Five moments that shaped the history of the Women’s Budget Group

Date Posted: Monday 13th May 2024

This month we launched the Women’s Budget Group history of the first 30 years. In this blog post, Erika Watson, who co-authored the report with Ruth Pearson, takes us through 5 key moments in WBG’s history to date.

Feminist EconomicsGender Budgeting

1988 A drive to Brighton

The story of the Women’s Budget Group starts on a grey March morning in 1988. Georgina Ashworth, the founder of CHANGE, an educational charitable trust and think tank focusing on gender and international development, coordinated WBG from her base at CHANGE in the very early years.

In March 1988 she was listening to the pre-Budget discussion on the radio as she drove to Brighton for a conference on Information Technology and the Clothing Industry, organised by Swasti Mitter. Listening to the male pundits discussing April’s national Budget prospects, she had an idea for a UK Women’s Budget Group (WBG).

In her memoir, Georgina recounts:

“It made me angry that there were no female voices, no women being asked their views, while other ‘sectors’ of the population, such as trade unionists, employers and business ‘leaders’, as well as economists and other academics, employers were being consulted. There was no consideration of the gender impact of the Budget: on the one hand, the analytical unit used for taxation, social security and pensions was an outdated nuclear family man with a ‘non-working’ wife and two point three children, while on the other hand, lobbying had been going for some time (by many others including me) on for the gathering, production and use of sex-disaggregated data in all areas of public and private investment and grant-making in ‘developing countries’ as a result of the UN Decade for Women (1975-85); so why not the UK?”

There was no Office for Budget Responsibility at the time, few women economists and only a handful of women holding professorships of any subject in the UK (I had counted them for a campaign of parliamentary questions in 1985). But there was a nascent international feminist economics network, a large body of academic and other literature on ‘women in development’ that had been growing since 1970, moving into ‘gender in development.

Listening to the radio that day, it seemed that all that was needed was someone to point it out.

“Enthusiastically, I made the suggestion at the end of the conference.  The response was warm and encouraging, but no one signed on immediately to join me, so I returned home, still alone with the idea.”

1990 An interview with John Major

The idea continued to germinate until 1990, when Journalist and women’s rights activist Lesley Abdela secured an interview with then Chancellor John Major for the Sunday Times, prior to his budget. She wanted to ask him about women. And she asked around her networks for someone to provide a briefing on women’s budget perspectives. Georgina Ashworth was ready.

The resulting article consisted of Major listing women he admired, including novelists and cricketers, but not saying much about the economic position of women.

“There are more than 200 women’s organisations. Which does he consult with? Asked Abdela “None so far. But I’m open to invitation … “I consult with a number of organisations, the CBI and Institute of Directors. Some of the people I consult with there are women, they aren’t all men.”

Nevertheless, Major’s policy adviser Judith Chaplin got it and arranged a follow-up meeting. But then suddenly, history rotated, Margaret Thatcher resigned and John Major became PM.  Gender budgeting was no longer a top priority.

But it was getting noticed elsewhere. One month later in November 1990, the Labour Party Treasury team invited the nascent WBG team, still under the auspices of NAWO, for a meeting. It was attended by Shadow Chancellor John Smith and his team – Paul Boateng and Margaret Beckett.

By 1991 The Women’s Budget Group formalised as a coalition of feminist economists and activists that provided systematic responses to government budgets. From 1992 WBG met annually on the Budget and gave an instant gender analysis. In 1996 the WBG budget response group was filmed live by the BBC over a five-hour period. For the first time budget analysis included a women’s perspective.

1995 – Primarolo and Clarke in The House of Commons 

In 1995 WBG is mentioned in parliament for the first time. And it’s quite an extraordinary exchange.

In the budget debate – Shadow Treasury Spokesperson Dawn Primarolo, claimed that many women were stuck in a poverty trap due to lack of childcare and eldercare, and to quote,

The Women’s Budget Group pointed out that, unlike an increasing number of countries, the United Kingdom does not publish an assessment of the differential effects of fiscal and public expenditure on women as distinct from men. The House and Conservative Members are so preoccupied with male-only interpretations that they do not realise that using the household as a focal economic unit is now recognised as producing gross social inequalities—inequalities which they do not challenge.” 

Chancellor Ken Clarke was incredulous, exclaiming: “The honourable Lady can not be serious.”

It’s worth noting that in 1995 women comprised just 9% of UK Members of Parliament.

1998 From the Wallet to the Purse

WBG launched a high-impact campaign ‘From the Wallet to the Purse’ in 1998, to influence the way the newly installed Labour government paid social security to families. It succeeded to some extent the day before the launch event – when the government accepted WBG’s recommendation that the new Tax Credit payments could be made to the main carer rather than the main income earner.

2010 Enter Austerity

Like much of the women’s sector, following the 2009 global financial crisis, WBG lost all of its funding. It continued with almost zero income until 2016.

It’s here the real strength of the organisation emerges; its foundation as an association of academics and activists.  This kept WBG operating, engaged and relevant, when many other women’s organisations collapsed.

And when the new Coalition government introduced austerity economics in 2010, WBG quickly put out detailed analysis to show that women would be the biggest losers from any cuts to both social security and public services.

It took a while for this research to cut through. For many years the only mention of it in Parliament was from the newly enobled WBG member Professor Ruth Lister who highlighted WBG research in many debates in the House of Lords.

In 2015, building on WBG research, a House of Commons library report stated that women would be hit three times as hard as men by newly-announced cuts.  Suddenly WBG was everywhere. It was mentioned in the House of Commons 22 times in 2016, compared to just 16 mentions in the preceding 20 years. WBG’s level of influence has been consistent and growing since.

Looking to the future

WBG has become a trusted source of information for politicians, now on all sides of politics. This has gone hand-in-hand with an increase in the proportion of female MPs from 9% to 34% during the span of WBG’s history.

Twenty-nine years ago WBG and the concept of gender budgeting were viewed with uncertainty and some alarm in the House of Commons. Today, the idea of differential gender impacts is taken for granted.

As we look to the future, there’s a lot to reassure us from the WBG history, from the strong foundations that have been put in place. But there is also much to be learned, in preparation for the inevitable social and economic changes ahead.