Rachel Cain: Stopping attacks on women - with a tax on women

The Autumn Statement might have suggested a government with the right priorities, but beyond the attractive giveaways the picture is not so generous, writes our columnist

Rachel Cain
Rachel Cain

Friday 25 November was International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Given recent international events, in 2016 this day seems more necessary than ever. In the UK, it also came just a couple of days after the Autumn Statement, when the chancellor announced that a further £3m of grants from the "tampon tax" will be donated to "women’s charities, including those running programmes that tackle violence against women and girls".

This follows the announcement in March that an £80m fund would be given over four years to support services such as refuges, female genital mutilation units and early intervention work. This sounds like a government with the right priorities.

Once we look beyond the attractive giveaways, however, a different story emerges. Years of local authority budget cuts mean that charities such as Refuge have seen funding disappear for as much as 80 per cent of their services. The government’s offerings will not fill the gap. Women’s Aid reported in its last annual survey that, on one day alone, 92 women and 75 children were turned away from refuges – often because there simply wasn’t enough space.

Women’s Aid has also emphasised the importance of specialist support to meet the diverse and complex needs of beneficiaries. Improvement in commissioning is desperately needed here because, when budgets are stretched, specialist provision and smaller organisations tend to lose out first. Smaller charities have been hardest hit by local government funding cuts, yet are often best placed to understand local needs.

Good grant-making can support these charities. Unfortunately, the government’s call for a grant-maker to administer the tampon tax funds demonstrated how not to run an application process. However, Comic Relief, which is administering the grants, currently has a focus on smaller charities, so might well do a much better job than the government.

Finally, let’s not forget that it’s not the government that is paying this £3m – it’s women. Women pay tax on sanitary products (because dealing with bodily functions is a "luxury", right?) and the government can take credit for a matching donation.

This is in the context of a socity in which women are most likely to be bearing the brunt of the government’s austerity policies. With stretched public services and local authority budgets there are fewer places to turn. When vulnerable women come to a refuge in crisis, it’s not the government that has paid the price for vital services – it’s those women themselves.

The government revealed its real attitude to this issue in the Chancellor’s words. He didn’t say that he was promising money for vital services, or vulnerable people in need, or to tackle a devastating problem that kills two women each week – but that he was donating to "women’s charities". The implication here is worrying. It suggests that the government thinks gender-based violence and domestic abuse are issues for women only to deal with, not society as a whole, and certainly not something that the government should pay for.

The government itself, in a report carrying a foreword by Theresa May, then the Home Secretary, estimated that violence against women and girls costs the UK at least £36.7bn a year. A donation of £3m looks less significant in that context. The shortfall for these services is massive and, while local authority budgets continue to be slashed beyond crisis point, the government isn’t going to convince us that it’s really committed to tackling these issues.

Eye-catching donations from the Autumn Statement are all very well, but they're a drop in the ocean. If the government is serious about ending violence against women, it needs to look at the bigger picture.

Rachel Cain is a researcher at the Directory of Social Change

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