We welcome the opportunity to contribute to Labour’s national policy forum consultation.
Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) is a grassroots feminist campaign which was formed by a group of women in the labour and trade union movement to uphold women’s sex-based rights and protections in the UK. Since September 2017, we have held 22 public meetings across the UK which have been attended by over 3,500 people.
Initially, our aim was to enable a diverse range of women’s voices to be heard on the UK and Scottish Government’s proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act 2004. However, we are increasingly concerned with upholding and advancing women’s sex-based rights. We have recently published a draft manifesto for women.
As architects of landmark UK legislation on sex discrimination previous Labour governments can lay claim to a strong track record on tackling the structural inequalities faced by women. We would like to see Labour acting as a catalyst to reinvigorate debate and discussion about how to uphold and advance women’s sex-based rights.
We particularly welcomed the commitment in Labour’s 2017 manifesto to “gender audit all policy and legislation for its impact on women before implementation” (p.109).
A decade of Tory-led austerity has hollowed out our public services and women, in particular working class women, have borne the brunt of this. Women are over-represented in public sector employment, which has been subject to year-on-year budget cuts. More women are engaged in precarious forms of employment. Funding for services that they rely upon – such as Sure Start and domestic violence refuges – has been subjected to annual local authority budget cuts. And it is women who so often plug the care gap when these services are diminished or disappear altogether.
We are concerned about the absence of any class-based analysis in the public debate about persistent discrimination faced by women on the ground of their sex. It is impossible to assess and tackle the structural inequalities suffered by women if we cannot recognise women as the oppressed sex. It is against this backdrop that we wish to raise a number of concerns about the challenges facing women in our communities.
Equality Act 2010
The Equality Act (EA) 2010 is the legal cornerstone of women’s existing rights to fair treatment, and to privacy and dignity in services provided to them. Passed by a Labour government, the foremother of the EA was the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) 1975. The Act defined a woman as a female of any age, a definition carried forward to the Equality Act 2010.
The fundamental belief underlying the SDA was that the physical and social consequences of being born and living with a female body are so significant that women deserve specific protections in law, including the right in certain circumstances to single-sex services and spaces. The SDA stated clearly that it was concerned with discrimination against a woman “on the ground of her sex”.
However, in recent years, the exemptions provided for under the EA 2010 – and indeed the very definition of what it means to be a woman – have come under pressure. Governments and public authorities are increasingly shifting their focus to capturing data and planning services on the basis of ‘gender identity’ rather than sex. We believe that this shift, left unchecked, will have grave consequences for women’s sex-based rights as enshrined, primarily, in the Equality Act. Below we consider the implications of this conceptual shift on women in our communities.
Work, pensions and equality
Gender pay gap
WPUK’s draft manifesto seeks concrete steps from Government to achieve equal pay, such as compulsory equal pay audits, the collection of sex disaggregated data and better enforcement under the Equality Act 2010.
In February 2019, the UK Government Equalities Office (GEO) and Acas issued joint guidance to employers on how to report on their gender pay gap (GPG). The guidance instructs employers to gather data based on their employees’ ‘self-identified gender’ not their sex. WPUK wrote to Women and Equalities Minister Penny Mordaunt MP in April 2019, asking her to review this guidance.
It has since emerged that neither the GEO nor Acas made any assessment of the impact of this guidance on the quality of the data and how it might impact on our ability to measure the scale of discrimination against women. For instance, as highlighted in Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women, the tech industry is heavily dominated by men. In industries where such stark disproportions exist, the GPG data could be easily skewed by just a small number of transwomen who are recorded as ‘female’.
Services for women subjected to sexual and domestic violence and abuse, including prostitution
It is critical that actions to address sexual and domestic violence, including prostitution, remain addressed within a strategy to end men’s violence against women and girls recognising that women and girls are disproportionately the victims of these crimes. Men’s violence against women and girls is both a cause and consequence of sex inequality. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women (CEDAW) General Recommendation 19 highlights that violence against women “is a form of discrimination that seriously inhibits women’s ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on a basis of equality with men.” And that gender-based violence, which impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of human rights and fundamental freedoms under general international law or under human rights conventions, is discrimination.
Independent, specialist services for women who have been subjected to domestic and sexual violence are not resourced to levels sufficient to meet demand, many have suffered under annual local authority budget cuts and the failure of local authorities to recognise the importance of specialist independent survives to victim-survivors.
- Rape Crisis England and Wales specialist services were accessed by 78,461 individuals in 2017-18 – an increase of 17% from 2016-17. 93% of service users were female.
- The number of refuge bed spaces in England falls short of the minimum number recommended by the Council of Europe by 1,715 bed spaces.
- 31% of services responding to Women’s Aid’s annual survey in 2018 reported that since 2014 they have had to reduce the amount of support (in terms of staff time) they are able to give to each service user due to funding.
The single sex exceptions under the Equality Act 2010 enable the provision of women-only services. However, evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee’s current inquiry Enforcing the Equality Act: the law and the role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) suggested that there is a lack of awareness amongst service providers about the circumstances in which they can use these single sex exceptions. During an oral evidence session on 20 May 2019, it became clear that umbrella body Women’s Aid (England) had not produced guidance for its members on the operation of the single sex exceptions since the Equality Act 2010 came into force.
Guidance produced by Scottish Women’s Aid with a number of other voluntary sector organisations suggests that any women who objected to sharing a service with a transwoman should be “educated…much in the same way that we would if we received comments regarding other service user’s ethnicity, religious affiliation or sexual orientation”.
We would like to see all service providers working in this area issued with clear guidance on how and when they can invoke the single sex exceptions.
WPUK manifesto demands on work, pensions and equality:
- Take action to achieve equal pay, such as compulsory equal pay audits, the collection of sex disaggregated data and better enforcement of the Equality Act 2010.
- Introduce, as a right, a Citizens’ Pension based on the Dutch tax-funded model, payable at state pension age to each long-term resident and set at the Minimum Income Standard.
- Reinstate universal child benefit for all children.
- Value the caring work done by women. Invest in social infrastructure, including access to free universal childcare and adult social care.
- Improve access to the labour market for women and an end to occupational segregation.
- Prohibit redundancy in pregnancy and maternity; increased rates of Statutory Maternity Pay and Maternity Allowance, the right to breastfeed at work, and reinstatement of Sure Start grants.
- Introduce a day one right to flexible working.
- Increase levels of asylum support and protection.
- Overhaul of the Universal Credit system to:
- End the family cap that leaves children without welfare support;
- Scrap the rape clause that forces mothers to disclose rape or coercive control;
- Reduce the wait for payments;
- Allow for separate payments by default;
- Improve work incentives for second earners;
- Restore the disregard for Maternity Allowance.
- Restore the link between Local Housing Allowance and average rents.
- Recognise prostitution as sexually abusive exploitation which is harmful to all women and girls.
- Implement the abolitionist model, criminalising those who exploit prostituted people (including pimps and sex buyers) and decriminalising the prostituted, providing practical and psychological exiting support.
- Ratify the Istanbul Convention.
- Sustainable investment from national government, proportionate to demand, to tackle violence against women and girls (VAWG), including single-sex support services, and specialist independent services run by and for women, BME women, migrant women, disabled women, lesbians, and services tackling FGM and other harmful practices.
- Highlight and tackle the harms of pornography including the exploitation of women in its production and the hostile culture it creates for all women and girls in society.
- Legislate to protect women and girls from the impact of porn culture on their lives, including clear penalties for image-based sexual abuse.
- End ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ for abused migrant women, extend the Domestic Violence Rule and the Destitution and Domestic Violence Concession.
Woman’s Place UK