A Better Future for Women

The Labour Party today set out our vision and priorities for gender equality, A Better Future for Women, ahead of the general election.

As a party, we have long championed reforms which ensure that women can achieve their full potential and have the freedom to make choices about their lives. Our record in government is testament to this: from Equal Pay in the 1970s to the Equality Act in 2010, Labour has led the way on women’s rights.

We will build on this record by addressing the urgent need for more secure and better paid jobs and higher living standards. Women dominate in low pay sectors and more women than ever are precariously employed and on exploitative zero hours contracts. Other key priorities include tackling violence against women and girls and introducing compulsory sex and relationships education.

The manifesto also includes a pledge to strengthen maternity discrimination. As many as 60,000 women are forced out of their job per year as a result of maternity discrimination. As I have written recently, there is a pressing need for stronger maternity legislation at both the UK and the EU levels.

A summary of Labour’s vision for women:

1. We have a plan to tackle the low pay that affects women most. One in four women are now paid below a Living Wage and sixty per cent of the jobs created for women since 2010 have been in low paid sectors. Labour will increase the National Minimum Wage to more than £8 an hour before October 2019 and promote the Living Wage with tax rebates for firms who sign up in the first year of a Labour government.

2. We will give parents more support with childcare. Childcare costs have risen by over 30 per cent since 2010, while childcare support through tax credits has been slashed. We’ll do more to support parents, extending free childcare from 15 to 25 hours a week for working parents of three and four-year-olds, guaranteeing access for parents of primary-age children to 8am-6pm wraparound childcare through primary schools. We’ll protect the Sure Start budget and open up an additional 50,000 childcare places.

3. We will help do more to ensure support for families reflects the realities of modern family life. Parents are increasingly relying on other family members to help them juggle work and childcare — particularly grandparents — with more than half of mothers relying on grandparents when they go back to work. So we’ll do more to support families, consulting on allowing parents to transfer some of their unpaid leave to grandparents who want to help care for their grandchildren.

4. We will do more to help families spend more time with a new baby. Labour will double paid paternity leave from two to four weeks, and increase pay to the equivalent of a full week’s work at the National Minimum Wage so that more families can take up their entitlements.

5. Violence against women and girls is never acceptable, so Labour will put tackling it at the heart of government. We will appoint a new commissioner to enforce national standards on tackling domestic and sexual abuse, strengthen the law and provide more stable central funding for women’s refuges and Rape Crisis Centres. And we’ll work to prevent violence, introducing age appropriate compulsory sex and relationship education in schools.

6. We will work for equality in our public life. Labour is proud to have the largest number of women standing for Parliament of any party. We will continue to use all women shortlists for Westminster parliamentary selections, and set a goal for fifty per cent of ministerial appointments to public boards to be women.

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One year on from the Chibok abductions, we need to step up our efforts to defend every girl’s right to education

It is exactly one year since 276 female students were taken from their dorms by a group of Boko Haram gunmen.

We do not know how many of the girls are still alive, or what kind of horrors they have endured. Some of the girls managed to escape but over 200 are still unaccounted for.

Not just in Nigeria but across the globe, education is denied to girls for a number of reasons. Deeply ingrained cultural and social norms and practices dictate which roles are appropriate for women and girls. As a result, some consider that resources needed for education are ‘wasted’ on girls. Some will use extreme violence to deny girls the right to go to school.

Attacks on girls’ education are motivated primarily by fear. They know the potentially transformative effect of learning, that it can unleash progressive social and political change. Equal access to education is one of the most effective tools we have for addressing gender inequality and empowering girls. This is partly why it is so often denied.

It has been said that the right to education operates as a multiplier right; when guaranteed it enhances all other human rights. But when the right is denied, it can deprive a child of most, perhaps even all, of their most fundamental rights.

The ongoing conflict is having a truly devastating impact on children in the region. UNICEF has said that as many as 800,000 children have been displaced in Northeast Nigeria. Women and young girls are being subjected to a truly shocking level of sexual violence, including rape and forced marriage.

Nigeria’s recently elected president, Muhammadu Buhari, has pledged to combat the threat of Boko Haram.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who was also the target of terrorists trying to prevent girls from going to school, wrote an incredibly powerful open letter of support to the girls.

“Remember that one day your tragic ordeal will end, you will be reunited with your families and friends, and you will have the chance to finish the education you courageously sought. I look forward to the day I can hug each one of you, pray with you, and celebrate your freedom with your families. Until then, stay strong, and never lose hope. You are my heroes.”

Violence like the Pakistani Taliban bombing which killed more than 100 children at an army school in Peshawar in December 2014, the shooting of Malala, and the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, has profound consequences. Such attacks on education have a ripple effect, sending a signal to parents that schools are not safe places. But even in conflict and post-conflict situations, steps need to be taken to ensure that all girls can effectively and safely access education.

We need to understand the promotion and protection of education as central to effective strategies for preventing armed conflict. Without the full participation and inclusion of women in peacebuilding, stability in the region will not be achieved. The education of girls is, in many ways, our gateway to an equal and peaceful world.

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Honeyball’s Weekly Round-up

The election is gathering pace as we head into the last few weeks and now the manifestos are being introduced. Today the Labour Party has published its manifesto which you can read here.

One of its most important pledges is its economic promise. The Labour Party guarantees that each of its policies will be fully funded and require no additional borrowing.

The party manifesto also promises:
 A £2.5bn fund for the NHS paid for largely by a mansion tax on properties valued at over £2m
 Twenty-five hours of childcare for working parents of three and four-year olds, paid for by increasing the banking levy by £800m
 Freezing gas and electricity bills until 2017, so they can only fall not rise
 Banning zero-hour contracts and raising the minimum wage to £8
 Scrapping winter fuel payments for the richest pensioners, capping child benefit rises and cutting ministers’ pay by five per cent
 A 50p tax rate on incomes over £150,000 a year and abolishing non-dom status

In an interview with Andrew Marr yesterday the party’s deputy leader, Harriet Harman, brilliantly set out Labour’s plan.

During the interview with Marr she said, Labour is not talking to the Liberal Democrats behind the scenes about a partnership after the election and stated the Tory NHS funding pledge is ‘illusory’. She also criticised the Conservatives’ negative campaigning which she said was undermining the economy and “it just turns people off”.

Meanwhile, The Guardian’s Zoe Williams popped down to South Thanet to follow the campaign which Nigel Farage is fighting.

Among the many observations she made concerned Ukip’s local polices which she described as “disjointed and petty.”

“Its three main promises are first, the compulsory purchase of Manston airport to protect its aviation use, even though pretty much nobody round here has their own plane. Secondly, it wants to redraft the local housing plan to stop new houses being built, while at the same time offering “jobs for local people” (how a construction freeze will achieve this is unclear). Thirdly, Ukip will introduce an on-the-spot fine if you let your dog foul a path. Come on: dog shit? It’s come to something when the new politics makes the old stuff look ambitious,” she wrote.

Just a week ago, Williams points out that Ukip was accused of burying a poll it commissioned that showed its support dropping off rapidly in Thanet.

The reality is that there are two simple choices people can make in this election. They can choose to vote for a Conservative government which protects the interests of the few. A Conservative government will make further cuts and has already announced unfunded policy pledges such as its £8 billion promise for the NHS…where the funding is coming from is anyone’s guess.

The alternative is a Labour government, a progressive party which is fair, protects the most vulnerable but which creates opportunity and encourages business to flourish.

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Why UKIP’s focus on the ‘Tampon Tax’ is misleading

Yesterday UKIP unveiled its policies for women, including the flagship pledge to scrap the so-called Tampon Tax. I have written many times before about UKIP’s appalling record on gender equality, including outrageous comments made by Nigel Farage.

UKIP have long been silent on women’s issues and their late attempt to win over women voters reflects just how misguided and out of touch they are when it comes to equality.

What is the ‘Tampon Tax’?

VAT (Value-added tax) is charged on the supply of all goods and services unless they are specifically exempt. Businesses pay VAT on their purchases (input tax) and charge VAT on their sales (output tax). The difference between the two is then settled with HM Revenue and Customs and in the end the cost of the tax is borne by the consumer.

The UK has three rates of VAT: the basic rate (currently 20%); the zero rate; and the reduced rate of 5%, used in a limited number of cases. Tampons and other sanitary products are currently classified using this 5% reduced rate.

Previously, tampons and other sanitary products had been taxed at the basic rate (then 17.5%). Following a successful campaign led by the Labour MP Dawn Primarolo, the Labour government reclassified them to 5% in 2000.

Under EU law, certain products and services are exempt from VAT, such as the provision of medical care. Any decisions taken about VAT coverage and rates by Member States are governed by these rules meaning new exemptions cannot be introduced unilaterally. VAT rates on certain goods and services still vary greatly across the EU. Women in Hungary, for example, can expect to pay 27% VAT on tampons.

Other products which have a VAT of 5% in the UK include: mobility aids for the elderly, maternity pads, smoking cessation products and car seats for children.

The recent petition by the #EndTamponTax campaign now has more than 220,000 signatures.

Can this be changed?

It is deliberately misleading to say that the only way to rectify unfair rules is to leave the EU. EU Directives, including the one setting out rules on VAT, can be amended.

The tax costs the average woman an estimated £3 per year. Although this may sound insignificant, it unfairly penalises women for something which is an unavoidable and essential requirement. It sends a very negative signal to the electorate about the ability of politicians to understand their needs and it reflects the reality that we still have a very long way to before our politicians are truly representative of society as a whole.

We simply do not need the 5% revenue generated from essential products like tampons and sanitary towels in order to balance the books. Our efforts are much better focused on making everyone pay their fair share of tax, including very wealthy individuals who live and work in the UK. Women have already been hit the hardest by the Tory government’s cuts to public services; they should not be made to pay tax on essential sanitary items.

This is why Labour MEPs have asked the European Commission if they will amend the VAT Directive to classify the sale and supply of sanitary products as an exempt activity. As Labour’s spokesperson in Europe for women’s rights and gender equality, I will continue to argue for a reassessment of the rules governing VAT rates.

Women are still better off because of the EU

The EU has long championed women’s rights and gender equality. Indeed gender equality is a founding principle of the EU and a fundamental right. Many of the struggles for greater equality have been led at the EU level.

A whole 18 years before the Equal Pay Act came into force in the UK in 1975, the EEC (the predecessor to the EU) required that women and men were paid equally for work of equal value. Since then, a plethora of Directives have been enacted which have strengthened the rights of women in law. In 1978, sex discrimination in the field of social security became prohibited across all Member States. In 1992, the Pregnant Workers Directive guaranteed women at least 14 weeks of maternity leave and protects pregnant workers from exposure to risks to their health and safety at work. On so many issues – violence against women, FGM, the underrepresentation of women on company boards, educational inequalities, the gender pay and pensions gaps – Labour and our sister parties in Europe are leading the way on gender equality.

Abolishing the Tampon Tax would indeed make women slightly better off by a few pounds a year. But there is so much more to women’s economic independence than cutting the price of tampons. If UKIP were genuinely concerned with reducing the gender pay gap they would be talking about a range of policy areas: ending discrimination in employment; breaking down educational stereotypes; encouraging men to take on more caring responsibilities; or tackling precarious employment conditions like exploitative zero hours contracts which effect so many women.

UKIP are appropriating the language of gender equality as a last-ditch attempt to woo women voters. This comes just one month after a debate in the European Parliament in which the since-expelled UKIP MEP Janice Atkinson stood up and told us that we already have gender equality and that it was “rubbish” to suggest that we urgently need further measures to tackle problems like the gender pay gap, violence against women and the underrepresentation of women in decision making.

Due to the weight of evidence showing that women in the UK would be materially worse off if we left the EU, UKIP have no choice but to focus on this one anomalous feature of tax law.

Let’s be clear: this is motivated not by the pressing need for women’s economic equality but by UKIP’s utterly misguided desire to leave Europe.

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The 59th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women – the future of international gender equality goals

I was honoured to attend the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the UN in New York last month. The CSW is the principle global body dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the advancement of women’s rights. Its annual two-week session provides an opportunity for states, NGOs and other partners to evaluate progress. This presents an opportunity to identify challenges, set global standards and formulate concrete policies.

NYC delegation

The primary focus of this year’s session was the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. This is the document which has served as the blueprint for the promotion of women’s human rights for the past 20 years. In 1995, 17,000 participants and 30,000 activists from around the world gathered in Beijing for the Fourth World Conference on Women. Their aim was to promote the equality and empowerment of women everywhere by coming up with a framework for national and international gender equality practices. The culmination of their work was arguably the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing the human rights of women and girls.

To mark the anniversary, a new political declaration was adopted by the Commission which sought to take stock of progress so far and set out a vision for the coming years.

Since 1995, progress has been made on a number of fronts. But it has been slow and uneven.

In education, for example, women now outnumber men in tertiary education in Europe, although patterns of segregation remain. By contrast, only 51% of women in developing countries can read and write.

The Beijing Platform called on states to take integrated measures to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls, to conduct research into its causes and consequences and to eliminate trafficking of women and girls. Yet, EU-wide studies have suggested that as many as 1 in 3 women have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15. Many Member States, including the UK, have still not ratified the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women and girls. We must commit more resources to this problem as a matter of urgency. The issue of trafficking is a priority in my own work as a member of the Committee for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in the European Parliament.

This year’s session also addressed the issue of international development and assessment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) – a set of time-bound targets to mobilise international action on poverty reduction. MDG3 which focused on gender equality has been widely criticised for its narrow focus. For example, it did not mention violence against women, wage discrimination or sexual and reproductive rights.

If we are to galvanise transformative change, the Sustainable Development Goals, which replace the MDGs, will have to address a number of key issues. Feedback from countries all around the world has shown that financing for gender equality has been inadequate across the board. At the national and international level, we need to push for the necessary funds as well as mechanisms for holding governments to account on their records. Following the global financial crisis, funding has dwindled. In the UK for example, equality bodies have faced drastic cuts and have had their capacity significantly reduced as a result. Investment in gender equality is a prerequisite for sustainable and prosperous societies and economies. Equality between women and men therefore needs to be at the forefront of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Finally, the underrepresentation of women at all levels of decision-making is hindering progress for gender equality in all areas. We have witnessed substantial progress in women’s access to electoral office but in the overwhelming majority of governments worldwide, there is still no gender parity. A range of measures have been successful in facilitating women’s pathways to power – not least electoral quotas which I have strongly advocated for. Women’s groups and activists have also played a crucial role in addressing the marginalisation of women in public life. To fulfil the promise of human rights – in health, education, eliminating poverty, eradicating violence – we will need the full participation and leadership of women.

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Issue of women on boards still not addressed

The annual Davies report published in the last week reveals that female representation on company boards of the FTSE 100 has reached 23.5%, a figure which has almost doubled in the last four years.

In 2011 an appalling low 12.5% of women had board positions on the FTSE 100. Since then some work has been done to address this, the issue has been raised and debate ensued. However, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition was, unsurprisingly, reluctant to entertain the idea that legislation would help to redress the balance and certainly it would do so more quickly.

When Lord Davies was asked to examine the issue he recommended that the FTSE 100 should aim to have a minimum of 25% women on its boards by 2015. We are now in 2015 and this figure has not been achieved. A further 17 women need to be added to top positions before this figure is met.

However, perhaps the most interesting observation I can make is that on closer inspection of the 23.5% figure reveals that just 8.6% of executive directors are women which equates to just 24 women opposed to 255 men. The figures also reveal that there are 239 women non-executive directors and 601 men.

Although there aren’t any all-male boards in the FTSE 100, the Cranfield School of Management reveal that in the FTSE 250 there are still 23 all male boards.

Lord Davies has called the latest figure: “A remarkable rate of change.” On the face of it it is, but in reality the majority of women are non-exec directors, so really female representation at company level hasn’t changed significantly.

The only way to ensure women are properly represented at a senior level is to introduce mandatory quotas for top companies. There are very many credible and capable women in business but they are overlooked just because of their gender and this needs to be properly addressed.

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Honeyball’s Weekly Round-up

There is “no evidence that the EU was interfering excessively in any aspect of British life,” a cross party group of peers from the European Union Committee of the House of Lords has found.

Their report was picked up by Toby Helm and reported in the Guardian, despite a concerted attempt by the government to bury the Lords extensive examination. Helm noted: “In a hugely damaging move for the government, the committee of the House of Lords, chaired by former Tory minister Lord Boswell, comes close to saying that ministers tried to cover up the findings, which do not support David Cameron’s claims that the EU is ‘becoming a state’ and has already accrued excessive powers.”

Lord Boswell also criticised the fact that £5mn was spent producing the report but no effort was made to make the results accessible to the public who want to know the truth about the UK’s relationship with the EU.

Meanwhile, Lord Hannay, a former British ambassador to the EU, who now advises British Influence, said: “The outcome of the government’s meticulous and evidence-based Review of the Balance of Competencies of the EU is one of the best-kept secrets of recent months, largely ignored by the media and seldom mentioned by the government itself. And yet it is a crucial element in the election debate over Britain’s future in the EU.

“The single, clear message from the review is that in none of its 32 chapters is there a compelling case for the repatriation of powers from Brussels to Westminster and Whitehall. So, while the EU needs reform, our relationship with it does not warrant wholesale dismantling,” he added.

We had the first of the TV (non) debates last week. Hosting was Jeremy Paxman who has since been criticised for his interrogation of Ed Miliband, after hundreds of complaints were lodged with Ofcom as a result.

George Eaton, The New Statesman’s political editor, reviewed the debates and said: “It was Ed Miliband who had the most to gain from tonight’s TV event – and he did. He was better-prepared, more fluent and more inspiring than David Cameron.”

Eaton observed: “The evening started badly for the PM as a forensic Jeremy Paxman pressed him on food banks, zero-hours contracts and his net migration pledge. Faced with the kind of sustained scrutiny he rarely endures, Cameron was nervy and rattled. “That’s not the question,” he helplessly pleaded when asked whether he could live on a zero-hours contract, a slip that provoked guffaws in the press room. He never recovered from these missteps and rarely appeared in control.”

It was a bumper spring issue from the New Statesman this week. One article in particular struck me, Spitalfields Nippers. It was a photographic story of the lives of children living in the East End of London in Spitalfields, before the introduction of the Welfare State.

There is an authenticity to the pictures though, and the article points out the compassion of the photographer: “Although his subjects were some of the poorest people in London, Warner’s compassionate portraits stand up in sharp contrast to the stereo typical images created by other social campaigners of that era, those who portrayed children solely as the victims of their economic circumstances and sometimes degraded them further by their very act of photography.”

The photos are raw but provide an important reminder when trying to convey how vital a welfare state is rather than constantly deriding those who need it.

The New Statesman article doesn’t appear to be online so here is one of the collection of images from the Guardian from 2014.

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