runnymede Trust and the Women's Budget Group and has shown that low income black and Asian women are paying the highest price for this government's failed austerity agenda.

The analysis shows that by 2020, individuals in the poorest households lose most from tax and benefit changes. But, in every income group, BME women will lose the greatest proportion of their individual income. Low income black and Asian women will lose around twice as much money as low income white men as a result of tax and benefit changes.

The Women's Budget Group have also highlighted analysis showing that disabled people are losing significantly more as a result of tax and benefit changes than non-disabled people and disabled women are losing more than disabled men.

According to their analysis, disabled men are losing nine times as much income as non-disabled men.

Disabled women are losing twice as much income as non-disabled women.

Families with both disabled adults and disabled children will lose over £5,000 a year by 2020 as a result of tax and benefit changes.

Families with both disabled adults and disabled children will lose services valuing nearly £9,000 a year by 2020 as a result of Government cuts to services.

I would therefore ask the Minister whether she believes these figures are acceptable and in line with assertions from the Prime Minister, and Chancellor, that their party are the champions of equality and fairness?

We know Mr Speaker, that Budgets and policy decisions are simply not gender neutral.

It has been proven that gender differentials are frequently not recognised and that assumptions are made in policy making that include biases in favour of existing, unequal, gender relations.

Women are particularly vulnerable to being hit harder by government policies for a number of reasons.

Firstly, social security payments make up a greater share of women's incomes than men's, as women earn less in the labour market

Women pay less direct tax than men – also because they tend to earn less

Women make greater use of public services than men, linked to greater care responsibilities and therefore greater use of public sector care services.

And finally because a higher proportion of women's employment is in the public sector than men's.

I would like to ask the Minister, how were these factors taken into account in the drafting of the most recent Autumn Statement?

Labour have already committed to gender auditing our financial statements in government.

The aim of this would be for gender equality to be a significant element in considering and recommending policy options.

This would ensure the option contains no legal, economic, social or cultural constraints to gender-equitable participation in the measures it proposed.

In addition it ensures that the policy is implemented in a gender-sensitive and equitable manner.

This process, often referred to as gender auditing or gender budgeting, now takes place in more than forty countries around the world. It was originally inspired by the early experience of countries such as Australia, and then given further momentum by the United Nation’s commitment to gender budgeting in the Beijing Platform for Action.

I would like to draw the attention of this House to two particular examples of best practice in this area in Sweden and Spain.

Gender impact assessment is a relatively common instrument to support gender-mainstreaming implementation in Sweden. It is strongly embedded and is carried out by different levels of governance, from local to national level.

In national government offices, gender impact assessments are most regularly performed when drawing up documents such as government bills and terms of references for inquiry committees.

The implementation of gender impact assessment is conducted in the framework of the Swedish government's gender-mainstreaming strategy.

In Spain, Mr Speaker, gender impact assessments have been required by law in the Basque Country since 2005, in the framework of the Equal Opportunities between Women and Men Act.

Since 2007, gender impact assessment reports have been issued on more than 500 decrees and laws. After seven years, gender impact assessment is a consolidated practice, very strongly embedded within the Basque regional government.

These are just two examples to demonstrate that when it comes to mainstreaming equalities into economic and wider policy, the party opposite is light years behind some of our European neighbours.

Will the Minister agree today to follow the example set by many other nations and produce recommendations on how equalities considerations can be better integrated into the policy process?

The legal and international obligations on this Governments need to protect and advance women's economic equality are clear.

Part 11, Chapter 1 of the Equality Act 2010, brought forward by this side of the House, enshrined the Public Sector Equality Duty, requiring public authorities to have due regard to a number of equality considerations when exercising their functions.

Labour enshrined in section 149 of the Equality Act that any public body must, in the exercise of its functions, have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and advance equality of opportunity for those with protected characteristics – which includes gender and ethnicity.

Mr Speaker, The case of Bracking v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is one of the leading cases on the application of section 149 of the Equality Act.

The principles outlined in the judgment were recently summarised by Mr Justice Gilbart in Moore & Anor v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and crucially include the following:

  • That the relevant duty is upon the Minister, or other decision maker, personally.
  • A Minister must assess the risk and extent of any adverse impact and the ways in which such risk may be eliminated before the adoption of a proposed policy and not merely as a “rear-guard action”, following a concluded decision.
  • The duty of due regard under the statute requires public authorities to be properly informed before taking a decision. If the relevant material is not available, there will be a duty to acquire it and this will frequently mean that some further consideration with appropriate groups is required.

Very specifically,

I ask the Minister today to outline how the most recent Autumn Statement, as well as policy announcements since her party came to Government, comply with section 149 of the Equality Act and the requirements outlined by Mr Justice Gilbert.

Assumptions and reassurances will not suffice Mr Speaker, this side of the House, and the public, demand to see how the Autumn Statement and government policies are complying under relevant sections of the Equality Act and case law?

I would kindly ask that the Minister makes this information available to the House through the House of Commons Library at the earliest possible opportunity.

Mr Speaker, we shouldn't have to hold the government's feet to the fire on ensuring that their policies aren't disproportionately impacting one particular group and reversing progress on economic equality.

But sadly, previous words from the Party opposite as do not fill us with hope.

On 19 November 2012, the then Prime Minister spoke at the Confederation of British Industry's annual conference. He announced that government departments would no longer be required to carry out Equality Impact Assessments.

In that speech, the previous Prime Minister referred to Equality Impact Assessments as reams of bureaucratic nonsense and tick-box stuff.

I would like to ask Mr Speaker whether the current Prime Minister and Chancellor agree with this analysis?

If the government is set to continue in its contemptuous attitude on Equality Impact Assessments, will the Minster explain how else the government have managed to show due regard has been given to the impact of this Autumn Statement on those with protected characteristics?

Mr Speaker, the government know how to conduct a proper audit of their polices on women and those with protected characteristics the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Women's Budget Group among others have outlined suggested methodologies very clearly. We have to ask why, in the light of the availability of these methodologies, do the government continue to be so evasive on this matter?

This side of the House are not going to let this go Mr Speaker.

We will continue to commission, and publish, our own analysis at every future Budget and spring statement as long as the Government refuse to do so.

The question has to be, how long are the government prepared to continue to stick their heads in the sand on the impact of their policies on women, disabled people and those from ethnic minority backgrounds? When the impact figure rises from 86 per cent to 89 per cent? 95 per cent? 100 per cent?

The situation is becoming increasing embarrassing as the government continue to let women down again and again.

The Treasury have refused to send a Minister to appear in front of the Women and Equalities Select Committee to answer questions on the gender impact of the Autumn Statement. They have provided insubstantial data and voted down a motion from this side of the House last year to publish a cumulative gender impact assessment of their policies since 2010.

In the government's amendment to the motion today, they have pointed to their distributional analysis, however this document provides no overall analysis of the impact of the measures announced on women or on black and minority ethnic people and disabled people.

A few days before the Autumn Statement, The Women and Equalities Select Committee published a report criticising the government for their lack of clarity on how the 2015 Spending Review affected women, black and minority ethnic people and disabled people and how equalities impact assessment had been undertaken.

The Chair of the Committee, Conservative MP Maria Miller, said:

Without the information we have asked for or ministerial evidence it's not been possible to form a view of the government's work under the public sector equality duty. Promotion of transparency is a central aim of the public sector equality duty requirements.

The select committee, numerous organisations and this side of the House have all made clear Mr Speaker, that the distributional analysis produced by the government is simply inadequate to be able to judge their compliance with the Equality Act.

Today, the evasiveness must stop.

Women and those with protected characteristics up down the country deserve and expect better.

Various government Ministers have refused to accept the analysis produced by the House of Commons Library quoted in the motion today.

I would like to ask the Minister, if you disagree with the independent House of Commons analysis, would the government be willing to produce their own and to make this available to colleagues?

It is simply not good enough to criticise the House of Commons Library analysis without producing your own.

As stated earlier Mr Speaker, the government know how to conduct an adequate equalities audit of their financial statements and policies clear methodologies have been produced by EHRC and others, they are just choosing not to.

Will the Minister today agree to present to this House, how future announcements can properly take into account the impact on women, particularly those from BME backgrounds?

Will the government agree to put an end to the ducking and diving and send a Minister to the Women and Equalities Select Committee to answer questions on this matter?

Will the government agree to publish a full cumulative gender impact analysis of their policies since 2010?

And will the Government outline how this Autumn Statement, and future financial and policy announcements, will demonstrate compliance to the UK's legal and international obligations.

Mr Speaker, as I have outlined in my opening remarks, gender economic equality has been at the heart of the fight for equal rights in this country.

Progress has been all too slow, and the victories hard fought.

On this side of the House, we can be proud that almost every major piece of legislation that has improved the lives of working women has been introduced by a Labour government.

It was a Labour government who introduced legislative protections for women under the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equality Act.

Labour became the first administration since the Second World War to accept state responsibility for developing childcare policy, introducing paternity leave, increased maternity leave. We brought in SureStart centers, working tax credits, all women shortlists and Mr. Speaker, we have more women MPs than all the other parties in this House combined.

But in 2016, under this government, women in the UK are more likely to work for less pay than men. They are more likely to be in chronically low paid and insecure sectors of the economy and be disproportionately affected by unprecedented cuts to public services.

Unlawful maternity discrimination is becoming increasingly pervasive on this government's watch, with an estimated 54,000 pregnant women and new mothers forced out of their jobs every year. According to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, just 1% of those women are taking their case to an employment tribunal since the introduction of prohibitive tribunal fees of up to £1,200.

And, as I stated at the beginning of my remarks Mr. Speaker, as of the most recent Autumn Statement, 86% of net savings to the Treasury through tax and benefit changes since 2010 will have come from women.

Today, the government has the chance to decide whether it wants this to be its lasting legacy when it comes to the fight for gender economic equality.

The Minister has a choice;

Did the government stand by, evade its responsibilities and make life worse for millions of women in this country?

Or, did they put their warm words into action, rectify their mistakes and create a new era of transparency and accountability on the impact of government policy on women, disabled and black and ethnic minority people?

Minister, we expect you to make the right choice.”

Matthew Trueman