Gender equality: 5 things to look out for in the Queen’s speech

Date Posted: Thursday 19th December 2019

Your guide to the Queen's opening of parliament

BrexitCriminal justiceDomestic Abuse BillNHSSocial CareTrade

There are more women MPs  than ever watching the Queen’s speech today but that doesn’t mean gender equality is necessarily in safe hands.

In the very same week the Queen opens the new parliament the United Kingdom slipped six places in the World Economic Forum gender equality index and, an independent inquiry found that the criminal justice system is at ‘breaking point’, failing victims/survivors of rape and sexual violence.

But there are glimmers of hope: the Conservative manifesto made several commitments we hope to see enshrined in tomorrow’s Queen’s speech. Here’s what to listen out for:

1. The Domestic Abuse Bill

Women’s organisations were pleased to see a commitment “support all victims of domestic abuse and pass the Domestic Abuse Bill” and “increase support for refuges and community support for victims of rape and sexual abuse” in the Conservative manifesto.

The landmark Bill is important but the latter perhaps more so: without a properly funded women’s sector – including specialised services led by and for Black, minority, ethnic women (BME) – the Bill will not do enough to curb the tide of gendered violence in a country where 3 women in a week die at the hands of a current or former partner.

We’ll be watching to see whether the Bill will be amended to include the safety of migrant women who currently cannot access women’s refuges or social security.

2. Commitments on social care

The Conservative manifesto got one thing right: solving the social care crisis requires a cross party solution. We’ll be listening closely for more substantial proposals about what this means in practice.

1 in 7 people over the age of 65 have unmet care needs. When 80% of paid carers and 60% of unpaid carers are women, social care is an equality issue. When women are at home caring, they are not earning so the social care crisis exacerbates the gender pay gap.

What women really need is a National Care Service aligned with the NHS that provides personal care and independent living provisions for the disabled and elderly. Other sorts of care like childcare and parental leave also desperately need reform.

3. NHS

Speaking of the NHS, in case you hadn’t noticed the new government is planning to replenish NHS budgets after nearly a decade of cuts. This is very welcome especially plans to lift the public sector pay freeze and reintroduce the nursing bursary. Creating a sustainable funding model for the NHS is as much about how money is spent than how much money there is available.

Staffing ought to be a priority – especially when 77% of staff are women. Adequate pay, training and development must be considered alongside plans to invest in hospitals and equipment. Buildings are only helpful if they are filled with happy healthy staff – we call this investment in social as well as physical infrastructure.

Investment in the NHS is compromised by the care crisis described above – the two must be considered together so as not to put the burden of care on women.

4. Brexit and trade deals

It looks as though Boris Johnson will stay true to his promise to ‘get Brexit done’ in early 2020. His party has also promised to make trade policy ‘gender equal gender equal trade policy but what does this mean in practice?

The UK will now have responsibility for its own trading arrangements, and this is an opportunity to centre social justice and gender equality in our trade arrangements. How can we ensure trade agreements benefit women here and around the world?

We need to see watertight commitments to at least current levels of equality protection such as against maternity discrimination and for equal pay. Any talk of cutting ‘red tape’ ought to be of serious concern for equality advocates. Women cannot pay the price for a trade deal delivered in a hurry.

5. Criminal justice

The Conservative manifesto makes a commitment to “equipping officers with the powers and tools they need to keep themselves and all of us safe.” For women, this isn’t necessarily about more police on the streets but a restoration of specialist policing for domestic and sexual violence including for the Crown Prosecution Service which is failing women: in 2019 just 1% of rape convictions went to trial whilst 60% of women in prison are survivors of domestic abuse – 77% of them are serving short sentences, 82% for non-violent crimes.

Criminal justice is not just about more police and tougher sentencing. In fact, for many marginalised groups this provides no sense of safety at all.

Women urgently need an end to the creeping decriminalisation of rape and culture of impunity around sexual violence. We hope to hear additional commitments to the fulfilment of the recommendations made by the Corston Review over a decade ago.

Whatever the Queen’s government announces on Friday, equality impact assessments must be completed to ensure this Conservative government doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the last.