On Thursday, voters will have their say in what is arguably the closest General Election in living memory, yet many women continue to be confused and worse, angered, that they have been forgotten. Workingmums talked to Ceri Goddard, chief executive of equality campaign group the Fawcett Society, about party policies on issues that affect women.
On Thursday, voters will have their say in what is arguably the closest General Election in living memory yet many women continue to be confused and worse, angered, that they have been forgotten. Workingmums talked to Ceri Goddard, chief executive of equality campaign group the Fawcett Society about the issues that affect women.
The Fawcett Society hasn’t been shy in the run-up to the election. It has brought together over 40 organisations and thousands of individual voters in its ‘What About Women?’ campaign – a drive to get the politicians to explain the place of women and their intentions towards them, in important battlegrounds including the economy, public services, crime, political reform and the family.
Goddard says women must look at how the policies of the three main parties will impact on women’s incomes and the wider economic position. The issue of tax credits for middle class families has been at the forefront of the latest debates and there are key differences as we look at the sliding scale of incomes. For middle-income earners, the Tories would cut tax credits for households on an annual income of over £40,000 whilst the Labour party would continue to pay out to this group.
The Liberal Democrats policy, which also involves cuts to tax credits for higher earners, centres on helping those on lower incomes. They are vowing to raise the threshold at which people start to pay tax so the first £10,000 you earn is tax free. This, they say, will benefit women on lower and part-time working positions.
Labour has also been trying to score political points on other aspects of childcare policy, saying the Lib Dems and the Tories will cut the Child Trust Fund and that the Tories would allow nurseries to charge top-up fees. Labour says it will introduce a "toddler tax credit" of £200 a year. Sure Start has also been an area of contention, with Labour claiming the Tories would axe the programme.
Addressing the gender pay gap
Despite over thirty years of equality legislation women are paid 16.4% less than men for full-time work and for part-time work the chasm widens to 35%.
Goddard says that whilst she believes that the parties are committed on paper to improving the pay packets of women and helping to narrow the pay gap, she is worried that if the economy continues to dip and times get tough some equality measures will go. "We’ve got to hold government to account," she says.
All three parties are vowing to tackle pay inequality. Labour has already introduced the Equality Act, which comes into force in October. Among other things, it encourages organisations to conduct voluntary gender pay audits so that any gender-related discrepancies in salaries are monitored and allows for compulsory gender pay audits for all companies with over 250 staff from 2013. Whilst the Tories have expressed concerns about positive discrimination and about compulsory gender pay audit provisions in the Act, they say that all companies found guilty of discrimination at an employment tribunal would have to have pay audits, whatever the size of the business. The Liberal Democrats would exempt small businesses with less than 100 employees.
Goddard says that what is needed is cogent women’s strategies and fears that "women’s inequality may be pushed back."
On flexible working:
In addition to legislation Labour has pushed through on extending flexible working to carers and parents of children under 16, the party has pledged to promote flexible working throughout the public sector and ensure jobs are advertised flexibly, where this is possible.
They are also promising to launch a free online training course for employers to teach them about flexible working and to work with training providers to help ensure their management training courses cover key part-time work issues, including job design. They say they will also introduce a business mentoring ‘twinning’ scheme on part-time working which would allow companies to share best practice in this area with other businesses.
Labour also plan to double paternity leave to four weeks and recently proposed the introduction of a shared paternity scheme whereby dads could take over the last three months of a woman’s nine-month materity leave and be paid £123 a week. They could then have three more months off unpaid.
The Conservatives acknowledge Labour’s progress in the area of flexible working. They plan to extend the right to request flexible to all parents with a child under eighteen and to everyone in the public sector. They believe these measures would address the issue of what they say "are mothers being forced to take part-time jobs for which they are vastly over-qualified". They’d also change maternity leave to flexible parental leave. Under this scheme the first 14 weeks of the 52 weeks available (39 paid and 13 unpaid) would be for the mother. Thereafter the parents could decide how to use the leave between them.
The Liberal Democrats also advocate a shared parental leave policy of up to 19 months and would like to extend the right of flexible working to everyone, including grandparents.They also promise to have free care for 18 months to five year olds.
Goddard welcomes the commitment from all three parties to flexible working, but says: "The nut we need to crack is business. Attitudes need to change. Women leave university often better qualified than men. They start their career, but then take a break to have a family and find that when they want to go back to work they have to take lower paid work. That’s just wrong."
Democracy and political reform:
Goddard says that until there are more women MPs, women’s issues will continue to be left on the sidelines. "Issues such as Sure Start would never have been debated prior to 1997 when we saw more women get into politics, and whilst there has been some improvement I’m still concerned with the levels of representation for women in Parliament," she says.
The Conservatives say they are already making steps to boost the number of women in politics. Since he was elected as party leader in 2005, David Cameron has increased the number of women and black and minority ethnic candidates. Around a third of candidates are now women and if the Conservative party win the election they claim they will go from having 18 women MPs to having around 60.
Labour says its Equality Bill will extend the permission to use women-only shortlists for parliamentary selections to 2030. They also say that they lead the way on women’s representation with more than three times as many women MPs as all the opposition parties combined.
On a different tack, the Liberal Democrats believe that it’s the overhaul of the current voting system that needs attention. They say that a more proportional system will mean more diverse people are elected. Until then they are promising they will fight to get more women elected under the current system. They admit that in their own party the problem is that not enough women put themselves forward, particularly young mums. To lure in women they have been campaigning for a creche in Parliament and have finally got the go-ahead.
All three parties have pledged to make life easier for working parents and to support flexible working for all. This list of pledges and policies is not exhaustive. Whatever the outcome this Thursday, the issues around families, working and childcare have never been more urgent and if the Fawcett Society’s own membership, which has doubled over the past year, is anything to go by, there is a growing band of women who want to be represented and have these issues debated.
Workingmums will be reporting post-election on what the outcome means for working families.