Gordon Brown has made an historic statement: the state is giving up moralising
IN THE household where I live the principal breadwinner is female. I am not unmanned, incapacitated, diminished. What I am, though, is very rare. Neither Gordon Brown's woman-oriented Budget nor Harriet Harman's headlines about the rise of female earners alters a fundamental fiscal fact. The further up the financial ladder you go, the more male things get.

Many reports from the battlefield of the sexes suggest that it's apocalypse now. But nothing happens suddenly in society. There are broad and unstoppable trends in women's participation in the labour market, but they are taking decades to work through. Glass ceilings fracture slowly; how many office cleaners are men? The pace of change in households on the other hand is almost glacial, as successive surveys about men and sinks, let alone men and Hoovers, show.

What has changed is the emergence of women as a policy preoccupation. The Budget Red Book says "families": it means women and children. Welfare has always been womanfare to an extent. For William Beveridge mothers needed support to "ensure the adequate continuance of the British race". (They don't coin phrases like that any more.) Post war, they became the welfare state's main consumers. To cut it or reform it meant dealing with women and children - who simultaneously carry the burden of society's anxieties and politicians' moral anguish.

What is new is the dawning realisation that government is no longer in control of women's domestic behaviour as it once thought it was - especially in the 7.5 million households with children. Government pulls tax and benefit levers, but out there in the mulch of society daily decisions are made about sex, contraception, love, setting up households, break- up, regardless of priest or politician.

Instead of bending women to the state's will, government is now rushing to catch up with women's choices. Ostensibly, Mr Brown's Budget was a set of technical changes to National Insurance, tax allowances and social security. It was also an instalment in a process of adapting social institutions to the fact that women are working outside the home. Three-quarters of women of working age are in jobs or available to work and mass female employment has consequences for attitudes, expectations and domestic behaviour.

There will be many more instalments. This week the Government is publishing its latest thoughts on welfare reform. Its Green Paper will focus on pensions. Frank Field, the Social Security minister, wants to end government guarantees on retirement incomes. But women have traditionally relied on the state to provide for their old age. Their lifetime earnings are low, leaving little over for savings. Nowadays more and more women face the prospect of financial self-reliance in old age, either because there won't be a man around or because the man around is equally under-provided. One way or another, the state's financial relationship with working women is going to grow.

This is what the Budget showed. Mr Brown's relationship with women is curious. On one level he is more behaviourist than Comrade Pavlov's dogs. This Budget was designed like traffic lights. Shown various green, amber and red signals - a higher entry point for National Insurance contributions, tax credits for child care - women ought to respond rationally.

But the Chancellor also did something no predecessor has dared to do. He declared his moral neutrality about the nature of man-woman relationships and came close to giving women their final emancipation in terms of how the welfare state treats them. They are persons, almost.

MR BROWN'S message was that government is a bystander when it comes to love, marriage and divorce, even in the 1.2 million poorest households that are the Budget's principal targets.

The change was spelt out in the report to the Chancellor by Martin Taylor, the man who runs Barclays Bank, which was published as part of the Budget package. Mr Taylor used a key word. The state, he said, has to be "agnostic" about how households are set up. "In general I believe that wherever possible government should avoid framing special rules for categories of people based on their social or family arrangements."

That's an historic statement. Whether the credit for the change is due to Harriet Harman (happily married), Ed Balls (newly married) or Gordon Brown (not yet married), it marks a point of no return. Forget all the family rhetoric from No 10. Whether Tony Blair believes it or, as some suggest, offers it as cover to Gordon Brown, it belongs in the past. The Brown formula says: the state is interested in ensuring children are looked after by adults and that involves shunting money as directly as possible to those looking after them. The state is interested in minimising benefit outlays and integrating people into society. That means reducing incentives to stay at home and increasing inducements to take jobs. The state is no longer interested in wedlock, marriage certificates, bastardy and all the rest of the moralising past.

Brownian logic may even become agnostic about "motherhood". Women bear children, of course, but there are now few sticking points in the benefits system which insist that they, rather than their man, look after them. Why shouldn't more men declare themselves the main carer, and pick up the child benefit or the child-care tax credit - which aims to provide up to 70 per cent of the cost of "authorised" care. That kind of evolution would require huge changes in attitudes and aspirations at the domestic level, and there are not yet many signs of them. The point to register, however, is that the Treasury could not care less, as long as the children are looked after.

Martin Taylor had the courage to spell this out. The chapter in his recommendations to the Treasury has yet to be formally accepted but surely will be. Eventually, he said, just as men and women are taxed separately, so they will be assessed separately for income support and job seekers' allowance. If they choose to pool their money and set up home, so be it. Be warned, however, that things are nothing like as simple as this in practice, but a principle is established. Why should the state pay a man who works any extra benefit just because he has a childless wife or partner who stays at home? Around one-third of married women do not work, but among those women married to unemployed men, the proportion who do not work is over half. Already the result is clear: some 10,000 of young childless women in households claiming benefit are to be called for interview, where they will be politely asked whether they are fit for work outside the home.

THE BUDGET is only a statement of intent. Like social security reforms before it, it will have perverse and unpredictable effects. It is already becoming clear that one will be to encourage a large number of women (an estimated 1.75 million) to give up their part-time or other low-paid jobs, because their households stand to get more if the man claims the Working Families Tax Credit.

Still, the Brown Budget represents a kind of concordat between women and government. Over the years it has been an odd relationship. To David Lloyd George in the First World War women owed their first major entry into the economy of paid work. Thanks to Labour and Butskellite Tory governments in the Fifties and Sixties, woman- friendly public sector jobs expanded. Now here comes New Labour, not only altering the benefits system to benefit women both as workers and child carers, but also promising extra subsidies for the kind of child care to be provided.

There was a little noticed phrase in the Treasury documents accompanying the Chancellor's speech, to the effect that the Government is reviewing provision for young children and in July will launch a package of measures to help all children off to a "sure start" in life.

The other statement made by the Budget, though not in these exact words you understand, involved capitalism. One of the major roles of the state these days is to subsidise private sector employers who apparently cannot stay in business unless they pay their employees a wage they cannot afford to live on. There is, of course, nothing new in this. A troop of Berkshire magistrates got together in the 1790s at the village of Speenhamland and deliberately decided to augment out of the parish rates the wages paid by local farmers. So with the pounds 5bn of Working Families Tax Credit, like the pounds 2.3bn of Family Credit before it. It enables the private sector to make use of women at low rates of pay. New Labour accepts the private sector for what it often is - a poor payer of people. By its Budget this week it is expanding the number of women with no choice but to take work at prevailing wages.

The Government has altered the calculations people will make about work, children and partnering. The effect of these will not become apparent much before the next election. We do not know whether women will thank Messrs Blair or Brown for changing their economic prospects.

But if the trajectory of history is towards liberation or emancipation of women, these politicians will deserve some kind of electoral reward. Thanks to Gordon Brown, a young woman now knows for sure that rely- ing on a man for money is riskier than ever, especially a poor man. For a poor woman now the only safe marriage is with the state.

Women, children and work

l From 55 per cent of women in work at the end of the Sixties, the figure has risen to 75 per cent today.

l Three-quarters of women whose youngest child is aged 11 or over work full- or part-time.

l Over the last 10 years, the number of UK women in full-time work has grown from 5.9 million to 6.6 million. Over the same period, women in part-time jobs rose in number from 4.6 million to 5.3 million.

l Some 18 per cent of women with children aged under four work full- time; a further 33 per cent work part-time.

l British women in full-time jobs work an average 40-hour week, compared to 37 hours in Belgium, 39 in the Netherlands and France and 36 in Italy. The European Union average for full-time women is 39 hours a week.

l Women are concentrated in clerical and secretarial jobs but there has been a marked increase in the proportion of women in managerial and administrative roles. Around a third of workingwomen are in professional, technical, managerial or administrative jobs.

l Nearly 20 per cent of men at work are managers and administrators, compared to 12 per cent of women.