Colette Sexton, news correspondent at The Sunday Business Post, looks at what Budget 2019 will mean for women.
The year that preceded yesterday’s budget was dominated by women’s issues.
Five days after Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe read out his Budget 2018 speech on October 10, 2017, actor Alyssa Milano tweeted to encourage women to share their Me Too stories, sparking a global movement.
In April 2018, it emerged that Vicky Phelan was diagnosed with cancer three years after her smear test results of 2011 were incorrectly reported as clear. Vicky’s bravery in refusing to sign a non-disclosure agreement when she settled a High Court action for €2.5 million against a US lab over her smear test led to the country learning that more than 200 women diagnosed with cervical cancer had previously received false negative test results from Cervical Check.
After decades of discussion, a separate women’s health issue brought Ireland to the polls this summer as the country voted in favour of repealing the 8th amendment. By January, women in Ireland will have access to abortion services in their own country.
Meanwhile, in the business world, the cabinet approved the general scheme of the Gender Pay Gap Information Bill in June, which means organisations in Ireland will soon be legally obliged to report details of gender pay disparity.
With so many stories focused on discrimination against women as well as gender equality issues over the past 12 months, the government were under pressure to create a positive budget for women. Did they deliver? In some ways, yes, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
The biggest issue holding women who want to work back is the cost of childcare, and Budget 2019 will help to change this. An extra €90 million was added to the budget for early learning and childcare schemes, bringing it up to €574 million. The main change in this will be an increase in the income thresholds for the Affordable Childcare Scheme. The scheme, which targeted at low-income families, is available for children aged four to 15. From 2019, the basic income threshold will increase from €22,700 to €26,000 and the maximum will go from €47,500 to €60,000, while the multiple child deduction is going up from €3,800 to €4,300. This will be a much-needed benefit to lower-income families, including lone parent families, but many middle-income parents are still facing childcare costs each month that are equivalent to a mortgage.
Donohoe also announced that there will be two extra weeks' parental leave to all parents of a child under one. This will be increased to seven extra weeks over time. A nice gesture, and certainly family-friendly, but some parents, particularly those with other children, would not be able to afford to take this time off if their employers do not provide paid maternity and paternity leave. Many would be unable to pay their bills with just the €240 weekly payment from the government. Perhaps it is time the government put pressure on employers to implement paid maternity and paternity leave. And perhaps it is also time for society to put pressure on the government to implement policies that either reduce or recognise and rewards the role of caregiver that often falls to women.
In terms of women’s health, which has dominated the news agenda recently, Minister for Health Simon Harris announced that funding will be made available for the development of a Women’s Health Action Plan in 2019. Some €12 million has been allocated for the introduction of abortion services following the referendum on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. The introduction of free contraception was not mentioned during the budget but might be introduced by the HSE.
Finally, what might seem like a minor part in the grand scheme of Budget 2019, but it is a symbol of how women’s issues are often dismissed. The government raised the VAT rate on the hospitality industry from 9 per cent to 13.5 per cent. While this has largely been seen as a fair change, as many hotels, particularly in Dublin, are making huge profits, it will also apply to hairdressers. Who are the majority of hairdressers? Women. Who pays for the majority of treatments in hairdressing salons? Women.
Budget 2019. A little done. A lot more to do.