Phillip Hammond's first and last spring budget was, to members of the Women's Budget Group who had gathered to watch, a tale of three budgets.
The 'let's make a start in tackling the crisis in social care' Budget
The most significant announcement - £2billion additional spending on social care over three years - is very welcome. It is women who are the hardest hit by the crisis in social care. The majority of the 1.86million people in the UK with unmet care needs are women. Women are also the majority of those providing care, both paid and unpaid. The spending announced will not be enough to fill the funding gap for social care which has been estimated as between £2.8 and £3.5 billion per year by the end of this parliament, but it is a significant start.
Strangely, although the Chancellor made several mentions of the fact that the budget was happening on International Women's Day budget, he didn't claim the social care spending as evidence that this was a budget for women. But this was certainly one of the most significant announcements for women in this budget.
The 'token gesture for International Women's Day' Budget
The IWD announcements in contrast were little more than token gestures. The Chancellor announced an additional £20 million for domestic violence services for the next two years. Any money for violence against women services is welcome, but comes nowhere near meeting the funding needs of the sector. Responsibility for the major part of local service provision is devolved to local commissioners, including Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), health and local authority commissioners. All of these have had real terms funding cuts, leading to cuts in the support they are able to provide to local services. Refuges have closed, or been forced to reduce the services they provide. Sexual violence services received nothing at all, although we know that these services are also severely over stretched. It costs £70milllion annually to run Rape Crisis England and Wales, which currently has a £10million budget shortfall, yet will not see any of this additional money.
It is difficult to see how the £5million for women returning to work will be enough to tackle entrenched barriers to women in the labour market. The money will go to support 'returnships' higher-level paid internships for returning professionals, suggesting it will offer little for lower paid women struggling to get back into work after a period at home looking after children. The £5million for celebrations to mark the centenary of (some) women gaining the vote in 2018 may pay for some nice parties, but a better commemoration would be insisting that women are represented in the decision-making structures of the new Northern Powerhouse and West Midlands Regional Authority.
The 'failure to be Bold for Change' Budget
The theme of this year's International Women's Day was Be Bold for Change. For many women the biggest change the Chancellor could have made would be to reverse the cuts to social security spending that will cost women far more than men, and hit the poorest women the hardest. Women in the lowest income groups stand to lose £1,600 a year by 2020, compared to what they would have received under the 2010 system. Some of this is as a result of changes that were announced in previous budgets but are yet to take effect. These include the two child cap on Child Tax Credit and the Child Element of Universal Credit, the changes to Bereaved Parents allowance so that it is only paid for eighteen months and limiting housing benefit for social tenants to the local housing allowance rates. The projected rise in inflation over the next few years means that the value of benefit and tax credits, which have been frozen, will fall in real terms. These cuts to social security, which are pushing many women and their families into poverty, have been presented as necessary to tackle the deficit. But at the same time the Treasury has chosen to make a series of tax cuts, which will cost the UK £41billion a year by 2020, more than the £37billion a year saved from social security cuts. Most of those who will benefit from tax cuts are men, so this has been a policy of transferring money from the purses of poorer women into the wallets of richer men.
Mary-Ann Stephenson is co-director of the Women's Budget Group