"Women and Children First!"

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Steve on the Mersey

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic which was registered, here in Liverpool. We all remember the film and how, as the ship began to sink and the passengers scrambled towards the few lifeboats stowed on board, the stewards were heard yelling, “women and children first” in a bid to save the most vulnerable.

A century on and with a sinking economy, similar cries are being heard from 10 Downing Street only this time the "Women and Children first” cries have very different connotations. Labour’s Shadow Women and Equalities Minister, Yvette Cooper, compiled research this week that shows, of the £18billion that the exchequer is set to make through various tax cuts and rises, over £13billion of that money will come from women. That is despite women earning and owning less, on average, than men. How is that fair?

The views of women are probably unbeknown to the Prime Minister. Especially when we consider that compassionate conservative Dave, only found room in his cabinet for two women – one of whom (Caroline Spellman) he would dismiss in an instant if he could. The recent ‘token gesture’ of promoting Justine Greening to the role of Transport Secretary, only came as mounting pressure grew on the PM to add some feminine intuition into his ranks.

Labour has a proud record when it comes to the treatment of women in politics. The introduction of all-women shortlists meant that between 1997 and 2005, we doubled the number of women MPs in the Commons. We had the first female Foreign Secretary in Margaret Beckett and the first female Home Secretary in Jacqui Smith. It is hardly surprising that Cameron finds it so threatening to have women MPs at the top of his political tree when we consider that the likes of Yvette Cooper, Mary Creagh, Caroline Flint and the Eagle sisters (Angela and Maria) are all more than a match for his cabinet of millionaires – repeatedly out gunning them at the dispatch box and proving that Labour and Ed Miliband was right to make the Shadow Cabinet reflective of the improving number of female MPs.

The worst thing about Cameron’s actions, is that he knows that he is hurting women most. In a leaked document the Government admitted that a “range of policies we have pursued as a Government are seen as having hit women or their interests, disproportionately.”

This is absolutely true. Women are being hit far more heavily than men in the Spending Review and Emergency Budget cuts, according to analysis from the House of Commons library.

At a time when families are struggling, Cameron has signed off on extortionate cuts in support paid to mothers including cuts in child care, tax credits, child benefit and other support – all of which will make it harder for women to work.  Over £6 billion is being cut in direct financial support for children in the CSR and Budget – three times as much as is being taken from the banks. Most of that money is paid to mothers.

The Conservatives think this is justified because they say that welfare makes people “dependent on the state.” What they fail to realise, is that without this money women have no chance to pursue their individual paths in life. This money is key to their independence, not to their dependence.

Cuts will make it harder for mothers to work. The Spending Review of October 2010 included a big cut in childcare for working mothers. In April 2011, the Government reduced the amount of childcare costs that could be claimed through the childcare element of the Working Tax Credit, so parents could only claim 70% of childcare costs. According to a recent report by Save the Children and the Daycare Trust, this will mean an average loss of over £500 per year for the half million families who receive this support and up to £1,500 a year for families receiving the maximum help.  

Part time mothers will lose working tax credit if their partner loses their job. Many mums will find they may be better off giving up work if their partner loses his job or can’t find full time work. Currently, if one partner is made unemployed and the other is in part time work, they can get up to £70 a week in Working Tax Credit to help them. Now working tax credit is being abolished, unless a couple is working 24 hours between them. Given the costs of travel and childcare, this means that some families will be better off if both partners give up work than if one of them gets a part time job.

Stay at home mums will be hit by cuts to child benefit for higher rate taxpayers. A one-earner couple on £45,000 with three children loses £2450 a year in child benefit – in the vast majority of families that money is currently paid directly to the mother. A two earner couple on combined income of £80,000 keeps their child benefit.

In the end, it is a matter of ideology. You have to decide if you are content with watching single mothers, trying to do the best by their children, fall into abject poverty. I don’t want to live in a society where we force women to bring up their babies on the streets or have to starve because they have used what little wages they earn to ensure their kids are fed and watered. That is a return to the Thatcher era – when regressive, right wing thinking destroyed towns like Walton.

This is a fight we need to win because just like the steward onboard the Titanic, I’m not willing to watch women sink or swim.

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