By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 30, 2010; 3:44 PM
LONDON - As Britain prepares for the deepest budget cuts in generations to tackle a crippling mound of public debt, the government is facing a pressing legal question: Is its austerity plan sexist?
Like other wealthy nations including the United States, Britain ran up an unprecedented deficit in recent years - a liability that ballooned with a $39 billion stimulus package unleashed against the Great Recession. Now, the new government headed by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron is making a round of spending cuts that not only roll back that stimulus, but also hit at the heart of Britain's social safety net and big government machine.
Women, recent studies here show, are far more dependent on the state than men. Women are thus set to bear a disproportionate amount of the pain, prompting a legal challenge that could scuttle the government's fiscal crusade and raise fairness questions over deficit-cutting campaigns underway from Greece to Spain, and in the United States when it eventually moves to curb spending.
One major target in Britain, for instance, is the bloated public sector, with as many as 600,000 government jobs - or one in 10 - potentially on the chopping block. But 65 percent of state employees are women, including single mothers in part-time job programs, setting them up to suffer more than men.
Overall, a report published by the House of Commons indicates, women stand to bear the burden of 72 percent of the government's cuts.
The Fawcett Society, a leading women's rights group here, filed an unprecedented complaint with the nation's high court this month arguing that the government failed to consider the effect on women of its leaner "emergency budget." This week, following a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showing the nation's poorest residents are set to be hit the hardest by the cuts, Britain's independent Equality and Human Rights Commission ordered the Treasury to prove it considered the impact of its cuts on vulnerable groups or face "enforcement action."
Such challenges could force the government to scale back spending cuts and balance them with tax increases, which tend to have a greater impact on men because they earn more on average.
"The government is under a duty to look at its policies and check whether they are likely to widen inequality," said Anna Bird, head of policy for the Fawcett Society. "We do not think they undertook that task when putting forth the hardest, most austere budget in generations. Women are going to be adversely affected as a result. That should not happen."
The Fawcett Society says the government violated a four-year-old amendment to Britain's 1975 Sex Discrimination Act mandating that officials give "due regard" to gender inequality when drafting plans. Although the stipulation is relatively new and little tested, British courts have upheld it before. In 2008, for instance, a court cited the amendment in quashing a decision by the London Borough of Ealing to cut funding to a domestic violence charity serving the Asian and Afro-Caribbean community.
Even more damning, critics of the budget cuts say, is a letter by Theresa May - one of Cameron's top ministers and in charge of woman's affairs - warning the treasury of the "real risk" that its budget could be considered unlawful given a potentially outsized impact on women and disadvantaged citizens. The letter was leaked to the news media.
The government insists it considered social costs in the budget that George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or treasury secretary, has described as unavoidable but also "fair and progressive." The treasury, however, has been less clear about whether it specifically studied the impact on women or minorities, and declined a request to be interviewed on the subject, citing the pending legal case.
The report by the Institute for Fiscal Studiesprompted Deputy Prime Minister Nicholas Clegg to pen a passionate rebuttal in the Financial Times. Critics of the budget, he said, have ignored the government's increase in capital gains taxes on the rich, as well as growth-boosting measures aimed at weaning Britons off state aid and putting them back to work.
But some Britons see the cuts as anything but fair.
Joanne Morgan, a divorced mother of three teenagers in the Welsh town of Torfaen, supports her children with a state job as a teaching assistant for disadvantaged children. Her salary barely covers her mortgage, leaving her reliant on government assistance programs for living expenses. Under the new cuts, she is set to lose $285 a month in child assistance payments.
As a result, she is putting the family on an even stricter budget to save for next year, when the cuts come into effect. This month, when her daughter came to her with a reading list for school, she told her to earn the money by babysitting.
"Most of the government is made up of men, so I suppose it doesn't surprise me that they don't take women into account," said Morgan, 43. "Do you know how hard it is to look into my daughter's face and tell her I can't buy her school books? But I have no choice."
The new government is also taking aim at state funds for charities, which critics say serve as a vital lifeline for millions of women. Yvonne Traynor, chief executive of the Croydon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Center in south London, said a "panic" has set in as cuts are set to eliminate about 40 percent of the center's $460,000 annual budget. "We've struggled for 10 years to build a center that helps women face the trauma in their lives, and now they are trying to claw it back," she said. "Women are often the poorest people in society, with fewer options in their lives. When you cut back like this, they are going to suffer most."
Special correspondent Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi contributed to this report.