In his leadership bid back in July, Rishi Sunak promised to make women’s equality a main concern in his manifesto. He pledged he would “ensure women and girls enjoy the same freedom most males take for granted”.
But, as his cabinet has taken shape since October 25, and remembering our new PM once voted against annual gender gap reporting, many are questioning whether the now most powerful man in the UK will do much, if anything at all, for the empowerment of women.
So what is Sunak’s stance on women’s equality? We take a closer look at his latest ministerial appointments…
Maria Caulfield, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women
Appointed to focus on developing gender equality – a role in which she will have more than a say on issues including access to safe abortion in the UK – but Caulfield’s views on abortion rights have been cause for concern.
Once an officer of the all-party parliamentary ‘pro-life’ group, Caulfield previously voted against legalising abortion in Northern Ireland. She also opposed the use of buffer zones around abortion clinics, claiming “the definition of harassment is open to interpretation”.
In 2018, Caulfield called for a debate on reducing the 24-week time limit for women to receive legal abortions and described the 1967 Abortion Act as “one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world” – as if it were a bad thing.
A spokesperson for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service described the Prime Minister’s decision to appoint Caulfield to the role as “appalling”.
Caulfield has defended her right to having “a personal view on issues that are sensitive” and says she has “never hidden these”.
It was also reported that in defending her views on buffer zones she has said she will be a “voice for the unborn child”. We might suggest, in her role as Secretary of State for Women, she be a voice for the one in three women who will have an abortion in their lifetime for reasons that are wide-ranging.
We question why Rishi Sunak would appoint a woman who is so anti-choice?
Suella Braverman, Home Secretary
Recent controversy aside, Suella Braverman also has some controversial and concerning views when it comes to female-friendly policies in the UK.
Vehemently and vocally anti-immigration, Braverman has said that it is her “dream” and “obsession” to see a flight take asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda.
However, a 2018 report from Rights of Women on trafficking and modern slavery, suggests that women make up more than half of all people trafficked into the UK. It also purports that many of those women face exploitation, including ‘sexual exploitation and domestic servitude’.
Braverman’s voting on fiscal violence has also been questionable – including voting in favour of repealing the 1998 Human Rights Act in 2016 and voting against bringing Government policy in-line with human rights last year.
Theresa Coffey, Environment Secretary
An unusual role for Coffey, perhaps, given she voted not to make reducing the UK’s net targeted greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 the initial core mission of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency. This could raise eyebrows for many women as it is widely reported that women bear the brunt of the impact of climate change.
Doubly dubious though, is her historic stance on welfare. She has almost always voted for a reduction in spending on welfare benefits, and earlier this year voted in favour of the welfare cap – restricting the weekly amount of benefits available to claimants throughout the UK.
But a 2018 report from The Women’s Budget Group highlights that cuts to social security benefits stand to affect women more than men because of their generally lower income, longer lives and greater caring responsibilities.
Penny Mourdant, Commons Leader, also voted for a reduction in spending on welfare, and Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan voted for lower benefits and higher taxes for low-middle income earners and for cuts in housing benefits.
Coffey has also previously called food banks a “perfect way” to support people in poverty, made flippant comments on families receiving hot water, and gave mistaken advice on managing cuts to Universal Credit following the pandemic.
Coffey has also consistently voted against key abortion laws in the UK. In an interview with Sky News in June, she said that she would “prefer that people didn’t have abortions but I am not going to condemn people that do” before committing that “abortion law isn’t going to change in this country”.
Mel Stride, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
Stride made headlines last month when some provocative comments on parental leave came back to haunt him.
Writing on the Conservative Home website in September 2012, Stride suggested that slashing maternity rights could “provide a massive shot in the arm for British businesses” and suggested that the UK explore a model similar to Germany.
New and expectant mothers in the UK are currently entitled to 52 weeks’ maternity leave, compared to Germany, where mothers are given 14 weeks paid maternity leave. They are, however, allowed to apply to their employers to take up to one year.
He also claimed that the “generous” maternity leave entitlement in the UK could be encouraging mothers NOT to return to work and was having a “profound” impact, particularly on small businesses.
As it stands, maternity pay in the UK is 90 per cent of women’s average weekly earnings (before tax) for the first six weeks of leave, then £156.66 or 90 per cent of your average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for the next 33 weeks. That’s roughly £626.64 per month.
And according to Good to Know, average monthly childcare costs in the UK are £601. That’s following sharp increases in the cost of childcare for under twos – with fees rising by £185 per month over the last year.
A study from TUC highlights that the average annual nursery bill for a family with a child under two had risen by nearly £3,000 per year over the last decade, and warns that if childcare costs continue to sky-rocket, parents could soon have fork out £2,000 a month!
As Work and Pensions Secretary, Mr Stride is responsible for ensuring the Government sticks to its promise to increase benefits in line with rising inflation, it will be interesting to see if the Government outlines affordable childcare as a key priority on November 17.
Kemi Badenoch, Secretary of State for International Trade and Minister for Women and Equalities
Secretary of State for International Trade, Kemi Badenoch, was also appointed Minister for Women and Equalities – almost as if it were an afterthought, rather than a key priority.
And whilst having in the past expressed some contentious views on identity politics, Badenoch has shown some signs that she could be the right candidate to oversee the economic advancement of women.
Badenoch, who has a background in engineering, has vowed to support women into apprenticeships and into sectors in which women are typically underrepresented.
Formerly Children and Families Minister, she has also acknowledged the pressure of rising childcare costs on families and working mothers and has previously pledged to ensure more “meaningful investment” in funded childcare.
As part of her leadership campaign in summer, she promised to scrap business rates for nurseries and remove rules and bureaucracy surrounding childcare in a bid to bring more people into the profession. Measures we have yet to see whether she will prioritise in her role as women’s minister.
Earlier this month, Badenoch met with Canada’s Minister of International Trade and Export, Mary Ng, to discuss strengthening the trade and investment relationship between Canada and the United Kingdom.
It is reported that they agreed to outline opportunities for women-led businesses and exporters as a key part of that strategy, and a planned women’s trade mission to the UK is said to be planned for Spring 2023.
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