Will Labour provide for women? Key announcements from the conference

As time draws in on the Labour Party’s 2014 annual conference – their last before what one key Labour figure has called “the most important election in a generation”, what do the plethora of policies and promises made really mean for women, and for tackling inequality between women and men in the UK?

From Fawcett’s perspective, given our current focus on women’s economic equality and in particular the deteriorating situation for women at the lower end of the labour market, there are a number of announcements to welcome.

Recent research from Fawcett shows that since 2008 over 800,000 additional women have moved into types of jobs that are typically low paid and insecure, whilst the value of pay has been declining significantly for this group. With 3 million women, or 1 in 4 of all female workers, now classified as on low pay, this is a group that urgently needs attention. Many of these women are struggling more than ever to make ends meet. Over half feel worse off than 10 years ago, 1 in 10 are accessing pernicious pay day loans and 1 in 12 are resorting to food banks in order to feed their children.

Labour’s commitment to increase the minimum wage to £8p/h by 2020 is an important step towards improving the living standards of minimum wage workers – two-thirds of whom are women. Whilst this is a welcome move, we would caution however that this should not be an arbitrary uprating, but part of a long term plan to ensure the minimum wage keeps pace and maintains its value over time. We will be looking closely at the detail in the coming months, in particular on how this figure was arrived at.

Our research also found that 1 in 8 low paid women are now on a controversial ‘zero hours contract’ and as such we very much welcome Labour’s commitment to outlaw the exploitative use of zero hours contracts. If the party is serious about tackling employee exploitation however, they must also be vigilant in ensuring that employers don’t just find another means of side-stepping their duty to provide decent employment rights, for example by utilising short-hours contracts which could theoretically be set at as little as 1 hour.

Low paid women - general

Over the past few years we have also seen an exponential rise in the numbers of women in self-employment. Whilst some of these will be well-earning entrepreneurs, the vast majority will be earning around half the national average wage, and will be falling foul of the whopping 40 per cent pay gap between women and men in self-employment. As such, we warmly welcome Ed Miliband’s commitment to ensure equal employment rights for those in self employment, and look forward to hearing more detail on how this will be achieved.

Given the declining position of low paid women in the labour market, it is not surprising that last year we saw the gender pay gap, one of the key indicators of equality between women and men, increased for the first time in many years. In light of this regression we were also happy to hear of Labour’s commitment to instate section 78 of the 2010 Equality Act, which will require large employers, including those such as Tesco and Amazon who employ many low paid women, to carry out and publish mandatory gender pay audits. Whilst not a panacea, if properly enacted this law will help lift the lid on unequal pay for at least 1,750,000 employees in the UK and go a considerable way towards addressing the gender pay gap.

We also welcome Labour’s announcement to extend childcare provision to 25 hours of free childcare a week for 3 and 4-year-olds and to invest in Sure Start Children’s Centres, although again we await the finer detail on this. Whilst individual policies can go a long way, if Labour is serious about addressing the UK’s childcare crisis, we would like to see a commitment to developing a new national strategy on childcare, aimed at delivering universal access to good quality, affordable childcare within ten years. Not only should such a strategy invest in the supply of affordable childcare but it should also take a fresh look at how families can best be supported to balance work and family life through a wide range of measures including a progressive parental leave system and quality flexible work opportunities.

We were happy to hear also of Labour’s commitment to scrap the highly regressive marriage tax allowance where high earning partners can use their low earning partner’s tax free allowance. In the majority of cases the low earner will be women and this measure may serve to discourage women from earning more and puts the financial gain into the pockets of men in 85 per cent of cases.

It’s not all good news for women’s economic equality however. We were very disappointed to hear of Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls plan to cap child benefit at one per cent for a further two years. This, along with the many cuts and caps on child benefit over the past four years, will mean the value of the payment has decreased by a whopping 18 per cent since 2010.

This move is at direct odds with Labour’s commitment to reduce child poverty and has clear gender implications. In the vast majority of cases, child benefit is paid directly to mothers because they are the primary carer and research shows that mothers in low-income households are prepared to go without food, clothing and warmth in order to protect their children (and partners) from the full impact of an inadequate income.

We were also very wary to hear of the Shadow Chancellor’s commitment to maintain the overall benefits cap which limits the amount of welfare a family can receive to the level of the national average wage of a single person (currently circa £26,000 a year). This blunt measure takes no account of family size, situation or location, and as such severely penalises both single mothers and larger families and drastically reduces the income on which they depend, often forcing them to move into poorer areas. We welcome Labour’s commitment to ensure that the cap better reflects local housing costs but this alone will not sufficiently address the deeply unfair nature of this policy. Reform of the cap (which ideally we would like to see abolished altogether) should be based on a wider set of principles including family size and need, as well as location.

Beyond women’s economic equality, we also welcome Labour’s commitment to invest in the NHS, which employs 77 per cent women, and to bring together health and social care which, if done well, could help tackle the looming care crisis the UK faces – a crisis which will befalls women harder as they continue to provide the majority of unpaid care work.

We were also pleased to hear of Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper’s plans to address violence against women and girls (VAWG) which included introducing new powers to tackle female genital mutilation (FGM), compulsory Sex and Relationships Education, with lessons on topics such as consent and violence, and the introduction of a new laws which would be led by a new Ministerial post on tackling VAWG.  In her speech on the closing afternoon of conference, she raised concern about the closure of refuges in many cities. Pledging to use savings made by abolishing the role of Police and Crime Commissioners and ending gun license subsidies, she announced a national network of refuges for those fleeing violence.

Finally, we very much welcome Ed Miliband’s clear and open commitment to advancing gender balance among his MPs and his oft-repeated pledge to ensure that any Cabinet he leads is 50 per cent female. Whilst there is a long way to go to ensuring the equal representation of women and men in the UK’s corridors of power, such a move would be a historic milestone in progressing toward this vital goal.



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Daisy Sands
Daisy is Head of Policy and Campaigns at the Fawcett Society.