Joan Bakewell on the increased burden the government is putting on women
I’m continually impressed by what strong women the Labour Party has, both in the Shadow Cabinet and on the Front bench in the House of Lords. If that sounds a little patronising, then at my age it’s allowed.
“At my age” is a phrase that crops up more and more the older you get. It crops up in letters to me from women who want to share their rage and distress at the raw deal they are getting in this protracted era of austerity. Is it my 60s feminist instincts that make me automatically side with women or is it genuinely the case that women seem particularly hard hit by current government policies? I took a deep breath and decided to challenge my own assumptions.
And this is what I found: George Osborne’s tax and benefit changes are certainly hitting older women hardest. Women in mid-career will not be benefitting for the generous tax plans for the rich, but some of them are hit by the loss of a pensions’ tax exemption that was abruptly snatched from them in what is ignominiously known as the ‘granny tax’.
Women who are having to juggle the cost of feeding, clothing and bringing up their children are currently hit from all sorts of directions. They have lost the Education Maintenance Allowance for their teenage children; many household necessities and foods are hit by the high rate of VAT we all have to put up with. In all sorts of niggling ways, their lot is getting harder.
Then there’s the pension scandal. The government brought forward the state pension age for women born between Dec 1953 and March 1955 by 18 months – leaving many with no more than seven years to plan for change and make savings to meet the shortfall there always is when you stop work and depend on your pension.
In all sorts of less direct ways women are suffering heavily. Slowly, social services for the old and the handicapped are being eroded as council budgets are cut and charities have their grants trimmed. I know this from within my own family. So the burden of increased care falls most heavily on the women. What’s more its women – grannies – who provide a great chunk of the child care while their daughters go out to work. And in their mid-years, women also find themselves caring for ageing and increasingly infirm parents. What kind a deal is that? Not exactly what they expected when they were young and their life was opening up with promises and hopes!
It wasn’t always so. I come from an era when things got better as the years went by: child benefit came in and helped us all, health and dentistry were automatically free and not the cause of worry and distress. Can we get back to that sort of world, I wonder?
Not directly, no.
You can’t recreate history, and anyway it probably had its failings. There were no seat belts or air bags, people smoked like chimneys and drank before driving. So, it wasn’t any kind of golden age. But governments did take the care of citizens as a major obligation and priority. And citizens expected as much from then.
I believe that sort of commitment could come again. And I believe women should demand as much from the government they elect.
Baroness Joan Bakewell is a journalist, broadcaster and backbench Labour Peer in the Lords