Vera Baird DBE KC

Writer, Lecturer, Parliamentary Consultant and Co-Director of Astraea: Gender Justice

Vera’s speech at the Fabians New Year Conference 2012

Vera was delighted to speak at Fabians New Year Conference 14th January 2012
In the morning breakout group: Women The Crisis and Politics Vera shared a platform with Polly Toynbee, Seema Malhotra MP and David Coats, Research Fellow of the Smith Institute.

“The first point I wish to make is that we discuss the financial crisis every day and when we do so we should always have in our minds that all economics is gendered.

I am grateful to Professor Sylvia Walby who has done considerable work on this topic.

So, for example when there is a tax rise, which is a tool that could contribute to reducing the deficit, much of the take comes from men, because more of them work and they earn more.

Women tend to use public services more; the NHS because of pregnancy and childbirth, maternity pay, they earn less so are more likely to get tax credits, will have been able to save less so might need pension credit, lone parents, 90% of whom are women are likely to need support.
So tax is raised largely from men and spent more on women.

According to Lord Davies there are only 12.2% of directors in the FTSE100 who are women and only 7.3% in the FTSE250, so women have little say in making the finance to be taxed and since there are 20 women of 119 Coalition Ministers, they have little say in where, how and at what levels tax is raised. So women who are the main recipients of tax are excluded from decisions about raising public funds of which they are the major recipients.

The corollary which is better known is that public service cuts impact more on women. So decisions such as whether to raise taxes or cut public services are not only probably a class issue but also a gender issue.

This is made sharper by the preponderance of women employed in the public sector. I accept the need for the continuation of the cap on public sector wages now that Osborne’s policies, as predicted by Ed Balls a year ago, have turned a slightly growing economy under Labour to one on the threshold of returning to recession. However, we do need to acknowledge and take account of the fact that that is going disproportionately to impact on women in two ways. Not only are jobs lost but they are jobs in which employment, equality rights and flexibility are far more part of the culture and less contested than in business. In short, they are the kind of jobs that make it easier for women to work.

We need to discuss economics, publicly through a gendered prism. This is an issue for us. Although there are a few more Tory women than before 2010 they tend to champion the advance of women like them and have little to say to working women, struggling to make ends meet. We have women MPs who have worked in the public sector.

Yvette Cooper did an excellent job in analysing the figures and showing that 70% of the impact of government economic policies have fallen on women and only 30% on men. The Fawcett case gave that protest focus.

We must keep talking about it. We must look at each and every cut and policy change and if it has an adverse gender impact we must say so.

My second point is that, as well as the quasi-democratic deficit in the absence of women on boards, there is a real democratic deficit in most of our elected institutions.
This week saw the second anniversary of the Speaker’s Conference on diversifying the House of Commons but little seems to have changed save that the House of Commons nursery will now take MP’s children as well as those of staff members .

22% of MPs are women. 32% of Labour MPS are women, 16% of Tories and 12% of LibDems. At the current rate of progress it will take 70 years to achieve equality. Of 4897 MPs since 1918, 366 have been women. 11 Government Departments currently have no woman minister at all. We are doing better in that Ed aims for half his Shadow Cabinet to be women.
A recent report by Nan Sloane, who many of you will know, shows an even worse position in local government where only 20 additional female councillors were elected at last May’s elections, less than one third of all councillors are women and it will take not 70 but at current progress, 150 years for equality in councils.

Beware that All Women Shortlists may come under pressure. The current Boundary Commission proposals will reduce the number of constituencies and sitting MPs will contest against each other for seats and the losers are likely to have a priority position for other seats. Favouring the current PLP which is predominantly male will mean less progress to diversity in the first place.

However, in 2005 when Scotland lost 13 seats due to reorganisation, All Women Shortlists were abandoned and the numbers of women selected and hence elected fell. At Westminster elections in the same year, 50% of the newly elected intake was female, thus reaffirming that AWS works.

Some years ago I wrote a short pamphlet for Compass, arguing that the problem is not that the public won’t elect women, BME or disabled candidates but that not enough are selected by the parties. On the contrary more women tend to vote if there is a woman candidate and that helps us since we have a permanent problem getting out the Labour vote.

Women MPs often raise specifically female issues with which women electors have sympathy. Labour social policy has changed radically with the advent of more women MPs who have brought to the fore issues now accepted as a cross gender responsibility, like violence against women, parental leave and childcare provision.

So if we went back on AWS, for the next election, we would shoot ourselves in the foot. But we need to be vigilant. Some people still regard it as a provision only to be used in fair weather times, not when we are under political pressure and there are frequent attempts to exempt constituencies from it, in favour of one favourite son or another. Those attitudes need to be resisted and reversed.

My third point is that there is a real fear now that the Coalition’s cuts, commissioning changes and policy and legislative moves have now started to go further than hurting the purse more than the wallet but that they may now be putting women’s safety at risk. Fewer police on the beat and street light being turned out affect everyone but, understandably, make women more afraid and can be limiting.

Refuges are under local authority pressure to cut bed-spaces for women fleeing violence. Some refuge providers are finding it impossible to make ends meet as Local Housing Allowance is cut and welfare workers and counsellors needed for women whose lives have been turned upside down can’t be paid for.

Sexual Assault Centres are unsure who will fund them after the NHS reforms and the advent of Police and Crime Commissioners. They are being asked to say which of their services are therapeutic and which forensic, so that police can say health should fund them and health authorities can say that police should.

Meanwhile 17000 suspected rapist have been removed from the national DNA database despite the difficulties in achieving a conviction for rape and the developing understanding that it is often a repeat offence.

Legal aid cuts will mean that women who have suffered domestic violence will have to question their abusers in court and, worse still, be questioned personally by him. Neither of them is likely to get legal aid under the narrow definition in the Act and the tiny range of evidence which will suffice, for the authorities to prove that it has occurred.

Women’s safety concerns are now being raised on a daily basis and Yvette Cooper has asked me to Chair a Women’s Safety Commission to go to the regions and meet with women and women’s organisations to look systematically at what is happening at the grassroots. We did our first regional evidence gathering in Manchester last Friday, where many of the complaints and worries reflected those the national women’s organisations pointed out to us when we scoped the Commission’s work with them, a week before Christmas.

Although this is a Labour Commission and it has started because of women’s organisations drawing threats to them to our attention, I intend the work to be done forensically. The findings will only be of use to women if they are accurate. We will bring them into the Party’s policymaking process but we will also take them to the Government and campaign for change where we find problems. We are also asking whether there is a need for a Women’s Safety Bill to change the law and what should go into it, if so.

Overall my three points fit together. We must ensure that the gendered nature of economics is always referred to when there are new cuts and changes, so that women and men know how fairly or unfairly the Coalition’s failing economic policies are impacting on them. We should make sure that more women candidates are selected to directly represent women as well as to boost us as the party of diversity, despite the trickle of women and BME MPs the Tories now have. We must work hard to find any threats to the safety of women from Coalition policy and campaign to reverse them, albeit in the context of the economic crisis. Then the current battle for women’s allegiance, which we are already winning, should be assured since we will have demonstrated that we are the party that raises their issues and serves their interests best.”



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