Autumn BudgetWomen & Children First?
While there were welcome announcements on family spending and low pay, the Autumn Budget fails to rollback the inequality caused by 11 years of Conservative austerity
The Chancellor Rishi Sunak used his second autumn budget today to commit increased spending on early years – but his pledge fails to make up for over a decade of Conservative austerity that has seen mass closures of children’s services and a rise in child poverty.
The budget included £500 million investment for supporting children and families, including for 75 “family hubs” – a much-trailed policy that has come out of Andrea Leadsom’s vision for the critical first 1,001 days of a child’s life. Leadsom has criticised the “lack of joined up thinking” in early years services and said that “supporting every baby to have the best start in life is the ultimate levelling up.”
Sunak’s promise included £200 million to support 300,000 more families through the Support Families programme, a move welcomed by Jo Casebourne, Chief Executive of the Early Intervention Foundation.
Casebourne told Byline Times that “the extra £200m to expand the Supporting Families programme, announced in the Spending Review, is a much-needed cash injection into a struggling system of support for children and families. The additional capacity for targeted help for families facing challenges is welcome. We know that the right family support can improve children’s lives, reduce risks to children and keep families together.”
“We must make sure that this investment in the Supporting Families programme is carefully targeted, focusing on improving the quality of support and developing greater understanding of what support makes a real difference,” Casebourne added. “While the Supporting Families programme has already shown an impact, more can be achieved by ensuring that family support professionals are well-trained and supported, and able to access wider specialist services that families might need, such as mental health or domestic abuse support.”
However, while such investment is welcome, the budget fails to make up for the 1,000 children’s centres closed between 2009-2018/19 and the two-thirds cut in funding for Sure Start centres – a Labour initiative that provided early years support for families.
Since 2010, Sure Start centres had their funding reduced by £1.2 billion – meaning the £500 million announced today represents a loss of £700 million against what the Conservatives have previously cut.
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A £170 million investment in childcare formed part of the pledges, a sum which falls millions short of what is needed, argues Joeli Brearley from the campaigning group Pregnant Then Screwed.
“Any investment in the sector is very welcome, but with a funding deficit of £662 million in 2019/20 it is a long way off what is required,” Brearley said. “Hundreds of thousands of mothers are priced out of work, or are forced to work fewer hours, due to childcare cost and availability. We have the third most expensive childcare system in the world and due to underfunding from the Government more than 3000 childcare facilities have been forced to close their doors in 2021. The sector is crumbling around us.”
In June 2021, the Early Years Alliance accused the Government of knowingly underfunding the early years sector. It revealed how the 2020-21 early years funding rates for the Conservatives’ free childcare offer for three- and four-year-olds was less than two-thirds of what the Government believed was needed to fully fund the scheme.
As well as focusing on early years, Sunak announced an additional £2 billion to help school pupils recover from pandemic-related disruption – making the total education recovery fund £5 billion. While additional funding will be welcomed by teachers and students, this falls far short of the £13.5 billion over three years recommended by the Education Policy Institute.
Sunak also promised increased funding for children with special educational needs and disabilities. However, as with many of the announcements, investment in infrastructure will not replace the 22% funding cut per pupil in the North of England since 2015.
“There were some positive announcements, but in too many areas the spending announced didn’t come close to making up for the cuts of the last ten years, let alone the impact of the pandemic, particularly on women,” said Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, Director of the Women’s Budget Group.
In what continues to be a trend for Johnson’s Government, this budget pointed to the wreckage caused by austerity while failing to acknowledge it was their own party that swung the wrecking ball.
Since 2010, child poverty has increased while social support for children has fallen. This includes the decision to means test child benefit and to cut child tax credits for families who have had more than two children since 2017 – with tax credits available to a third or subsequent child if the mother can prove the child was conceived by rape and that she has left her abuser.
The latter policy is known as the “rape clause.”
One in six refuges have closed between 2010 and 2017, making it harder for women to leave violent homes and therefore be viable for the rape clause’s additional tax credits.
Women in particular were worst impacted by Conservative austerity measures, with women bearing 86% of the cost of the cuts. This is because women are more likely to be in low-paid work, more likely to be in receipt of benefits, more reliant on public services and more likely to work in the public sector. For example, women make up 54% of people claiming Universal Credit.
This means that some of the welcome announcements on low pay and benefits will disproportionately impact women – such as the increase of the minimum wage and the 8% cut in the taper rate for those claiming Universal Credit. This is the amount that claimants lose when they earn or work above a certain threshold.
However, the measures taken by the Chancellor does not replace the recent cut of the £20 uplift to Universal Credit. In a statement, the Women’s Budget Group explained how “people in paid work will get to keep more of their earnings, but it still does nothing for unemployed people, and those who can’t work because they are disabled or caring who will still lose £1000 a year, despite being among the most vulnerable groups in society. A true commitment to ‘levelling-up’ would have been to keep the uplift in place.”
The organisation also noted there was little to be said about violence against women and girls. The way Universal Credit is paid into a single nominated bank account has led to accusations that the policy is “facilitating abuse, and perpetuating inequality” – particularly economic abuse.
Back in 2018, the charity Women’s Aid wrote that Universal Credit “risks exacerbating financial abuse for survivors, and poses an additional barrier to survivors’ ability to escape the abuse.”
The Chancellor announced £185 million for support services for victims and survivors of abuse, although this is not new money. But with 1.6 million women experiencing domestic abuse in England and Wales last year, and around 86,000 women raped annually, this falls short of the £409 million that Women’s Aid estimates is needed for domestic violence and abuse alone.
“The Budget speech devoted more time and detail to alcohol duty than to policies on care, housing, climate and violence against women, all of which are more important to women than saving a few pence on a bottle of prosecco,” said Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson. “There was great focus on physical infrastructure and very little on the social infrastructure that we all need, like care.”
Sunak announced a cut on sparkling wine tax.