Editor-At-Large: Hard-up mums need to work, but kids pay dearly

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Cameron Diaz says the planet is over-populated, and there's too much pressure on women to have children. She's right: I've managed four ex-husbands, a long-suffering partner, no kids and no pets, but deep down, I've always felt I made a selfish choice. My reasons, though, were very different from hers. There was never any question of having a family and a career when I started out, so I made a tough decision. I would never have got this far if I'd decided to breed, taken time off, and tried to combine motherhood with long hours.

After 12 years of a Labour government that claims to understand women's needs, you'd think we might have easier choices in 2009. But do we? Yes, it's still regarded as "normal" for most women to have a family, but it's also expected they will return to work as soon as possible. If there's a stigma attached to not having kids – although it's getting less – there's more resentment lobbed at full-time mums.

Kate Winslet, for example, once claimed she was determined to manage without any help. Now she admits she's had to employ a part-time nanny for her two children aged five and eight, but feels guilty about it.

That's an all too common reaction. Women try to do the demanding balancing act of combining motherhood with work because the Government – the same one that's supposed to understand their needs – is determined that mums go back to work as soon as possible. They seem to equate work with a feeling of completeness, as if that's the icing on the cake.

The reality is that most women are in poorly paid, boring jobs. They have the lowest hourly rates, and probably will be the first out of the door if there are any redundancies or short-time working. Most British female employees aren't like Kate Winslet: they're not going back to work to do anything wonderful. They work because it is the only way to keep the family afloat financially. But at what cost to their children? Tory Iain Duncan Smith has claimed that absentee mums and dads are producing a generation of deprived children who lack social values – and he's right.

Figures released last week show that two-thirds of all pre-school children now attend nurseries: the number of children under five left with carers has trebled in the past 30 years. Over half of all children under 16 come from households where all the adults go to work.

The Government wants to get mums back to work to reduce the number – nearly half of all single mums – claiming benefit. They've poured money into nurseries and daycare centres without fully understanding the social implications. You can't tell me a rise in knife crime and anti-social behaviour isn't linked to kids who more or less have to feed, clothe and entertain themselves from morning to night.

Last week, Vanessa George was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting children as young as one, and making and distributing indecent images of children. She had worked at a Little Ted's nursery in Plymouth, and the dreadful worry was etched on the faces of the distressed parents as they waited outside the court. Police admit it may be hard to identify children from the hundreds of images they have seized.

There are bound to be demands for even stricter vetting of those who work with children, but the Criminal Records Bureau is already swamped: the recession has seen many who worked in the City decide to become teachers or train as counsellors, so there is a huge backlog. There will always be people who manage to evade detection and put children at risk.

Handing your child to someone else to look after does involve risks, no matter how small. Women need to be given a real choice about how to raise their small children. Would it not be better to offer to pay mothers a wage until children are seven? Couple this with providing education and training for mums and single dads at facilities which have their own crèches, so that they are not apart from their offspring when they are very small.

Then, when parents do go back to work, they may be able to do something more rewarding than pulling pints, flipping burgers or working in petrol stations and supermarkets, and they will have bonded with their children and learnt valuable parenting skills. Money well spent, surely.

Funny woman: Let's vote for the new Speaker, and skip the old bores

Contestants on an early round of Britain's Got Talent seem more inspiring than the dismal line-up of contenders seeking to replace Michael Martin as Speaker. No, I'll correct that – any of the battered and bruised folk waiting to be admitted to hospital in last Saturday's Casualty would be preferable to Ann Widdecombe, John Bercow or, horror of horrors, that perennial mouther of empty platitudes, Margaret Beckett. Gordon Brown is trying to rush through his "modernising" plans for Parliament – he wants to replace the Lords with a far smaller elected Senate, reduce the voting age to 16, and change the first-past-the-post voting system in elections. Shame he's not applied his big new broom to eliminating all the ridiculous ceremonial posts that ensure the Commons operates like a gentlemen's club. At least 10 candidates are expected to stand for the post, which traditionally rotates between the main parties. A better idea would be to put it out to tender, come up with a worthy shortlist and let the public vote to decide who should keep the Commons in order, for a fixed term. I'm nominating Victoria Wood, who has quite rightly said television panel shows are dominated by unfunny men. A worthy successor to Betty Boothroyd.

Arnie, textbook terminator

Hilarious news that Arnold Schwarzenegger, who started as a champion body builder, became an action film star, married a Kennedy and then entered politics, is the brave chap who's decided to phase out textbooks for schoolchildren in California. Forced by a massive budget deficit, he's justified this drastic move by claiming that computers deliver knowledge to the young in a more efficient and appropriate way. I made a documentary with Arnie a few years ago. He certainly didn't seem like a guy to spend many moments with a book – he spent his spare time buying doughnuts, eating 20 at a time. Didn't even read a comic. But if children don't read books at school, will they ever get turned on to the joys of reading?

I can do without Blears in tears

Hazel Blears is a load of lightweight froth in a half-pint pot. Perky and pleased with herself, mouthing off about Gordon Brown on YouTube, waving that £13,000 cheque about (funds which she magically had in her bank account), smirking to the press on the day of her resignation, as she paraded past, wearing that embarrassing Rocking the Boat badge, as if she was en route to a pop festival. Now, she's grovelling and close to tears as she tells the Manchester Evening Post about how she has "had a number of regrets" and been "thoughtless and quite cruel". Her triple apology backfired – the newspaper's website is full of irate readers putting the boot in, and her local party members plan a vote of no confidence. I should start work revising that CV, Hazel, if you don't want to end up at the Jobcentre.

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