The Welfare Reform Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, aims to cut the levels of some benefits, and change the conditions of claiming others so as to make them more difficult to get. Overall, the cuts will affect women more adversely then men, and single parents, most of whom are women, worse than couples. The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for women's rights, produced a study that shows single women will lose 8.5% of their income, while couples with children will lose 6.5% and couples with no children, 2.5%.
The cuts include a three year freeze on the uprating of child benefit. With the effects of inflation, this will be a cut in its value. Cuts in housing benefit will affect single parents most as those who work will only have one wage out of which to make up the shortfall in the rent. Tax credit that is paid for childcare costs will be reduced from 80% to 70%. For some women in work, this will make working unaffordable.
The benefit cuts will interact with public spending cuts to put women at a particular disadvantage. Many public sector workers are women and they have been disproportionately affected by redundancies in local government departments and in education. The unemployment figures for August this year show that the number of women unemployed is the highest since 1988.
The government's excuse for benefit cuts is that they want to "discourage a dependency culture" and "help people return to work". This doesn't bear close examination. The Tories are following their usual free market fetish in assuming that private companies will replace the jobs cut from the public sector. This is unlikely to happen since a lot of public sector jobs have already been contracted out. Also single parents who claim benefits will shortly be forced to look for work as soon as their youngest child reaches the age of five. Single parents are normally able to claim Income Support, but they will have this stopped and be forced to claim Jobseekers Allowance. Jobseekers Allowance has more conditions than Income Support; people who claim it are required to "actively seek work" and prove that they are doing so. This denies women the right to make their own choices about how and when to combine parental responsibilities with employment. It is unlikely there will be enough suitable jobs with hours that match a woman's childcare responsibilities and that pay enough to be a financial improvement compared to claiming benefits.
In a bold and unprecedented move, last December the Fawcett Society tried to sue the government over its plans for benefit and spending cuts. The Society applied for a judicial review of the government's budget on the basis that it had broken the law on sex discrimination by not doing an equality assessment. The government should have done an assessment of how the cuts would affect men and women, as well as disabled people and different ethnic groups. The government admitted it had not carried out an equality assessment. But the High Court refused to allow a full hearing of the case and deflected the issue by ordering that it was best looked at by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The EHRC is itself subject to funding cuts, which will hinder its work. It is not due to report on the impact of the benefit and spending cuts until December. Meanwhile, the government is free to put its policies into effect.
There are other groups that have worked to oppose the Welfare Reform Bill, such as Gingerbread and the Child Poverty Action Group, but these campaign for children and families rather than for women's rights specifically. But there are limits to what can be achieved through lobbying. So far, lobbying has produced only one or two minor amendments to the Bill.
Lobbying tends to be done on behalf of claimants but not with their direct participation. To empower claimants, and especially women, to both oppose and deal with cuts to benefits, it might be time to revive claimants’ unions and similar grass roots groups. Claimants’ unions were common in the 70s and 80s, but faded away during the 90s. They combined the roles of trade unions and campaign groups and were funded and organised only by their members.
I have discovered a few claimants' groups around the UK that have websites (see the Nerve website). I have listed these for people who want to look at what claimants’ unions do.
Both Liverpool Trades Union Council (liverpool5[at]rmt.org.uk) and Liverpool Against the Cuts (liverpoolagainstthecuts[at]gmail.com) have decided to mount a campaign against the use of forced labour on "Work Programmes" which are part of the government's "welfare to work" scheme. As part of this they have agreed to set up a claimants’ union.
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