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Fiona Mactaggart
Published 19 August 2011

The cuts are an assault on women - we must fight back.

The

scale and pace of the cuts being introduced by the Conservative-led government has hit women harder than men. Labour estimates that the changes planned to tax, tax credits and benefits take £8.80 per week from the average woman and £4.20 from the average man. In a range of policies, from rape sentencing to childcare provision, government seems blind to the needs of women.

The assault on gender equality is reflected in the machinery of government, too. The Government Equalities Office, which used to be a free-standing department, has been brought into the Home Office, reducing its infl uence across government.

And the independent Women's National Commission, established in 1969 to give women a voice in government, has been abolished. In parliament, we can ask questions of equality ministers for 15 minutes every six weeks. But, increasingly, they have avoided tricky subjects by referring them to other departments.

Women's audit
There is a record number of women in parliament, but we need 181 more to reach parity. Labour, despite being in opposition, still has more women MPs than the other parties put together. We believe it is time to find better ways of holding government to account for how its policies affect women. We have found support in other parties for a specialist select committee looking at the impact of government policies on women and equality. In the last parliament, the Speakers Conference, of which I was a member, looked at representation of women and minority groups in parliament. But we did not focus on how to move their concerns up parliament's agenda once they reach here. So now we are calling for the establishment a select committee that can audit government policies for their effect on women. We already have a similar committee that can audit any department's policies for their impact on the environment. I would like to thank the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who have supported this request.

The summer recess gives MPs a chance to spend more time in their constituencies listening to people's experiences. I fear we will hear that cuts to tax credits, childcare support and the freeze on child benefit are making life especially difficult for mothers struggling to make ends meet. Jobs are particularly scarce for women, who have been hardest hit by job losses in the public sector. As Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary, pointed out recently, three-quarters of the workforce in local government, which is making large cuts, are female. The number of women claiming jobseeker's allowance is at the highest level in almost 15 years. Some of the women I talk to fear they are being squeezed out of the workplace.

Politics and Power

Source: illustrated by tilly, runningforcrayons.co.uk

Meanwhile, women affected by the increase in the state pension age are angry. It was tough enough that, over the next seven years, the retirement age was getting later for all women. But some women now in their late fifties will be badly caught by the increase announced by Iain Duncan Smith in June, putting the retirement age at 66 from 2020. They don't have time to prepare.

Backward thinking
Some people think this is just the unfortunate result of the deficit-reduction plan. But I believe these cuts reflect a deeper problem in both Conservative and Liberal Democrat thinking - they think that public services and financial support for the family encourage dependency and should be rolled back, and that society should step forward to fi ll the gap - David Cameron's Big Society.

Women are already the backbone of the Big Society. We volunteer more than men, and women's volunteering is more likely to be for community needs or vulnerable people than for, say, their own sports club. But it is not right to expect women to give up their work and independence to bear the brunt of the needs of society.

Every generation of women has enjoyed greater opportunity and more choice than the last. But, for the first time, women's equality is at risk of going backwards. It is up to the government to prevent this. If parliament was given a women and equality audit committee we could really help.

Fiona Mactaggart is Labour MP for Slough and party spokesperson on women and equalities.

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