I’ve been reading some of the responses to the budget. Policy Exchange calls it a “fair and balanced budget”, and one which will help growth in the long term. A Liberal Democrat I was speaking to earlier today emphasised that it was good for business. But is it good for real people?
Although I work in politics, I’m neither an expert nor an economist. I’ll concentrate on the things I have some experience of – which in this case is equality, charities, localism.
The enterprise zones are a nice touch, and a good way to bring localism into the budget. I suspect that some will work, while others will quietly fade away. The challenge is to ensure that the start-ups which emerge aren’t simply old businesses shifting from neighbouring areas. Neighbourhood plans and the relaxation of planning laws also got a mention, and certainly planning (like the entirety of local government) needs serious reform and a set of simple solutions.
Charities will benefit from the changes to gift aid and the boost to legacies. This is part of the Big Society, and a way for the political establishment to help the third sector. On the tax front, merging income tax and national insurance is another simple solution. As I said, not an economist, but seems sensible.
What about women? Claire Perry MP tweeted that many of those people on low incomes who will be taken out of taxation by 2012-13 are women who work part-time. Certainly, women make up the bulk of part-time workers.
The Fawcett Society analysis warns that “cutting red tape can mean scaling back on equality”. While there’s certainly a danger of that, I have a fundamental uneasiness with the Fawcett Society’s analysis. I consider that both they and Zoe Williams in the Guardian conflate the role of the state and the role of society.
They argue that women’s incomes will be further reduced by freezes to housing benefit, child benefit, maternity pay and tax credits. They also argue that although the budget appears neutral, it will disproportionally affect women.
Firstly, I think that it important to consider the level to which these issues affect women, as distinct from families. These benefits don’t just come to women – apart from maternity pay, which I think should be changed to baby pay anyway. If we gathered up all the individuals in all the households receiving housing benefit, we would almost certainly find that more are women than men, but not overwhelmingly so. Yes, of course we should care that women disproportionally bear this burden. But – and this is where I differ from the Fawcett Society – does this demonstrate more about the structure of society than of the economy?
The same goes for women working in the public sector. Yes, Zoe Williams is right in her analysis of why women are drawn to the public sector. It offers security, flexible working hours and generally a better work life balance. But it’s the way that society is run at the moment which is the cause, not some innate quality about women or about the public sector. That those receiving benefits or women in the public sector are statically more likely to be female is a contingent rather than necessary truth.
Secondly, I think that legislation should be as gender neutral as possible. It’s up to us to change society to ensure that discrimination is rooted out. Positive discrimination enshrined in the rules will only treat the symptom of inequality, not the deeper cause. And while it’s doing that it’s likely to create a backlash. The role of the state should be to ensure equality of opportunity, the role of the people to encourage all individuals to take up the opportunities.
So what should we do? We can influence through more methods than regulation. For example, the concept of corporate social responsibility rests not on a Government command, but on good public relations and good business sense. A greater equality of outcome can come from positive encouragement, rather than from increased regulation. Cutting red tape need not cut equalities.
Overall, this budget seems cautious. As a pragmatist with a conservative approach to taking risks, I’m a supporter of cautious budgets. I’ll be waiting to see what effect it really does have on women.