Will the Lib Dems provide for women? Key announcements from the conference

There was to be no discussion of ‘red lines’ – policy positions that are non-negotiable in the event of coalition talks – but the Liberal Democrat conference in post-referendum Glasgow has been about little else.

A key fault line that the Liberal Democrats have been seeking to open up between themselves and their Coalition partner of nearly five years is on the issue of taxation.

Senior figures – from Nick Clegg to Vince Cable and Danny Alexander – have stated unequivocally that the Liberal Democrats will ensure that the rich pay their fair share. With the Conservatives last week announcing a long-standing Liberal Democrat pledge to further raise the tax free allowance to £12,500 – a measure that Fawcett  and others have argued will not actually benefit those on lowest incomes – the Liberal Democrats sought to differentiate themselves by announcing that they would raise it faster and pay for it by both increasing the capital gains tax (CGT) paid by the wealthy and cracking-down on tax avoidance.

They have doggedly maintained that deficit reduction cannot be achieved solely by cutting spending, but stuck to their call for reductions to be split between spending (80%) and taxation (20%), not far from the current 90:10 split. In addition to the measures around CGT and tax avoidance, they have reasserted their intention for a mansion tax and called the lifetime allowance for tax relief on pensions to be cut from £1.25 million to £1 million.

From a gender equality perspective, the focus on increasing taxation on the well-off will go some way towards rebalancing the disproportionate gender impacts of the Coalition’s austerity measures, which have been premised on cuts to benefits and services used mostly by those on low incomes – the majority of whom are women. The most recent House of Commons Library figures put the proportion of savings made to tax and welfare that have come from women’s pockets at 79%. The commitment to an 80:20 ratio of cuts-taxes means however that this rebalancing will be of small comfort to those already facing severe financial hardship as a result of austerity measures, with more set to come.

The Liberal Democrats also made several announcements to underline their intention to invest in public services and the care economy.

The NHS was the big winner. They announced a £1 billion real term investment in the NHS in 2016/7 and 2017/8. Nick Clegg made investment in mental health a centrepiece of his closing speech to conference – calling for it to be front and centre in the Lib Dem manifesto for the 2015 election and earmarking £120 million to be spent on introducing and meeting targets for maximum waiting for mental health services.

Carers – the majority (58%) of whom are women – were also singled out for increased support with pledges to increase the earnings threshold for Carer’s Allowance to £110 (from £102 currently), a £250 annual bonus and extra support for returning to work.

Women and Equalities Minister Jo Swinson announced in her speech and blog for us that the Liberal Democrats are committed to building on their reform of the parental leave system by extending paternity leave from the current two weeks to six weeks. This is a key measure as research has shown that time spent with babies at a younger age is key to ensuring more equal sharing of child-caring responsibilities. And, of course, we know that this ultimately is one of the keys to tackling the gender pay gap, which opens up for women in their 30s (mean gap 11%) and 40s (mean gap 24%).

Jo also announced several smaller, but important measures – ‘name blank’ applications for jobs in the public sector and the promotion of apprenticeships to under-represented groups. These can play an important role in tackling gender inequality, as well as ensuring that barriers to those from BME backgrounds are addressed.

In light of our recent research on low paid women, which found concerning levels of maternity discrimination with 1 in 10 low paid women returning to a more junior position after maternity leave, it is also worth drawing attention to Vince Cable’s announcement of a one-stop-shop for enforcement of worker’s rights. There are good reasons for such a body – which he is referring to as the ‘Workers Rights Agency’ – but we are concerned that new upfront tribunal fees have not been addressed. Since the introduction of fees (of up to £1,250) in July 2013 there has been a sharp drop off particularly in sex discrimination cases (a fall of 91%). As such, we are concerned that women – especially those on low incomes – are being priced out of justice completely when faced with discrimination in the workplace.

Policy matters aside, we were bemused by the focus that Nick Clegg and also Danny Alexander’s sartorial choices attracted. Fawcett HQ staffers are regularly seen tearing their hair out when there is yet another mention of Theresa May’s shoes, or a female politicians choice of attire. The fact that Clegg and Alexander were now placed under similar scrutiny is not progress at all, even if it brings treatment of male and female politicians on a similar footing. Can we please just stick to the substance of what politicians are saying, rather than what they are choosing to wear – let us reiterate one more time: #viewsnotshoes!

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