THE BLOG

Where Are the Women?

12/09/2013 10:18 BST | Updated 11/11/2013 10:12 GMT

This week saw a steady stream of Labour MPs use Treasury Questions in the Commons to challenge George Osborne and his all-male junior Ministers on the impact of their policies on family incomes and child poverty.

We all know from our constituency surgeries and postbags just how hard many families are finding life at the moment - struggling to get by on wages that simply aren't keeping up with the cost of living, with figures out today showing average pay rising at an annual rate of just 1% (or 1.1% including bonuses, for those few lucky enough to receive them) whilst inflation stands at 2.8%.

As one of the single biggest issues facing ordinary families, this cost of living crisis was also the focus of questioning by the Labour Treasury team, with Rachel Reeves, Cathy Jamieson and myself attempting to get Osborne and Co. to put down the champagne long enough to at least acknowledge how difficult life is for many up and down the country.

Whether dismissive, complacent or just plain ignorant, the replies we received demonstrated a deeply out-of-touch Chancellor and team of Treasury Ministers, who have no idea what life's like at the sharp end, and the impact that three years of flatlining have had on the living standards of ordinary families.

When I challenged them on the fact that women are paying three times more than men to bring the deficit down because of this Government's choices, I was faced with a bemused silence before receiving a shameful non-answer from Economic Secretary, Sajid Javid, and his all-male colleagues who squirmed in their seats in deep discomfort at being asked to comment on the issue.

I know this isn't the first time Sajid has been stumped for a response recently, but I am deeply concerned that his inability to even address the question reflects a wider complacency and ignorance that persists about the impact of the Government's economic policies on women and families.

Indeed, this couldn't have been better illustrated than by the disgraceful comments of Education Secretary Michael Gove on Monday (from whom the Prime Minister refused to distance himself today), who suggested the alarming rise in the number of families using food banks - not just for food, but also for help with the ever-increasing costs of school uniform - can be accounted for by families facing pressures 'often the result of decisions they have taken which mean they are not best able to manage their finances'.

Of course, a lack of women at the top of Government - with just four in a Cabinet of 25, and five departmental teams without a single female Minister, including at the Treasury - continues to be reflected elsewhere in public life with women all-too-often missing from key economic decision-making.

The new Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, has set a goal that - one day - he will have a female successor. This is to be welcomed, given the Bank hasn't had a woman at the top in its entire 300-year history.

But let's make a start by getting some women on the interest-rate setting, Government-appointed Monetary Policy Committee, which hasn't had a single female member on it since summer 2010 - something which hadn't happened since the Bank was granted independence under the last Labour Government in 1997.

Mr Carney's positive comments on this issue - and his move to ensure we have high-achieving women as well as men on our banknotes following the impressive campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez and many women MPs - are hugely welcome. But isn't it time for women to have their contribution recognised without having to fight for it (and risk disturbing abuse and threats in the process)?

The Government should clearly be leading on this, yet where are the women? With this lot we're back to fighting for the recognition that we even exist. Cameron and Osborne should quite frankly be ashamed.