Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Turn up the volume

The progress the EU has granted women is at risk unless those who care about gender equality make their voices heard, says Rachel Cunliffe

This year, we have already celebrated a century since (some) women won the vote, derided sexual harassment scandals, and challenged corporations over gender pay figures (which all large businesses must make public by April). But before we pat ourselves on the back too much, a quick look at the Brexit landscape shows some troubled times ahead for anyone passionate about gender equality.

The European social fund has been supporting inclusion and retraining initiatives for women and minority groups across the United Kingdom. It is not yet apparent if this funding will be replaced after Brexit.

But more worrying than the public funds is the potential for hard-won protections – such as laws about equal pay, parental leave and maternity discrimination – to be stripped in the ‘bonfire of regulation’.

The European Union has historically tried to be a force for gender egalitarianism: the right to equal pay is literally written into the treaty of Rome. Other minorities, from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans community to people with disabilities, also have the EU to thank for protections. The EU withdrawal bill transfers EU law into British law, but allows for its ‘reinterpretation’ at a later date. Many Brexiteers have seemed positively gleeful at the prospect of ‘slashing the EU red tape’, forgetting, perhaps, that some of that tape was sticking together a safer and fairer workplace.

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The right of a woman to return to her job after having a baby, provisions for (predominantly female) agency workers on issues like childcare, and employee pensions equality all came to the UK via EU directives. Yes, in some instances – like maternity leave – the UK has gone further than the EU necessitates, but that does not protect other rights from being stripped back at a later date.

The danger is not that the government will deliberately use Brexit as an excuse to gut equality provisions for the fun of it (although Jacob Rees-Mogg might be tempted to take the opportunity were he in the cabinet). It is that, in all the chaos and horse-trading, women’s rights get used as a bargaining chip – or worse, forgotten altogether.

Theresa May’s standard strategy for making Brexit policy seems to be to do nothing, then retrospectively agree with whichever minister shouts the loudest. There are few high-profile women pushing forward their own Brexit visions – the cabinet’s Brexit subcommittee contains eight men but only two women (plus May herself). Home secretary Amber Rudd has done her best to temper the more fervent Brexiteers, and Karen Bradley has a crucial role as Northern Ireland secretary, but neither has been raising their head above the parapet to attempt to shape the agenda anywhere near as much as Boris Johnson, David Davis, Liam Fox or Michael Gove.

What we have is a government so dysfunctional and a leader so weak that any issue not screamed about gets kicked down the road indefinitely. Brexit does not have to be detrimental for minority rights, but if we want to maintain the progress the EU has granted women in this country, we all need to be louder.

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Rachel Cunliffe is comment and features editor at City AM. She tweets @RMCunliffe

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Rachel Cunliffe

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