27 March 2018

No, Brexit isn’t sexist


Is Brexit sexist? That’s certainly the view of the authors of a new report from feminist campaign group the Fawcett Society, who detail the supposed impact of the UK’s departure from the EU on British women.

In leaving the European Union, they claim, “We risk turning the clock back on gender equality.” They examine the impact of Brexit in a number of sectors, and conclude that our departure from the EU would negatively and disproportionately affect women.

While the report has been described as “groundbreaking” in some quarters, it is, in reality, based on a number of mistaken assumptions.

The Fawcett Society’s case relies entirely on the assumption that Brexit will cause major economic harm, particularly in sectors of high female employment, and long-lasting damage to the public finances in ways that impact women more than men.

The economics establishment in Britain has a poor record of forecasting, and a long history of being wrong — sometimes spectacularly so — on the major economic questions of the day. Widespread “doom and gloom” forecasts in the event of a Brexit vote — including claims that “the UK economy would fall into immediate recession” and that unemployment would rise by between 500,000 and 820,000 in the vote’s immediate aftermath — have already proven to be well off the mark.

While no one, economist or otherwise, can predict the future, estimates founded on the most pessimistic of Brexit forecasts (for example, the LSE prediction that GDP will be 9.5 per cent lower by 2030) should be viewed with suspicion — not least because the authors gloss over many of the potential gains from Brexit, such as lower food costs from trading at world prices.

But relying on potentially faulty forecasts is the least of the report’s crimes. The authors call on the Government to “amend the EU Withdrawal Bill to protect [gender] rights from being weakened”. This is where the report becomes disingenuous. The EU Withdrawal Bill already enshrines all EU rights into UK law. Any alterations made by a future government would have to be approved by Parliament, and so the amendments they propose would be both unnecessary and meaningless.

More broadly, their insistence that, free from the EU, the UK government would choose to scale back gender equality legislation is tenuous. So far, all indicators suggest that the government is moving in the opposite direction, and strengthening these rights.

This year, the UK became one of the first countries in the world to require private- and public-sector employers with 250 or more employees to publish their company-wide gender pay gaps. Full disclosure: I believe these new gender pay gap reporting measures are misguided, and carry a host of potentially harmful side-effects. But the point is that Britain implemented these measures without recourse to the EU. It is hardly a patriarchal wasteland kept in check only by officials in Brussels.

Historically, the UK, far more than the EU, has led the way when it comes to women’s rights and workplace and family protections. The first Equal Pay Act (championed by the sewing machinists in Dagenham) in 1970, predates our accession to the European Union by several years, as do the Abortion Act (1967), the Divorce Reform Act (1969) and the decision to make the contraceptive pill free on the NHS. FGM has been illegal in Britain since 1985, but the EU only passed legislation addressing it in 2012.

The infamous “tampon tax”, which levies a 5 per cent VAT on sanitary products and contraception, is an EU directive which we have been obliged to impose despite the opposition of government and a majority of MPs. Moreover, the UK’s 52 weeks of statutory maternity leave is considerably more generous than the 14 weeks guaranteed by EU law.

In short; suggesting that EU intervention is required to safeguard these rights is to ignore reality, and shows very little faith in British lawmakers.

The report also highlights the supposed impact of Brexit on “women as users of public services”, where it plays heavily on popular fears about an American takeover of the NHS. It claims: “A poor trade deal with the EU would put the UK in a weaker position to resist pressures from countries… likely to require greater access for their companies to tender public services in the UK as the price of a trade deal.”

Yes, trade deals with third countries may mean that more NHS contracts which are currently awarded to private British or EU companies go, in future, to private companies from the US (or elsewhere). But increased competition from suppliers would surely be a positive development, improving quality and driving down costs. It is already quite a stretch to argue that foreign provision of healthcare would automatically create worse outcomes — to then assert that this would be worse for women in particular is a phenomenal exercise in mental gymnastics.

As Julian Jessop of the IEA has pointed out, there is no inherent reason why the nationality of the providers of goods and services used by the NHS should undermine the principles on which our health service operates. Unless the UK government decided otherwise, healthcare would remain universally available and free at the point of delivery. Suggesting otherwise is fear-mongering.

The Fawcett Society doesn’t have the greatest track record on highlighting serious women’s issues, or representing them accurately, and today’s report is no exception. There are many issues and hurdles British women still face today — but Article 50 isn’t one of them.

Madeline Grant is Digital Officer of the IEA.