Think the unthinkable: think like a woman

From child care to pension plans, Labour's policies for women are a shambles, says Yvonne Roberts.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"Why can't a woman be more like a man?" Professor Higgins asks in My Fair Lady. The same petulant question appears to lurk behind each bungled attempt of the New Labour government to devise policies which deal with the female half of the population. Mr Blair and his boys just can't get it right.

And they ought to be ashamed.

Some of it is simply a matter of presentation - but none the less insulting for that. The appointment of Harriet Harman as minister for women - but only as a hasty afterthought on the part of Blair. The choice of Joan Ruddock as her junior minister on condition that - a new feminist first - she accept the post without pay since the coffers were allegedly empty.

Much is far more serious. Yesterday, there came the news that the Government was considering abandoning independent taxation and returning to taxation for couples. On Wednesday, Gordon Brown revealed his hastily cobbled together pounds 300m package on afterschool clubs for a million children - an attempt to deflect the flak from the cut in lone parent benefits. Clumsily, Brown announced that: "A national childcare strategy ... is now the policy of this country's government..."

Welcomed by many in the media, in truth, as measures go, it's the equivalent of a bumper sticker on a car that has yet to be assembled. And most of the female voters in this country know it. (What provision is there, for instance, for mothers who work shifts or at weekends or who are studying and can't afford even the most minimal of fees?). The proposal also shows an alarming level of casualness (or ignorance) about what actually constitutes a genuine national childcare strategy. And it reflects this Government's reluctance to accept that on a range of issues, now under review, among them childcare, a minimum wage, social exclusion, equal pay and pensions - the Government's present piecemeal approach won't work for women. If one policy is out of synch, then, like a necklace whose string is broken, it has a disastrous effect on the others. Take, for instance, the issue of the minimum wage, for which the proposed legislation was published yesterday. The Low Pay Commission which has been hearing evidence is due to report in the spring of next year.

By the time any proposals come into force, the two year pledge to remain within Tory spending limits will no longer apply. Five million earn below pounds 4.26 an hour, two thirds are women. A decent minimum wage - highly unlikely according to the pessimistic forecast of women's organisations and trade unionists - would enable lone parent mothers (whom, on average, earn pounds 3.50 an hour) to avoid the trap now being laid by New Labour's welfare-to-work thrust.

This is the trap in which a woman escapes from poverty on benefits only to become an exhausted member of the working poor, made even more anxious because she knows that her offspring is subjected to substandard childcare provided by young and inexperienced under-25s who are themselves low paid and under-motivated. This combination results in high staff turnover and further disruption to children who deserve better.

Pensions are an even better illustration. The closing date for submissions to the Government's pension review was earlier this month. The Fawcett Society, the campaign organisation for women, has condemned the review as "a sham', claiming that the Government, in its obsession for all that is "New" has already decided to increase the use of private schemes - a disaster for many women.

The reasons why are explained succinctly by Jay Ginn and Sara Arber, pensions experts at Surrey University. Poor childcare is part of the reason why a woman takes time out from her career. As a result, if she has two children, she receives, over her working lifetime, only 45 per cent of a childfree woman's earnings. This, in turn, substantially reduces her pension. Non-employed housewives have it worse. "In enabling their husbands to participate in the labour market ... (they) forego their own opportunity to earn wages and build state and private pension entitlements," the academics point out. Women form two-thirds of those over 65: only a third of whom have a private pension. Too many of the remainder, particularly those over 75, live in poverty.

Ginn and Arber argue that the assumption that public pensions are unaffordable is erroneous. The move towards privatisation will exacerbate the "feminisation of poverty". In Denmark, by contrast, a reasonable basic pension is payable on the basis of 40 years residence, at the age of 67. Ginn and Arber argue for such a measure in Britain, set above the level of income support and index linked. In addition, they recommend that membership of a second tier employment-related state pension should be mandatory, with provision made for carers who take time out from work; an end to tax relief on private pensions and a public education campaign to counter the vast advertising budgets of the private pension companies.

"The drive to cut state pensions .... benefit the private pensions and insurance sector rather than workers or pensioners," Ginn and Arber argue. "Where such reforms are adopted, the changes ... bear hardest on women." Anna Coote, part-time adviser to the Government's women's unit and deputy director of the influential Institute of Public Policy Research, frequently talks about how the modern welfare state isn't just about tax and benefits: "It's about services, social values and goals." She refers to a New Dialogue with women which will (belatedly) be initiated next year by the setting up of women's juries to judge government policies.

"The future of the welfare state inextricably involves family life and gender roles," she insists. So why do so many of New Labour's thirtysomething and single, predominantly male advisers appear so prone to attacks of gender blindness? Do they really lack the imagination to visualise what life is like for the girls? Girls who are increasingly aware how easily a female high flyer can find herself relegated to the low paid, part-time ghetto of forgotten talent once she's opted to become a mother; or left struggling as a single parent - partly because the system remains resiliently fashioned by and for men.

It's damning that a government which is so keen to "think the unthinkable" when it comes to the welfare state, isn't also capable of recognising that unless it tailors policies to the female experience as much as to the male's, it will only exacerbate the inequities and dependency it is pledged to eradicate.

John Lyttle is away