Last week we held an event at Holyrood to discuss our paper on ‘welfare reform’ and gender. This is a joint piece of work* that tells a story about why women are penalised by this agenda in so many different ways and turns to how we might address the gender impact.
A key point we make is that ‘welfare reform’ policies exacerbate, rather than create inequality for women in Scotland, and therefore policy responses must reflect this. Unpaid care work, disadvantage in the labour market and the complex discrimination that different groups of women experience are all key to understanding the enormous and predictable gender imbalance in terms of those affected.** Initiatives that are blind to these things will not only fail to deliver for many women, but risk further entrenching their inequality. It’s a vicious circle.
We heard from Lynn and Maureen from the Maryhill Women’s Centre, who lifted all of this off the page. The women that access their services report stress and fear about changes to JSA, sanctions and conditions, the impossibility of finding work that fits with their lives and much, much more.
Here are the numbers, which they have “no doubt” are largely due to ‘welfare reform’:
They described this scenario as the “tip of the iceberg”. Which is utterly terrifying. But, as people familiar with the centre are well aware, MWC has a very strong record of resourcefulness, securing support for creative, targeted projects, and making an enormous difference for the community of women accessing their services. One such project, initiated over the last year, is a Job Club for women suddenly deemed ‘fit for work’.
All of this supports our recommendation that funding should be channelled to community-based women’s organisations.
The subsequent discussion was focussed on this and other potential solutions to mitigate the gender impact. It was really fruitful, partly because of the breadth of folk that took part: workers from support services, policy people and researchers from third sector orgs and government, cross-party MSPs and new-to-Edinburgh feminists, looking to connect with the network. Some contributions were linked to the recommendations in our paper,*** others were completely fresh perspectives, and I came away with a long list of suggestions and thoughts that will shape how we take this work forward – a very big thanks indeed to everyone that came.
* with Scottish Refugee Council, Scottish Women’s Aid, Close the Gap, Scottish Women’s Convention and Zero Tolerance
** It’s known that since 2010, 74% of the cuts to social security since has come from women’s pockets (House of Commons Library analysis). But gender issues are all but missing from the debate and from the response.
Scottish Government should:
· Develop a broad action plan to mitigate the impacts of the UK’s ‘welfare reform’ programme on women.
· Monitor emerging impacts, to ensure that women’s needs are met, including those of rural, disabled, older, refugee and BME women, lone mothers and unpaid carers.
· Ensure that the Welfare Funds (Scotland) Bill and related guidance mainstream gender issues and that local authorities disaggregate monitoring of uptake by gender.
· Ensure delivery of the Scottish Welfare Fund respects women’s choices and dignity.
· Provide specific funding for community-based women’s organisations to provide gender sensitive advice and support services relating to ‘welfare reform’.
· Invest in employability and related support services for women forced into or out of the labour market as a result of the UK’s welfare and tax reform policies.
· Urgently address the increased risk of gendered violence and destitution for marginalised groups of women following changes to Housing Benefit.
Work with Scottish Parliament to call on the UK Government to:
· Conduct a Cumulative Impact Assessment of key policies implemented under the banner of Welfare Reform.
· Include risk and equality impact assessments in all further welfare reform policies and ensure that gender analysis is robust.
· Extend the Tax-free Childcare scheme to include low-income and single-earner families, and guarantee equality of access for all women.
· Ensure that all refuge and temporary accommodation is exempt from Benefit Cap and Bedroom Tax calculations.
· Address the specific needs of lone mothers seeking work, through design and delivery of Jobcentre Plus services and training of staff.
· Monitor the Mandatory Work Activity Scheme to ensure that women’s needs are taken into account, including those of rural, refugee and BME women, lone mothers and unpaid carers.
· Implement the UN CEDAW Committee’s recommendation to the UK “to mitigate the impact of austerity measures on women and services provided to women”.
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