Equality: Autumn Statement debate – 14th December 2016


Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate, particularly as recent figures indicated that there have been 455 female MPs in the history of this House. That is the same as the number of male MPs present in the House today—although not on the Benches, as we can see. That is an important point in terms of the policies the House pursues, because those policies are not always in the interests of women, and women’s interests have not been well represented over the years. We did not always have the 195 women we have today, although those women we have here today have certainly made their voices and those of their constituents heard.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), who spoke very passionately and with great knowledge on this issue, and I absolutely support her calls for a gender audit because that would make a massive difference to the way Government policies are analysed.

Research from the Women’s Budget Group, which has been mentioned, noted that women’s incomes will be hit twice as hard as men’s by 2020. Women will be over £1,000 worse off by 2020; for men, that figure will be only £555. Women on below-average incomes will end up over £1,600 a year worse off under this Government, and female lone parents will be £4,000 a year worse off. That is a significant amount in a family budget.

Engender has suggested that, from 2010 to 2020, 86% of cuts to social security will come from women’s incomes. I do not understand how anyone could make up that difference. The research becomes even bleaker when we consider women from black and ethnic minority communities, as well as single parents, the majority of whom are women, and both groups are a significant demographic in my diverse constituency.

Government Members love their soundbites. For quite a long time, they had “a long-term economic plan”, but that has been abandoned, presumably because it was neither long term nor a plan. They now have a new phrase: “a country that works for everyone”. The facts and figures we have heard in the debate so far demonstrate quite clearly that this was not an autumn statement that works for everyone, and I intend to highlight a few missed opportunities in the autumn statement.​

I come to the debate with some frustration. The autumn statement was an opportunity for the Government to make changes—to start a slightly new course with a new female Prime Minister. To use an example I have spoken about many times in the House, it is now 526 days since the Government announced in the 2015 Budget their intention to bring forward the pernicious two-child policy for universal credit and tax credits, which is due to come into force next April. In tandem with that, we have the medieval rape clause, which will compel survivors of rape to prove that their third or subsequent child was born as a result of rape. The policy has been widely condemned by faith leaders, women’s welfare groups, rape crisis organisations and organisations such as the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. Ministers would do well to reflect on the seriousness of that widespread condemnation.

Interlink, from the Orthodox Jewish community, has done some research into the issue, as has the Resolution Foundation. Their figures suggest that this policy will push 200,000 more children into poverty. That is a significant figure. There is also a trap inherent in the policy, and families will not be able to earn enough to get themselves out of that trap. Interlink reckons that for every £1 extra a family earns, they will lose 75p as a result of this policy. On taking office, the Prime Minister spoke outside Downing Street about helping the just-managing families in our society. This autumn statement does not provide that help.

When the Prime Minister was Home Secretary, she won plaudits for her action to tackle gender issues, such as forced marriage, domestic abuse and female genital mutilation. Her actions gave me some hope that this rape clause would be seen as utterly unworkable and immoral. When the consultation reports back, perhaps the issue will be tackled finally. I cannot see how this proposal can possibly work.

Instead of using the autumn statement as a means to ditch the rape clause and the two-child policy, the Government have put it out to consultation for 38 days. In the context of the more than 500 days since the policy was announced, that is a pretty small number. I await the Government’s response, but I do wonder what they expect the consultation to come back with. What do they expect vulnerable women to say when they are asked, in essence, “How would you like to prove your child was born as a result of rape?” It is absolutely despicable.

In this respect, as in so many others, the autumn statement was a missed opportunity. The Government’s austerity agenda is disproportionately impacting on women. It was a missed opportunity for WASPI—the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—and the Office for National Statistics estimates that over 2,600,000 women in the UK are affected by this policy. Despite the efforts of WASPI campaigners the length and breadth of the country and of my hon. Friends the Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), these issues are not yet addressed. Those women are not having that unjustness dealt with. That hugely significant unfairness, of which my mother-in-law is also a victim, ought to be one of the Prime Minister’s actions, both as a woman in that age bracket herself and as a feminist. Women should not lose out as a result of this policy.​
The Government could also have done more in the autumn statement to address an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) has been highlighting over the past few weeks. Sadly, she is not well today; otherwise she would be here herself to raise it. I am sure we all send her our best wishes on her sickbed. The Child Maintenance Service is charging a 4% administration fee for the collect and pay service—a fee imposed only on families who do not share bank details to arrange maintenance costs—and women who have fled domestic abuse are disproportionately impacted. That is patently unfair, and it puts women and children who are trying to rebuild their family life at a distinct disadvantage. The autumn statement was an opportunity to correct that unfairness. I call on Ministers to make progress on this very significant matter.

Half of Glasgow’s jobcentres are to close. In discussion with DWP staff last week, Glasgow’s elected representatives were told that the equalities impact assessment on these plans would be done only after the consultation. The Government are proceeding with these closures, yet only three out of eight are going to consultation while the others will not be consulted on. This is completely inadequate. The plans were drawn up by looking at Google Maps to see how far one jobcentre was from another and which buses people might get. Some of the buses referred to do not exist any more because they have just been withdrawn. When I met representatives of One Parent Families Scotland, they told me that the women with caring responsibilities they have been working with are already finding it incredibly difficult to fulfil their obligations as well as dropping off their kids at school and nursery, and adding the extra burden of travelling across Glasgow on more than one bus will make it very much harder, as well as putting them at serious risk of being sanctioned. It is inexplicable that that would not be taken into account prior to these consultations being issued. It is almost as though the Government are deliberately making it so hard for people to claim what they are actually entitled to.

Another group who have missed out are the under-25s. The Government are keen to trumpet their “pretendy” living wage, but what they never say is that someone under 25 is not entitled to the same pay. Their day’s work is not seen as being as of much value as if they were over 25. The Government sometimes say that that is about experience, but it is not. For someone who walks into their job on their first day at the age of 25, the wage differential is £3.45 compared with somebody of 16 starting on the same day in the same job. That is patently unfair. The national living wage is not an actual living wage; it is a revised minimum wage that is out of touch with the true costs of living in this country.

The real living wage set by the Living Wage Foundation is being actively implemented and promoted by the Scottish Government. In Scotland, the rates of companies paying the living wage are going up. We now have 693 companies in Scotland, across a wide range of sectors and a wide range of sizes, that believe that a fair day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay. The Government’s “pretendy” living wage will not deliver that. In discriminating against under-25s, the Government do not acknowledge that they have bills to pay. They are not going to get a discount on their rents, their messages or their costs of ​living. They are also, to compound this, not entitled to the same benefits as those who are over 25. It is completely ludicrous.

There is another issue that the autumn statement has not fully addressed—the tampon tax. The SNP was the only party to have that issue in its manifesto in 2015. As the Minister may remember—he was then the Financial Secretary—when I moved my amendment to the Finance Bill, he seemed to think that resolving this would be nigh on impossible to achieve, but I am pleased that he has been able to make progress. I thank the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), my hon. Friends and others around the House who have campaigned on this issue. Without that cross-party support, we would not have got nearly as far as we have with the Government.

Although the recent funding announcement in the autumn statement regarding the revenues from the tampon tax were welcome, I would like to press the Minister to answer a couple of questions. How many groups in Scotland have benefited from tampon tax funds? When, for certain, will negotiations lead to the abolition of the tampon tax? We are still waiting. Every month, when I go to buy more tampons at the tills, the Government are still seeing that revenue come in. I want to know when I am not going to have to pay it any longer.

I agree with groups such as the Women’s Budget Group and Engender that this autumn statement was a missed opportunity. It was a missed opportunity on the rape clause and the two-child policy. It was a missed opportunity on pay equality. It was a missed opportunity for the WASPI women. It was a missed opportunity for all women.