The fight for women's equality continues and is being fought on many fronts. The continuation of Tory policy in this area by the Labour Government underlines that fact. Attacks on single women who have children and retreats on divorce reform are only part of it. Women who have children, whatever their age, whether partnered or not should not be penalised, but given help if needed. Divorce should be on demand and all children assured of state protection.
As we have often said before, the full emancipation of women and men can only be achieved under socialism, but the struggle for women's equality is an important part of that fight. But its a fight that must be fought now on the issues that particularly affect women in our society. These issues include: equal pay; equality in education and pension rights; child care provision; freedom from harassment and an end to violence at home, at work and on the streets.
The fight is not just for women but for men too. Men cannot be free if women are still in chains. It is a fight for our class and our labour movement, and often in them too, because the roots of women's oppression today lie in the contradictions and exploitation of capitalist society.
Since our last congress, not only has progress towards equal pay remained slow but in recent months has actually reversed, with average women's earnings now being slightly less a proportion of men's than they were in 1997. This is a reflection of the fact that women workers are largely employed in the public sector, where pay settlements have been lower than in manufacturing.
The Labour Government has continued the Tory policy of scapegoating single parents, particularly young mothers, for all society's problems. The disgraceful suggestion by Jack Straw that teenage single mothers should be persuaded either to live in hostels or to give their babies up for adoption would, if put into practice, turn the clock back for women's emancipation over 40 years.
The TUC has now recognised that the issue of health and safety for women workers has not been given enough priority in the past. ( Most health and safety legislation has been designed to deal with predominately male occupations, women's work having been assumed to be safe.). It was therefore very timely that they should reproduce the document "A Woman's Work is Never Safe" for launch around Worker's Memorial Day in April 1999.
Many Women continue to be victims of violence both at home and at work. The year 1999 was dedicated as European Year of Action Against Violence Against Women in recognition of this fact. Campaigns like UNISON's "raise the roof", which highlights domestic abuse as a workplace issue, should be given publicity and support. Women are more at risk of violence at work than men because again they predominate in public services or in small shops were they are at risk of attack by thieves or frustrated services users.
Access to childcare continues to be a major problem for working class women and all campaigns demanding nurseries and after-school care should be supported as should campaigns for the right to paid domestic leave for workers caring for sick children or relatives and increases in paid maternity leave.
A positive development since last congress is the growth in trade union membership amongst women. In 1998 female trade union membership increased by 60,000 notably amongst part-time workers and black women. This is a potential area for further growth.
The struggle for women's emancipation is intrinsically linked to the
fight to defend our public services and the general campaign for higher
pay. It is an integral part of the class struggle and should involve men
and women alike.
In the recent period there have been some progressive moves to equalise the age of consent and get rid of Clause 28 which restricts the teaching of children about homosexuality. These moves are, of course, to be welcomed. But they should not blind us to the prejudice and discrimination against lesbians and gay men which still exists and was underlined by the dreadful nail-bombing of a Soho gay pub in London in April 1999.
Laws are needed against crimes of hate and prejudice and to ensure rights
in the areas of work, ownership, housing and services. The bombings in
Soho, Brick Lane and Brixton graphically show the links between fascism,
racism and homophobia. The fight for gay rights is part of a much wider
struggle. The fight for equality must continue.
Our party welcomed the government's initiative in setting up Royal Commissions on pensions and long-term care of the elderly as they provided a sounding board for the growing demands for the restoration of pensions and state welfare provision for pensioners to at least the level they were in 1979 when Labour was last in office. The Government's response has been a slap in the face for pensioners and others who expected a substantial increase in the basic pension, and the restoration of the link with average male earnings. The pension levels for present day pensioners continue to fall in real terms, and the Government continues to float variations on the self-help private pension schemes the Conservatives favoured.
This is a disgusting betrayal of a generation whose labour contributed to the immense wealth of the ruling class. These are people who have contributed in many and varied ways to the present prosperity of this country. They should not be left to end their days in poverty and distress.
If state pensions were anywhere near adequate, and brought up to the level they would have been if linked with earnings, the problem of funding long-term care for the elderly would be far less of a problem than it currently is. An adequate diet and sufficient heating, appropriate housing, a National Health Service geared to cater for their needs, the opportunity to travel and take part in recreational and educational activities would help to keep people alert and more capable of caring for themselves.
Those who, due to illness, accident or disability, need more support from the community should be able to draw on that support as a right, not a means-tested benefit, variable in quantity and quality depending on where they live and what funds the local authority has available. Means testing is degrading and often discourages people from applying for benefits to which they are entitled. Income tax, increasing with wealth, is a better and more equitable way to recover money paid to those who do not need it.
The needs of the elderly are basically the same as the rest of the population. They need adequate housing, transport, hospitals, libraries and local amenities.
Most people would prefer to go on living in their own homes, but often need extra assistance such as access ramps, lifts/stair lifts, rails and handles for ease of getting into baths, telephones and/or call systems. These aids should all be available from the local authority, free of charge and well-publicised. There may also be the need for further assistance in the way of home helps, district nurses, or help with the shopping, gardening or getting about. Such help should be granted according to need, and the money to fund it supplied by central government. Day centres, that give frail or housebound people the chance to get out of the house and meet others, see a doctor or other health specialist are essential.
For some, sheltered accommodation, with a resident warden, provides the support and security they and their families need. The warden is able to keep a discreet eye on residents and alert relatives and support services when necessary. Ideally this should be council housing so that residents are not charged exorbitant prices for the services they need, and do not have to worry about maintenance or repairs.
There is a minority who would prefer to give up the hassle of cooking and cleaning for themselves, and for them good quality residential homes are ideal. This should however be a matter of individual choice, not dependent on the decision of a local authority assessor whose judgement may be influenced by financial constraints. These homes should be controlled and owned by local authorities, and not making profits for entrepreneurs. There should be strictly enforced regulations for the running of such homes, and regular inspections to ensure that the quality of life of the residents is of a high standard.
For those who need nursing care, local hospitals or state-run nursing homes, as part of the NHS, staffed by fully-qualified doctors, nurses and carers, should provide the skilled services they need. Long-term beds in hospitals are an essential part of this service.
The large variation of travel concessions for the elderly is beyond belief, but however good they may be they do not normally extend beyond the boundaries of a borough or county council, so that for someone going on holiday or to visit friends in another part of the country the cost of fares can be prohibitive.
The need for a nationwide state-funded concessionary scheme is paramount. A better, fully integrated transport system designed to cater for the needs of all travellers, is essential, but it is apparent, that in some cases, staff need training in how to deal with elderly passengers. Seats reserved for elderly people are useless unless passengers are encouraged to relinquish them at need. Local authority, community buses with facilities for wheelchairs and the services of a carer to assist in boarding or leaving the vehicle are another essential in helping frail and disabled people to be mobile and able to visit shops, libraries, day centres, hospitals and lead a normal life.
As people get older their calls on the health service are likely to change and attitudes need to change as well. To be told "its your age" when visiting the doctor or hospital discourages people, when they often can be successfully treated. Long waiting lists for treatment or operations can often mean rapid deterioration in health, as can long waits in hospital out-patients and casualty departments. There need to be plenty of hospital beds, and staff, available at times of need. For those who have to spend a long time in hospital there is a need for stimulating activities and physiotherapy, and careful monitoring and assistance when they return home. Health visitors and district nurses, as well as the social services can play a vital part in ensuring that an elderly and vulnerable person is getting all the help they need while in their own home.
Access to leisure and educational activities are vital to keep people alert and healthy. Again the low level of the state pension means that the majority of pensioners are debarred from visiting theatres, concerts, cinemas, museums and often from even going on holiday. Concessionary entrance fees and fares should conform to a national standard, and be low enough to allow the poorest member of the community to benefit from them.
All these provisions cost money, and even raising the state pension to a decent level will not be sufficient. The state pension should not depend on private insurance schemes to ensure a decent standard of living for people when they are no longer able to follow their normal employment. The Government should establish a properly funded state scheme. Part of the cost, in the long run, could be raised by increased National Insurance contributions, from both employers and workers. There should be no "ceiling" on contributions, and those on high incomes should pay more. Introducing a progressive tax system heavily weighted against the rich and a wealth tax would provide another source of funding, scrapping VAT and other indirect taxation would also directly benefit pensioners financially. In this way the whole population would be contributing.
The other way to generate substantial funds for elderly provision would be to slash arms expenditure. Defence expenditure is now £22 billion per year and rising. Aircraft carriers cost £2 billion each. The Trident programme costs us £1 billion a year. Defence spending is currently 3.1 per cent of the gross domestic product, while the Nato average is 2.3 per cent, a gap of nearly one per cent equalling £7 billion per year. Previous Conservative governments have cut defence spending by over two per cent and a regular reduction of defence spending over five years to two per cent could save £20 billion.
Not all of this saving would be needed for fund care for the elderly but much of it could be used to improve the quality of life for the most vulnerable members of the community, and provide them with the care and assistance they need.
The important thing is that the quality of care should be set at national
standards, be free at the time of use, and be available as needed without
loss of dignity by those in receipt of it, or their families.
Education has suffered setbacks under the Labour Government, which has continued the policy of the Tory Government of undermining comprehensive schools and Local Education Authority (LEA) control of education at every level. Schools are increasingly expected to manage their own budgets without the required funding even to maintain the status quo. The additional financial burden of education in computer technology and the demands for more and more testing, coupled with the insistence that literacy and numeracy are paramount in the needs of the country, means that an all round education has become another casualty of this Government.
Nurseries and schools are in danger of being turned into knowledge factories as child-centred education and creativity are abandoned in this controlling and utilitarian trend, while teachers of all age groups are experiencing unprecedented stress due to the ever increasing workload.