Statement: Women’s Open Letter v Welfare Reform & Crime Bills
By: Global Women’s Strike & others (see below)
Target: UK Parliament
The Welfare Reform Bill – State-enforced destitution
Mothers, especially single mothers, will lose Income Support and be forced to “progress towards work” or take a job. So will carers of people with disabilities, mostly women, and women over 60. Traumatised victims of domestic violence will have a month before having to look for work. Mothers will face a fine, leading to prison, if they refuse to name the father/s of their child/ren on the birth certificate, and up to seven years for giving false information. Anyone who suffers an addiction to drink or drugs will have to submit to testing and rehabilitation. Those who can’t find jobs will have to “work for their benefits” i.e. for £1.73 an hour! This is the only pay equity women will get. Anyone refusing to comply with the new rules will face economic sanctions. See briefing.
Given the greatest economic crisis most of us have ever seen, this Bill is legislating for destitution. Mothers, children, people with disabilities, and the elderly who are overwhelmingly women, will be forced into prostitution, shoplifting and begging as they try to feed families and themselves. Domestic violence will increase; women will think twice before leaving violent relationships. Women of colour and immigrant women who because of racism are the lowest paid and often the first to lose their job, will be disproportionately affected.
Asylum seekers have been denied all means of survival. This is now being extended to everyone. There is no safety net for anyone. The legacy of the recent “good times” has been four million children living in poverty. (Department of Work and Pensions, 2009) The rich got filthy rich, the poor got dirt poor.
Former Labour minister Baroness Hollis spoke in the Lords against the abolition of Income Support which is “largely for women and recognizes that their unwaged work counts too . . . sanction the lone parent and inevitably you sanction the child.”
How many more children will end up in care when mothers’ benefits are cut? Children’s poverty and neglect seem of no concern to those, women and men, who govern us.
The only ones to benefit will be employers, invited to bypass the minimum wage by workfare, and privatised prisons which will continue to profit from an ever increasing population, especially of women.
While bringing in this Bill, MPs whose salaries are well above average have lined their pockets with expense claims. But if you live below the poverty line you can face jail for an undeclared tenner.
Former MP Alice Mahon recently resigned from the Labour Party, including because the Welfare Reform Bill “is something the Poor Law Guardians would have been proud of . . . This assault on the poor and disabled is taking place at a time when former Labour Ministers still drawing an MP’s salary line up on an unprecedented scale to take up lucrative consultancies with private companies that as ministers they previously had dealings with.”
Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as society” and set out to destroy the Welfare State. Governments after her built on that direction. Every bit of safety net, every entitlement, every collaborative effort, every support for compassion and caring has been attacked as outdated in favour of a reckless self-seeking pursuit of individual wealth for those who can, and the repression of those who can’t or won’t comply or are considered to stand in the way.
Peter Mandelson was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. The Welfare Reform Bill is relaxed about grinding people down into poverty and punishing them for choices they may make to survive.
The Policing and Crime Bill – punitive repression
It is no accident that the Policing and Crime Bill is going through Parliament at the same time as the Welfare Reform Bill, threatening those who may resort to prostitution: new offences, longer sentences and forced “rehabilitation” will be used against both sex workers and clients. See English Collective of Prostitutes briefing
Flats where women work collectively and safely will be closed, and hard-won earnings seized by police and prosecutors who have a vested interest as they keep 50% of all proceeds. This corruption of “law and order” affects everyone.
At least 70% of sex workers are mothers escaping poverty, homelessness, debt, low wages, domestic violence . . . More women will end up in prostitution as a result of the recession and the proposed welfare cuts.
The Policing and Crime Bill will force prostitution further underground, another blow to the safety of some of the most vulnerable women. Those arrested get a criminal record, making it harder to find another job. Many may end up in prison, the children they were working to support deprived of their mothers.
No one has been more concerned with women’s safety than Josephine Butler. This 19th century woman used her wealth and prominence to campaign for the abolition of anti-prostitute laws which criminalised working class women. Unlike the anti-prostitution feminists who back this Bill, Butler would never have dismissed the views of prostitute women or ignored the effects of legislation on mothers supporting their families through prostitution.
Today, it is nurses, not government feminists, who speak to Butler’s concerns for health and safety. Having previously agreed to decriminalise prostitution, the Royal College of Nursing demanded action, voting by 93% for up to four sex workers to be allowed to work together legally.
Recent public outrage, spearheaded by Women Against Rape, over rapists being allowed to attack for years, has demanded police priorities away from criminalising consenting sex while downgrading rape investigations.
Where have all the feminists gone?
This attack on women and the poorest generally is the policy of a Parliament which has more women MPs and ministers than ever, and many who call themselves feminists.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the women’s movement had two major goals: suffrage and money for unwaged mothers – then the great majority of women. When women won the vote, Eleanor Rathbone, an independent MP, put all her energy into fighting for unwaged mothers to have their own money from the State. She greatly influenced the Beveridge Report on which the Welfare State was founded, which proposed family allowances. Rathbone used her status and wealth to get money into mothers’ hands. Mothers, she said, on whose work the whole society rested, were “disinherited”, denied economic support and independence. She was the most famous woman of her day. She would turn in her grave to hear this government dismiss mothers as “workless”.
Virginia Woolf, not a campaigner but a famous writer, also advocated for women to get a wage from the State. In the 1930s, with the advance of Hitler, war was the most pressing issue. Woolf thought women were more anti-war than men (this is still true); an independent income could enable them to act independently, and oppose the men who supported war. (The investment of trillions in killing rather than caring has remained a crucial issue.)
Virginia Woolf also feared that once women entered the professions they would be as callous as men. Outraged at the Welfare Reform Bill, Oliver James, child clinical psychologist and author of the best-seller Affluenza, commented: “When I was at university a lot of feminism was about men changing their roles; it was definitely not about women becoming as ‘nasty’ as men, causing wars, etc. The last thing we wanted was both genders disinvesting out of the household.” But this is what we got.
In defending women’s income, autonomy and choice, from these two Bills, we reclaim a neglected tradition of feminism, that of Eleanor Rathbone, Virginia Woolf and Josephine Butler. Will you join with us?
14 May 2009
Selma James & Nina Lopez (Global Women’s Strike)
Kim Sparrow (Single Mothers’ Self-Defence)
Cari Mitchell (English Collective of Prostitutes)
and Niki Adams (Legal Action for Women)
Crossroads Women’s Centre, 230A Kentish Town Road, London NW5 2AB Tel: 0207 482 2496 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Welfare Reform Bill & Policing and Crime Bills now before Parliament are a devastating attack on women and what’s left of the Welfare State.
We the undersigned, as women we defend women’s independence, their entitlements and incomes; and the recognition of women’s enormous contribution to society and the economy, including through unwaged caring work for children and others. Welfare reform and other pending legislation which penalises and criminalises women must be halted. They would throw the struggle against sexism two generations back, dragging every community and struggle for change back with it.