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Truss’ Plans for EU Laws Follow a Pattern of Attacks on Women’s Economic Security

12 years of austerity, a lack of investment in care, and the rising cost of living have harmed women’s economic security – now Truss’ Brexit plans risk continuing that trend, argues Sian Norris

Foreign Secretary and Conservative leadership candidate Liz Truss. Photo: Simon Dawson / 10 Downing Street

Truss’ Plans for EU Laws FollowA PATTERN OF ATTACKSOn Women’s Economic Security

12 years of austerity, a lack of investment in care, and the rising cost of living have harmed women’s economic security – now Truss’ Brexit plans risk continuing that trend, argues Sian Norris

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Reports over the weekend that Conservative leadership hopeful Liz Truss would scrap all remaining EU regulations by the end of 2023 has raised alarm bells – particularly around protections for women’s and workers’ rights. 

Truss has said that all remaining EU law and regulation would be “evaluated on the basis of whether it supports UK growth or boosts investment”. Those that failed the test would be replaced. This, Truss claims, would “unleash the full potential of Britain post-Brexit, and accelerate plans to get EU law off our statute books so we can boost growth and make the most of our newfound freedoms outside the EU”.

She has said the Equality Act would be protected. 

The focus on growth reflects the ambitions of arch-Brexiteers and Truss’ fellow Britannia Unchained authors – the book that laid out an alternative economic strategy for Britain and which famously included a quote from Dominic Raab that British workers were among the “worst idlers in the world”. Now, the quasi-manifesto that has long provoked unease among workers’ rights activists could be realised by a Truss bonfire of EU laws. 

Leading Brexiteers, including Truss’s co-author Dominic Raab, have previously spoken about their desires to use exiting the EU as a means to cut workers’ rights. In 2011, Raab advocated excluding some businesses from the minimum wage, as well as abolishing the Agency Workers Regulations and the Working Time Regulations. With women more likely to be in low-paid, insecure work (80% of workers in the UK’s lowest paid sector—social care—are women) any such cuts will hurt women hardest.

Meanwhile, Raab’s former colleague Martin Callanan criticised the pregnant workers directive as a “barrier to employment” which could be “scrapped.”

The focus on growth and investment over rights, by a Government that sees workers protections as a block on growth, raises concerns about who the economy is for. “In terms of how we think about our economy, our focus should be on environmental sustainability, human wellbeing, and equality,” explains Mary-Ann Stephenson, Director of the Women’s Budget Group. Polling by the organisation on the release of its Gender Equal Economy report found that “these are the things people value in the economy,” she says. 

Stephenson raises how it’s not just workers’ protections under threat by Truss’ planned bonfire but standards too. Any change to product standards will disproportionately affect women, as will rollbacks on part-time workers’ rights, agency workers’ rights, and of course maternity leave. 

“Women tend to be the main people who are responsible for domestic consumption so any changes to food standards will be felt by them,” Stephenson told Byline Times. “But scrapping of EU food standards will also have an impact on our economy because it will have an impact on our exports”. 


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Where is Care in the Economy?

While new threats to women’s economic rights are alarming, they would follow 12 years of austerity measures that disproportionately impacted on women and led to rising inequality. 

A report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published this week found that between 2002/03 and 2019/20 the number of people in very deep poverty – measured as below 40% of median income after housing costs – increased by 1.8 million, from 4.7 million to 6.5 million people. The rate increased by a third for single parent households, the majority of which are headed by women.

“What we have now is that certain groups of women are worse off because of the cutting away of social security,” says Stephenson. “Particularly single parents, but also black and minority ethnic women and disabled women”. 

Two of the driving forces of women’s inequality is the impact of austerity – more than 80% of the cost was borne by women – and how women take on the burden of unpaid care. Caring responsibilities mean that women are more represented in part-time work or are considered economically inactive – that is, they are not working in the formal sector but not receiving benefits either. 

“We are seeing increasing numbers of women in their 50s who are considered economically inactive,” explains Stephenson. “This idea that unemployment is down post-COVID-19 actually obscures that levels of employment are still low because of this group of women who have had to leave work in order to care for elderly relatives and grandchildren”. 

Part of the issue is the rising cost of childcare combined with a cost of living crisis, alongside shortages of adult social care, making families more reliant on relatives to help out with looking after the vulnerable – be that young children or elderly relatives. The data shows that women are more likely to take on that caring role, in part because women are already lower paid than their male family members. 

In fact, 28.5% of economically inactive women are not working in order to look after home or the family. This compares with 6.9% of men. The number of women not working to look after family has risen 5% in the past year, in what is the first sustained increase in at least 30 years.

Working-Class WomenForgotten Victims of the Pandemic

Sian Norris

Working-class grandmothers are more likely to leave the workforce to take on caring responsibilities as demographically, their children tend to have children younger than their middle-class peers who may have already retired. 

Not only does this have an immediate effect on a woman’s earnings, but it can lead to a smaller pension pot when she does formally retire. The gender pension gap is “significantly larger than the gender pay gap and applies to a large (and growing) proportion of the female population”, according to Parliamentary research. The gap is 17% at the beginning of women’s careers and reaches 56% at retirement compared to men – with the average pension pot of a woman at retirement (£10,000) found to be less than half that of a man (£21,000).

The cost of childcare combined with women’s economic insecurity in a cost of living crisis ends up, Stephenson, “with someone having not to be in work, be that the mother or the grandmother. Nobody really looks at knock-on impacts and families, but if you’re thinking about childcare, then you need to look at the impact on maternal employment”.

Financial Dependence

Various policies introduced by the Conservative Government have put vulnerable women at risk of being financially dependent on abusive partners, while the rising cost of living combined with low or no earnings means that women can struggle to leave an abusive or even an unhappy relationship. 

Universal Credit has been accused of reinforcing the male breadwinner model in that a single benefit is claimed and owned by couples jointly, usually paid in full to one partner. This, the Women’s Budget Group warned, could facilitate financial and coercive control by making an abused partner dependent on handouts. Similarly, the decision to mean-test child benefit, and the two-child cap on tax credits, has an impact on mothers’ financial autonomy and income. 

The Department for Work and Pensions allows a partner to apply for separate payments in cases of abuse – however such an application could alert the abuser, causing more distress and potential violence. 

Women weighing up the safety and security of leaving an unhappy or abusive relationship also have to factor in where they are going to live – there is no region in England where a median-earning woman can rent alone, let alone buy somewhere. 

“We had a social security system that meant people could afford to leave partners,” says Stephenson. “That is being stripped away”. 

Stephenson is concerned that so much of the leadership contest has focused on tax cuts rather than improving economic security and tackling the cost of living crisis, thereby improving women’s equality. 

“We don’t have a system that supports and encourages economic independence,” she tells Byline Times. “Even Liz Truss’ proposal for shared taxation rather than independent taxation risks making things worse. Effectively, what you’re doing with this policy is reducing the tax paid by men and putting women in a situation where they have even less money that they can count on”.

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