Are the governments in London and Cardiff speaking with a forked tongue on women’s rights? At the same time as it claims to be applying gender impact assessment on its departmental budgets the London Government is planning to cut the £10 million grants programme of the Human Rights Commission, £750,000 of which is spent in Wales. Meanwhile, last year the Welsh Government ceased funding the Wales Women’s National Coalition and has so far put nothing in its place.
Speaking at a Welsh Government seminar earlier this week Jonathan Rees, Director General of the UK Government’s Equalities Office, said a gender impact assessment had been done on 95 per cent on the commitments laid out in last Autumn’s spending review. He said that the Women’s campaigning group, the Fawcett Society, had done the government a favour in threatening to take it to court over the issue. The result, he claimed, was that the biggest effort on gender impact that had ever been carried out.
At the meeting on the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, organised by the Welsh Government in Cathays Park, Rees disclosed that funding for the Equality and Human Rights Commission was being reduced as part of the public sector spending cuts. In future money is more likely to be targeted at smaller minorities such as Romany travellers and Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgender groups.
Inevitably, this means that money for mainstream women’s rights issues will be severely cut. Kate Bennett, the Equality and Human Rights National Director for Wales asked Rees whether he could guarantee money through the reviewed grant programme to ensure that women in Wales have their voices heard. Despite admitting the cutbacks Rees replied that there was “everything to play for”.
However, the trend was set last year with the winding up of the UK Women’s National Commission. Rees claimed that its activities had simply been brought in house, within the civil service, to improve engagement with the women’s sector and to ‘embed’ equality at the heart of policy making. Yet these sounded like weasel words, for example, a report on the effectiveness of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women in Britain, that normally would have been carried out by the Commission, was in the process of being contracted out, with very little time to spare.
At the Welsh level the demise of the Women’s National Commission was accompanied last June by the closure of Wales Women’s National Coalition. At the seminar Gill Lambert the Welsh Government’s Head of the Welsh Government ‘s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, insisted that the Wales Womens National Coalition had not been disbanded, rather they had lost out to other organisations in the tender process. This was to ensure compliance with European competition rules.
This is a classic device used by the civil service when it wishes to get rid of an outside organisation it funds but feels it can’t completely control. Certainly, since the closure of Wales Women’s National Coalition’s there has been no gender representation on the Third Sector Partnership Council or at other official Government meetings. The newly formed network WENWales is offering to fulfill this role but currently struggles due to a lack of resources. WENWales also wasn’t consulted on CEDAW despite representing many pan wales women’s sector organisations.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women is an international human rights treaty focusing on women’s rights and women’s issues around the world. It is not only an international bill of rights for women but also an agenda for action. It addresses the advancement of women, describes the meaning of equality and sets forth guidelines on how to use it. Countries that ratify the Convention commit to taking concrete steps to improve the status of women and end discrimination and violence against women.
At the seminar Helen Kane, chair of the of south Wales branch of Women in Property, that combats the fact that women make up only 15 per cent of the workforce in the property and construction industries, said she had never heard of Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and had not been consulted on it by the Welsh Government or the UK Government’s Equality Office. Much to the surprise of those attending the seminar, Jonathan Rees said that he wasn’t convinced that “normal everyday women” needed to know anything about it.
At the heart of all future equalities thinking are two ideas, equal treatment and equal opportunity. In the next few weeks the Industry Minister in the last Labour Government, Lord Davies of Abersoch, is to report to the Westminster coalition Government on how it can remove obstacles to women making it into the boardroom. This will fulfill the coalition’s new aspiration; by the end of the Parliament the Government apparently wants at least half of all new appointees being made to the boards of public bodies to be women.
At the seminar there was a nod to the ‘Big Society’ with the recognition that less money meant that the Westminster Government would be looking for more voluntary sector input to help deliver equality duties. Quite how it is expected to pick up this work given the millions of pounds being lost in funding through the Spending Review, isn’t clear.
Meanwhile the Welsh Government is still deliberating on what methods they will use to engage with the women’s sector in Wales in future. Asked whether she could envisage a Women’s Commissioner in Wales Gill Lambert replied that there was an Older Peoples Commissioner and therefore “some potential to take the discussion forward”. Discussion around women’s voices being heard at policy level within the Welsh Government were ongoing. It seems Social Justice Minister in the Welsh Cabinet, Carl Sargeant, is considering the options. Don’t hold your breath on hearing anything soon.