Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

The unfairer sex ... women hit hardest by Budget cuts

An anti-cuts demonstration outside Belfast Central Library

Women are being hit hardest by spending cuts and changes in the social welfare system. No surprise there.

What might seem surprising is the sheer scale of the disparity - and the lack of attention paid to it. International Women's Day provides an apt opportunity to set the record straight.

Among cuts already inflicted, or set for implementation, is the health in pregnancy grant. This pays £190 to a woman 25 weeks into pregnancy.

The sum will have seemed trivial to the officials who settled on it and the politicians who endorsed it.

But there's many a woman two-thirds of the way through pregnancy for whom it represented a welcome boost to personal finances at a worrying time.

It was abolished two months ago with little fanfare and, as I recall, no great hullaballoo of opposition.

A three-year freeze on child benefit to be imposed next month - the fact that inflation is inching towards 5% makes it a cut in real terms - will hit many women hard.

There's a second whammy on the way in January 2013 when the benefit will be abolished entirely for women in households where one adult is paying tax at a higher rate.

Of course, the fact that one member of the household is on decent wages doesn't mean that another isn't stretched: and there is a better-than-even chance the other is a woman.

The Child Trust Fund, designed to encourage saving, is worth £500 at a birth, with another payment when the child reaches seven. It will be phased out from this year.

The Sure Start maternity grant pays £500 to a woman on low income when she is 29 weeks pregnant to help with the expense of a new baby. It comes as a great relief to larger numbers of women. After next month, the grant will be paid only for the first child.

Baby tax credit for a child under 12 months - worth up to £545 - will also be abolished next month; the toddler tax credit - promised by the last government and worth up to £208 - will not now be brought in.

The percentage of childcare costs covered by childcare tax credit will fall from 80% to 70% from next month.

These are not among the cuts to come, but cuts where the axe has already fallen, or is imminently on its way.

The fact that working-age benefits will in future be linked to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rather than the Retail Price Index (RPI) amounts to an across-the-board cut. The RPI in January stood at 5.1%, CPI at 4%.

Women will lose out, too, when it comes to public sector job cuts. Around 40% of women's jobs in the UK are in the public sector, compared to 15% of men's.

The Trades Union Congress reckons that women will pay for 72% of the changes in taxation, benefits and tax credits announced in last year's austerity Budget.

The Tory/LibDem coalition claims that their universal credit will make the system less unwieldy and easier to understand. That's probably true.

But this imposes no requirement for cuts in benefits and tax credits. The cuts are cynically being brought in under the guise of making the system more accessible.

What's more, a single benefit means that a single glitch in the computerised payout - a regular certainty, going by experience of the hugely expensive new IT systems installed by private contractors in the NHS, for example - will deprive families of all benefits, with possibly catastrophic effects.

Moreover, the underlying rationale - to move benefit recipients out of poverty by moving them into work - has little meaning in the midst of a recession and with no sign of recovery in sight.

This is particularly true in areas like Northern Ireland, with high levels of long-term and youth unemployment.

A jobless young person in Limavady, Strabane or north or west Belfast will find him or herself worse off and feeling less respected in return for no benefit as far as finding work is concerned. There will be consequences. And it's women in the main who will pick up the pieces.

International Women's Day was instituted in 1911 on a proposal from the great German revolutionary Clara Zetkin at a conference of the International Women's Socialist Organisation in Copenhagen in 1910.

March 8 was identified as the date - the anniversary of a mass demonstration by women clothing workers in New York in 1908 demanding equal rights at work and universal suffrage.

Clara would have had clear ideas about how to respond to the assault on women's interests in the austerity measures coming from London and complained against, but not seriously challenged by, the local political elite.

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