Will the Conservative Party provide for women? Key announcements from conference

Defections and defence may have dominated the Conservative Party conference, but there were plenty of announcements that should be of interest to women.

Tax cuts formed the centre piece of Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech on Wednesday. The party leader promised tax cuts for around 30 million people should his party win in 2015. This will be achieved though both increasing the income tax personal allowance to £12,500 and by increasing the threshold at which people start to pay the top rate of tax from £41,900 to £50,000.

Given that men comprise the majority of those paying the top rate of tax this measure will disproportionally benefit them. Further, although increasing the personal allowance might be good news for some, across the board it’s a mixed blessing. Whilst the policy will help many of the working poor, the majority of whom are likely to be women, overall the measure puts more money in the hands of men and does not reach the 4 million poorest workers who pay no tax at all, 73% of whom are women.

There is also the burning question of how all these giveaways will be paid for. Lifting the top rate of tax threshold will cost an estimated £4 billion a year and increases to the personal allowance are also extremely expensive – the uplifts being implemented between 2010 and 2015 are estimated to already be costing a cumulative £5-7bn a year.  Whilst the newly announced tax cuts are not due to come in until further action has been taken has been taken to reduce the deficit –  in around 2018 – the nations coffers will nonetheless need to be sufficiently healthy in order to absorb these huge changes when they do come in.

A number of commentators have noted that ‘saving up’ for the tax giveaways of tomorrow by cutting public spending today signals a change of tact from the Conservatives who have, to date, justified spending cuts through saying simply “there is no money left”. In fact, the huge sums of money already being spent on lifting the personal allowance – a tax cut which as we have argued previously does not direct funds at those most in need in the most effective way,  shows this political choice has in fact been in effect for many years.

Alongside the money required for these giveaways, the Chancellor George Osborne also set out plans to introduce an additional £25 billion in austerity measures in his speech on Monday. Given his commitment to protect funding for international development, education, pensions and the health service this puts working-age benefits squarely in the firing line for further cuts.

While we can expect more to come, Osborne started to outline these welfare cuts on Monday. First up, he pledged to reduce the annual benefits cap per family from £26k to £23k. As we explained in our Labour Party Conference blog, this cap is highly problematic as it does not take account of family size, need or local housing costs. Even the Chancellor’s own analysis shows that the poverty threshold for a family of four is £26,566, £566 above the cap. The Supreme Court also ruled last year that the benefit cap has ‘a disproportionate adverse impact on women.’ We expect this proposed £3,000 reduction in the cap will exacerbate both child poverty and gender inequality.

Next up, Osborne announced a two-year pay freeze on working-age benefits which will hit as many in-work as it does out-of-work. As a result of their greater caring responsibilities and, on average, lower earnings, this measure will have a marked disproportionate impact on women. Given the impact of similar measures in the past, we expect around two-thirds of the £6.5bn in savings made by this move to come from women’s pockets – meaning women will be hit twice as hard by this measure than men.

A freeze on public sector pay until 2017 is also going to cause further problems for gender equality as women comprise the majority (65%) of public sector workers. As we outlined in our recent report the Changing Labour Market 2, limits on pay settlements in the public sector and pay freezes have contributed to static wage growth. It is estimated that pay settlements across most of the public sector will only have increased by 3% between 2010 and 2015 and many workers will have seen no increase at all. As the cost of living continues to rise, this means many women are even worse off.

There were some positive notes from the Conservatives however, in particular Education Secretary and Minister for Women Nicky Morgan spoke publicly about her backing for a factsheet for schools on violence against women and girls recently published by the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) coalition – a move which led to scaremongering by some.

We also welcome the announcement to extend GP surgery hours. Last year Maternity Action found that the inflexibility of GP hours was a major barrier to women’s access to health services with 40% of women from groups with an additional protected characteristics e.g. BME, LGBT and women with disabilities, finding it ‘hard’ or ‘very hard’ to get an appointment at a time that suited them. As GPs are often the gateway to other healthcare services this is a significant issue.  Continued investment in the NHS is also likely to benefit the female employees who make up 77% of NHS staff.

We’ll be keeping an eye on further party policy pledges in the run up to the general election including full analysis of party manifestos. Stay tuned to Feminist Matters!

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Polly Trenow
Polly is Senior Policy and Campaigns Officer at the Fawcett Society