Though it has lost its case for a judicial review into the gender impact of the government's spending review, the Fawcett Society has pledged to keep up pressure for equality between women and men and has welcomed a further Equalities and Human Rights Commission investigation into the issue.
It is also pressurising the government over stalling progress on equal pay, following the release on 8 December of new Office of National Statistics figures.
The equality group says that evidence over the October budget points towards women being worst affected by the coalition's public spending cuts and pay freezes - with the government failing to take gender into account in its decision-making.
Of the £8 billion worth of changes to tax and welfare, 72 per cent will come from women's pockets, in comparison to 28 per cent from men, it points out.
Ceri Goddard, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said of its High Court permission hearing on 6 December 2010: “[The] hearing saw the government admit they had not carried out an assessment of how the budget will impact on women and men, something they’ve described as ‘regrettable’."
She continued: “Although hundreds of thousands of women’s incomes will be affected by the public sector pay freeze, and the poorest pensioners and lone mothers will lose out through the changes to benefits and pensions, the government conceded it had not considered the impact on women and men when drawing up its plans.
“Mr Justice Ouseley judged that policies set to have such a dramatically different impact on women and men merit further scrutiny. The judge said the Equality and Human Rights Commission was best placed to conduct this kind of analysis.
“While we are disappointed not to have been granted a judicial review of the budget, we are pleased the government has today heard that budgetary decisions are not above equality law - and that a court of law agreed with us that the government’s economic processes need to be looked at again.
“Outside of the courts, our action has already made an impact. When drawing up the Comprehensive Spending Review, the government produced the first ever equalities statement to accompany such a big piece of financial policy. Though we feel it’s inadequate, it’s a start.
“There is increased recognition and understanding of the role of equality law generally, and growing demand that women are not forced to bear the brunt of cuts. The issue of women’s rights has inched that little bit closer to its rightful place at the heart of policy making.
“This case was one part of a much wider Fawcett Society campaign for women’s economic independence, which is key to fighting for women’s equality.
“We hope our case has ensured that neither the government nor any other public body will in future think it appropriate to bypass equality law,” said Ms Goddard.
Fawcett has also responded to the ONS Annual Survey of Hourly Earnings 2010 which found that men’s mean hourly earnings were £16.25, up 1.1 per cent from £16.07 in 2009. Women’s mean hourly earnings increased by 2.2 per cent to £13.73 compared with £13.44 in 2009. This means that the gender pay difference is now 15.5 per cent, a change from 16.4 per cent in 2009.
Ceri Goddard said: "Without urgent action, at the current rate of progress yet another generation of women face earning less than men for the duration of their working lives.
“These figures put paid to the idea that the pay gap will go away by itself; at a time when the government has opted for no increase in its own powers to tackle the problem.
“Only last week the Minister for Equalities, Theresa May, announced that she would not enact Section 78 of the Equality Act. The clause provides an opportunity for government to take action to close the gender pay gap by sending a clear signal to all employers that unequal pay has no place in the 21st century workplace. It would give government powers to require big business to measure and publish any gaps in their male and female pay rates if voluntary progress is not forthcoming. Failing do so sends a dangerous signal that tackling discrimination against women is a choice ,not a requirement, and armed with these new figures Fawcett urges the government to reconsider this decision.
“The gender pay gap is complex and its causes are multi-faceted. Extending the right to request flexible working to all employees and reforming the parental leave system have the potential to make a huge difference to employer practices and women’s opportunities in the workplace. We look forward to seeing the details of the government’s proposals on these manifesto commitments.
“Progress on equal pay is stalling, and at a time when more women face losing their jobs more than ever before, the government must do more not less to tackle the problem,” declared the Fawcett Society CEO.
Fawcett (http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/) is the UK’s leading campaign for equality between women and men. Its roots stretch back to 1866, when Millicent Fawcett began her lifetime's work leading the peaceful campaign for women's votes.