Poor George. You would have thought that he had enough on his plate at the moment, what with deciding whether or not to help our good old friend Ireland pull itself out of its deepening financial quagmire. Afraid not. In fact, the Chancellor may find it worthwhile to strike a deal with Nurofen, as his budget-induced headache is at risk of soon exploding into a catastrophic migraine. George’s next hurdle is one which has, throughout history, left thousands of men, if not quaking in their boots, at least pulling their hair out by the roots.
Yes, only weeks after the film Made in Dagenham graced the big screen, the cry for women’s rights is once again reverberating across the skies. Sadly, there’s not a burning bra or a “we want sex” banner in sight. But we do at least have the ironically named “WAGs” (that is “Women Against George”, not the likes of Coleen McLoughlin and Victoria Beckham, although that would be one for the history books of tomorrow) calling for Mr Osborne to reassess his spending review. The WAGs’ demand is now being supported by an accusation made by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that he has failed to disclose the full impact of the £81bn budget cuts on women, disabled people and ethnic minorities, the groups protected by the Equality Act 2010. According to the Commission, the Treasury has not fulfilled its “legal duty” by failing to pay “due regard” to equality legislation. (It’s at times like these that Osborne probably wished the EHRC had been included in the “quangos-to-scrap” list…)
Yvette Cooper, Shadow Minister for Women and Equality, immediately jumped on the EHRC’s bandwagon and highlighted that £6bn of the £8bn revenue provided by rescue initiatives would come from women. Declaring that “this Government is hitting women and families much harder than men – they just don’t want the truth to get out”, Cooper accused the Treasury of “blocking legitimate questions about the facts and fairness of their plans” and stated that “George Osborne clearly has something to hide.” Women are undoubtedly going to suffer as a result of the spending cuts. Child benefits and tax credits are being slashed, the health in pregnancy grant is to be abolished, and the Sure Start maternity grant is being restricted. In a recent interview with Radio 4, Anna Bird, Head of Policy and Campaigns at the women’s rights group the Fawcett Society, stated that women now face a “triple jeopardy”. Bird highlighted that women make up 65% of the public sector workforce, and will therefore be most affected by the government’s proposed job cuts.
Secondly, women are more likely to use public services, due to pregnancy and longer life expectancy, which are also included in the government’s austerity initiative. Finally, Bird believes that a woman’s ability to “go out and work” will also be reduced due to increased pressures within the home following the forthcoming job losses and benefit reductions. The Fawcett Society is consequently seeking a judicial review of the Government’s spending cuts. For, according to Ceri Goddard, the Fawcett Society’s Chief Executive, the “budget shows a whole new level of disregard for the importance of equality law and everyday women’s lives” and it has “left us little choice but to resort to the courts for action”.
The Treasury has responded to the accusations by declaring that it takes its equalities responsibilities “very seriously” and will co-operate with the EHRC to prove that it has satisfied its legal obligations. The challenge that the Government is now facing should have come as no surprise. In June, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, wrote to Osborne prior to the release of the Comprehensive Spending Review warning him that there was a “real risk” that it failed to comply with equality legislation. However, whilst women may have to shoulder the burden of the emergency budget to a greater extent than men, the necessity of public spending cuts must be acknowledged. Naturally, few of us want to be forced to tighten our purse strings. Yet, unfortunately, for our economy to have any chance of recovery, austerity measures must be imposed, and we must be prepared to suffer the pinch.