WOMEN and vulnerable families are being harmed by the SNP’s flagship council tax freeze, a Scottish Government-funded equality organisation will warn this week.
Concerns that women and children are being adversely affected by the controversial policy will be raised with MSPs on Tuesday.
Campaigners believe the freeze combined with the dramatic local authority cuts announced in John Swinney’s recent budget will lead to punishing cuts in the vital public services which Scottish women and children rely on.
They also fear the Scottish Government’s refusal to raise more money from council tax is increasing the pressure on local authorities to shed more jobs – a course of action that will affect women more than men because female council workers outnumber their male counterparts.
The criticisms of the council tax freeze are outlined in a document compiled by Close the Gap, an organisation that receives public funding from the Scottish Government and works with ministers to promote gender equality.
The document, which will be considered by MSPs on Holyrood’s welfare reform committee, will make uncomfortable reading for Nicola Sturgeon, who has put tackling inequality at the heart of her administration’s agenda.
The First Minister has appointed the UK’s first gender balanced cabinet and called for women to make up 50 per cent of board rooms and political candidates.
She has also signed up to Women 50:50, a high-profile cross party group campaigning for women’s rights.
But the Close the Gap document says: “The Scottish Government’s continuation of the council tax freeze will impact on women disproportionately, both as employees, and as service users.
“Women comprise two- thirds of the local government workforce, and have already borne the brunt of spending cuts which have resulted in redundancies, pay freezes, enforced reduction in hours, and an increase in flexible working request refusals.
“The public sector has traditionally offered more favourable terms and conditions for women, and has been more likely to have employment practices in place which support their equal labour market participation.
“This is being eroded however with the impact of spending cuts, and the council tax freeze will only serve to exacerbate existing labour market inequalities”
It adds: “Women are more likely to access public services, primarily because of their disproportionate caring responsibility for children, disabled people, older people and sick people. Cuts to public services including care and respite services will therefore differentially impact women and their families.”
In his budget unveiled at the end of last year, Swinney promised to freeze the levy for the ninth successive year, a pledge which was met with dismay from many cash-strapped local authorities. With councils struggling in a difficult financial climate, some local authorities have called for the freeze to be lifted to provide them with more tax revenue.
December’s budget also saw Swinney slash £300 million from council budgets, a proposal which led to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities warning that the cuts would cost 15,000 jobs.
Swinney’s 3.5 per cent reduction in council finances led to his opponents disputing his claim that he had delivered an anti-austerity budget that would mitigate cuts made by the UK Government.
This week’s Welfare Reform Committee has been called to scrutinise the impact of Swinney’s 2016-17 budget.
According to more evidence that will be presented to the committee, Close the Gap’s concerns are shared by Children in Scotland, the umbrella body for children’s organisations made up of 500 groups across the public, private and voluntary sectors in a variety of fields, including education, health, social care and childcare.
Children in Scotland has also made a committee submission, which says the council tax freeze and local authority cuts are a “source of real concern”.
“We have significant misgivings about local authorities’ ability to continue to provide the vital frontline services that the poorest and most vulnerable families depend upon,” Children in Scotland says.
“These decisions place unnecessary pressure on already restricted local authority budgets and run contrary to the principle of subsidiarity and local accountability – principles that Children in Scotland firmly adhere to. If the Scottish Government is serious in its desire to create a fairer, more equal society that protects the most vulnerable in society, particularly vulnerable women and families, then it has a duty to support the delivery of properly funded, integrated and effective public services.”
Last night a Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The council tax freeze represents a saving of around £1,550 for the average Band D household - which we have fully funded by providing an extra £70m per annum since 2008-09, helping all of Scotland’s council tax payers.
“The Scottish Government has treated local government very fairly despite the cuts to the Scottish Budget from the UK Government.
“In the 2016-17 Draft Budget, the total settlement being consulted on amounts to over £10.3 billion. This funding proposal delivers a strong but challenging financial settlement for local government which will be strengthened by our joint working to improve outcomes for local people through health and social care