Brexit: social and equality impacts

This independent report focuses on some of the potential social and equality impacts of Brexit.

Case Study: Women

Women make up 51% of the population in Scotland.[304] Women's groups have argued that the UK's decision to leave the European Union will disproportionately affect women and exacerbate gender inequality. Most notably, the Women's Budget Group (WBG) has conducted extensive research into the economic impacts of Brexit on gender equality, publishing a number of reports on this area.[305] The WBG's conclusions are that Brexit "will hit women hard, leading to lost jobs, cuts to services and a squeeze on family budgets".[306]

Furthermore, the WBG issued a response to the UK Government's proposed EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill of October 2019, arguing that,

"For many women, particularly the poorest, black and minority ethnic (BAME) women and disabled women, this [Bill] could mean job losses, cuts to services, squeezed family budgets and reduced legal protections."[307]

Given these potential adverse impacts of Brexit on women, the WBG has been critical of the UK Government for not conducting an equality impact assessment into how women's rights, welfare and status may be affected by Brexit.[308]

The potential impacts of Brexit on women (both the legal and the socio-economic effects) are summarised in the infographic below:

summary of potential impacts of Brexit on women, both legal and socio-economic

Women: Legal Rights

European legislation has advanced women's rights to equal pay, maternity leave, paid annual leave for part-time workers, equal treatment, and safe workplaces.[309] Many of these rights have been enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which provides a statutory 'backstop' for UK equality rights and brings together in a single text all the rights that people enjoy within the EU. Other specific rights and protections are contained within secondary legislation such as EU directives and regulations, while specific rights have been strengthened through rulings of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).

The EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 states that the EU Charter will not be "part of domestic law on or after exit day" and that "the removal of the Charter from UK law does not affect the retention in UK law of fundamental rights or principles that exist irrespective of, and prior to, the Charter." In particular, the UK Government maintains that the Equality Act 2010, which consolidated and transposed EU law, will "ensure the continued protection of people's rights not to be discriminated against, harassed or victimised."[310]

However, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has warned that advances in women's rights are potentially under threat if the UK does not enshrine the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights into domestic law once it leaves the EU.[311] According to legal scholars, "without the binding force of EU law, there is no obstacle to Parliament repealing or undermining the right to equality, currently contained in the Equality Act 2010."[312]

The EHRC identifies women's EU-derived employment rights and the EU Charter's free-standing right to non-discrimination as areas of particular concern.[313] EU secondary legislation around women's rights, which are not part of the UK statute book, are also vulnerable to being diluted by the UK after Brexit.

One important piece of secondary legislation is the Pregnant Worker's Directive (PWD), which protects the rights of pregnant women in the workplace. According to the Trade Union Congress, the PWD has made "substantial improvements in health and safety protections for expectant and new mothers in the workplace" as it has given "women paid time off for ante-natal appointments and placed duties on employers to assess risks and to adjust working conditions, transfer a pregnant or breastfeeding worker to alternative work or suspend them on paid leave where harm is identified.[314] Any moves to repeal or dilute the PWD would have a widespread and deeply felt impact on the rights and protections of pregnant workers.

Another piece of secondary legislation that is important to women's rights is the Agency Worker's Directive, which protects the rights of people on agency or zero-hours contracts (the majority of which in the UK are women[315]). Former UK Government Brexit Minister Martin Callanan indicated the possibility of these rights being rolled back after Brexit, when he said that the Pregnant Worker's Directive and the Agency Workers Directive were 'barriers to actually employing people' which 'we could scrap'.[316]

Furthermore, the EHRC maintains that UK women risk losing out on future advances in EU gender equality legislation once the UK leaves the EU. This could include rights to extended parental leave, paid carers leave, and extended flexible working rights, which are part of the new Work Life Balance Directive that was recently adopted by the EU Council (but as yet not signed up to by the UK), which will be implemented by EU Member States by mid-2022.[317] The UK has also failed to ratify the Istanbul Convention to end violence against women and girls, which has been ratified by 26 other Council of Europe members.[318]

Furthermore, the UK Government has stated that any new rulings by the CJEU on equalities law will not be automatically binding on the UK:

"EU general principles which have been recognised in CJEU cases decided before exit will form part of domestic law after exit. After exit therefore, any question as to the meaning of retained EU law will be determined in UK courts in accordance with relevant pre-exit CJEU case law and retained general principles."[319]

This implies that some EU-derived women's rights may be 'frozen in time'. Furthermore, there are concerns that future trade deals could affect women's rights and protections.[320]

Women: Public Services & Funding

The Women's Budget Group (WBG) has explored how the projected economic downturn and fall in GDP post-Brexit will have an impact on women as users of public services.[321] They argue that women will likely be worse off on average if there are cuts to government spending, given that women are more likely to use public services and the benefits system.[322] Public sector cuts will especially affect disadvantaged women, such as single mothers and minority ethnic women, who are vulnerable to cuts in benefits and services. As well as affecting women as users of public services and recipients of benefits and tax credits, government spending cuts will also affect women as employees in the public sector.

"Reductions in public spending have a disproportionate negative impact on women as the primary users of public services, the majority of workers in the public sector, and the main providers of unpaid work when public services are cut."[323]

In particular, there are concerns that, if there are cuts to social care and health services after Brexit, it will likely be women who will be expected to step in and fill any gaps in provision. For instance, a report by the Department of Health submitted to the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC)[324] indicated that women might have to give up paid work to provide "informal care" for loved ones if EU care workers are unable to easily migrate to the UK after Brexit (which appears unlikely, due to the MAC's proposed £30k salary threshold for economic migrants[325]). The DoH report stated that in a 'worst case scenario' there will be a "wider risk to labour market participation more generally, especially when considering increasing social care needs. If we fail to meet social care needs adequately we are likely to see a decrease in labour market participation levels, especially among women, as greater numbers undertake informal care."[326] This is something, the WBG points out, that women already do, by already providing the majority of unpaid care in the UK.

There are also concerns about the loss of funding for women's organisations, once the UK exits the EU and is no longer part of the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF) programmes.[327] The European Social Fund (ESF) and European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) have provided considerable support to women's organisations to, for instance, deliver integrated health and social care services to women, support victims of domestic violence, protect the rights of minority ethnic women, and support women from disadvantaged backgrounds into training and employment, to name a few.[328] There are concerns that these organisations will be unable to deliver projects to support women if the funding streams are not fully replaced by the UK (in its proposed Shared Prosperity Fund).[329]

Women: Employment, Housing and Spending

The majority of economists have argued that Brexit will have a negative impact on the UK economy, with a no-deal Brexit having significantly worse effects.[330] The WBG cites the UK Government's own estimates of the adverse economic impact of a limited UK-EU Free Trade Agreement, of the kind suggested in the revised Political Declaration in October 2019, where GDP would decrease by 6.7% relative to staying in the EU, while it could be 5.5% to 9.5% lower under a no-deal scenario.[331] Furthermore, the Bank of England has warned that there was a one-in-three chance of recession due to uncertainty over Brexit, as business investment was stalling.[332]

Women's organisations have argued that women are disproportionately affected by austerity and economic downturns, which may happen after Brexit.[333] This is because women are more likely to be living in poverty; because they earn less than men due the gender pay gap; they generally have less financial capital (i.e. savings and investments); they make up 80% of the low-paid sector workforce; they make up the majority of insecure and temporary workers; and they are less mobile due to caring responsibilities.[334]

The chart below suggests the gendered impacts of Brexit on sectors of the economy, under 'soft' and 'hard' Brexit scenarios.

Weighted average of sector impacts by gender for 'soft' and 'hard' Brexit

It is therefore possible that Brexit will have a negative impact on women's employment prospects, labour protections, access to affordable housing, and household budgets. Also, as women tend to earn less, be in a precarious employment situation (part-time, fixed-term or zero-hours), and have fewer economic resources, women are more vulnerable to any erosions in employment standards (see the Rights section above) and wage squeezes.

"Attempts to weaken regulations that hit low paid, part-time and precarious (i.e. agency) workers would therefore hit women first, and hit them hardest."[335]

Women working in certain sectors of the economy that are heavily dependent on trade with the EU and have been identified as potentially vulnerable to job losses, such as clothing and textiles that have a majority women workforce, may lose their jobs. Other sectors of the economy that are forecast to be negatively affected by Brexit, such as health and social care, are also likely to negatively impact women. For instance, women are disproportionately represented in health (constituting 77% of the workforce) and social care (where women constitute 80% of the workforce).[336] These are sectors that are already experiencing difficulties resulting from a decline in EU migration and resulting recruitment challenges.[337]

With regard to housing, the WBG has examined how the current housing crisis – in which house prices have recently slumped – is hitting women the hardest.[338] Their research reveals:

  • there is no region in England where the average home to rent is affordable for a woman on median earnings;
  • women's incomes often fall over 50% short when seeking to buy a house with a typical mortgage;
  • women make up 60% of housing benefit claimants;
  • the majority of statutory homeless people are women (67%);
  • women rough sleepers, who are less likely to access services, face specific challenges and their experience is very often linked to abuse, trauma and violence;
  • Single mothers constitute 66% of all statutory homeless families with children.

While the WBG did not specifically analyse the consequences of Brexit for women's housing, it is possible that many of these problems – such as women's access to affordable housing and vulnerability to homelessness (especially for single mothers) – will be exacerbated if the economic position of women is weakened, alongside negative impacts on the construction industry and a continued freeze on benefits - in the event of Brexit.

Finally, Brexit is likely to have a widespread impact on women's spending power, who have fewer personal savings than men.[339] Any reductions in income caused by slower economic growth in the UK would make it difficult for women – especially single mothers who are at risk of poverty and homelessness – to manage family budgets, particularly if food and energy prices increase and GDP falls. As the director of the Women's Budget Group states,

"The impact of Brexit on consumers will be gendered because women are the main managers of family budgets and the shock-absorbers of poverty, and in attempting to shield their families from poverty's worst effects women tend to bear the brunt of the effects."[340]

According to a report by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), 43% of women in the UK would currently struggle to pay an unexpected bill of £40 (compared to 30% of men).[341] As a result of women's relative economic insecurity, they are more likely to fear the impact of Brexit.[342]

Women's consumer rights may also be impacted by the decision to repeal any EU secondary legislation on consumer protections, and the content of future trade deals.[343]

Women: Resilience

Women are represented by a network of active, engaged and well-organised women's groups in Scotland/the UK. These groups have been proactive in researching and anticipating the possible impacts of Brexit on women's rights and welfare. In particular, the Women's Budget Group (WBG) has taken on a leadership role in conducting research, analysis and recommendations on the economic impact of Brexit on women[344], while the Women's Equality Party has been raising political awareness of potential impacts.[345] Women also make up 34% of MPs in the UK Parliament (since the December 2019 general election) and 35% of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament[346] – a higher number relative to other equalities groups, though markedly lower than the proportion of women in the population (51%). Women's groups have also been politically active in demanding policy change and protections to ensure that any adverse impacts on women resulting from Brexit are mitigated. To that end, women have relatively strong political representation of their voices amongst equalities groups.

Women's groups also provide important sources of information and support to women, on issues ranging from domestic violence, to sexual harassment, to gender discrimination. These groups in Scotland include various branches of Women's Aid, Rape Crisis Scotland, the National Advisory Council on Women and Girls, Amina—the Muslim Women's Resource Centre, Engender, Saheliya, SHE Scotland, Shakti Women's Aid, Zero Tolerance, YWCA Scotland, and the Women's Centre.[347]

There are also generic advice services available to everyone, including women, for instance on debt management, social security benefits and legal rights and protections.[348] These vital publicly funded advice services are offered by local councils, statutory bodies such as the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB), and third-sector providers, such as the network of Citizens Advice Bureaux.

However, the extent to which individual women are connected to these groups and networks, or are resilient to the impact of Brexit, is mixed. Not all women – in particular, disadvantaged and vulnerable women, and those with limited literacy and linguistic abilities (such as some foreign-born women) – will have access to, or representation in women's groups, or will be able to access advice services.

Furthermore, the extent to which women are financially resilient to any adverse economic impacts of Brexit is mixed. While research has shown that women are more likely than men to be living on low-incomes or in poverty[349], some women have robust financial resources and could purchase private services (healthcare, education) in the case that public services are cut, for instance. We can therefore assume that the least financially resilient women are those who have the least disposable income and are most dependent on public services. These women are likely to be facing multiple disadvantage (for instance, being a woman and being on a zero-hours contract/low-income/a single mother/homeless/minority ethnic/migrant/disabled and so on). Women facing intersectional inequalities are therefore likely to be the least resilient to any negative legal and socio-economic effects of Brexit.

Impacts under different Brexit scenarios

The following table provides a general indication of which of the impacts on women analysed in this section are most likely to occur under each of the Brexit scenarios discussed in the report – a hard Brexit (under terms set out in the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, with no binding commitment to comprehensive level playing-field provisions), a softer Brexit (UK-EU negotiations to include strengthened level playing-field commitments and closer alignment with EU law) and a no-trade deal Brexit (the UK fails to obtain an EU trade deal and reverts back to trading on WTO rules).

Impact on women of the three Brexit scenarios discussed in the report – hard Brexit, softer Brexit and No trade deal Brexit

* 'higher risk' implies that there is a higher risk that this impact is likely to happen compared to the status quo of the UK being a full member of the EU, given the UK Government's economic forecasts[350]



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