A divided nation - and the rifts are growing

Bear in mind that Mr Garnier's pay-off alone would pay for a year's child-tax credit for 4,400 children
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The Independent Online

Any fool can see that something is grotesquely awry in the British economy. Jean-Pierre Garnier, the chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, has presided over a fall of one third in his company's share value since he took up his £1m-plus-benefits post in late 2000. Now, draped in failure, he is deemed by himself and his colleagues - if not by his company's shareholders - to deserve a severance package of somewhere between £15m and £22m.

Meanwhile, across the south-west of England, hard-working people under 40 are unable to purchase modest homes, because house prices outstrip local wages by obscene amounts. The reason? Essentially because the concentration of mini-Garniers in London have forced prices so high that even the wealthy aren't getting enough bang for their buck in London any more. They've been paying silly prices out of town, because to them inflated prices in east Dorset or north Cornwall are still a bargain.

However, if the financial pain induced by the steadily growing division between rich and poor in Britain and across the neo-liberal west seems foul enough, it is the accountability gap between the two ends of this increasingly strained continuum that really induces slack-jawed astonishment.

Only now, six years and hundreds of deaths on from the election pledge whereby Labour promised to introduce the crime of corporate manslaughter, is the Government moving to give the offence some teeth. This legislation, much-needed and most welcome, is not being drawn up out of conviction, though. Instead, it is part of a drive to quell a backbench rebellion against David Blunkett's messy and illogical Criminal Justice Bill.

Yet vile as the huge loss of life and limb in British workplace accidents is, the Confederation of British Industry remains implacably opposed to the idea that companies should be held criminally responsible for their fatal failures. Or as a spokesman put it: "A director who faced the possibility of prison would be very reluctant to take decisions." Faced with the possibility of multimillion-pound pay-offs, bad decisions can be taken by directors without any reluctance at all. But there doesn't seem to be much of a problem with that.

Yet while people earning millions are protected with almost maternal passion from the human cost of their calculations, mothers forced out to work for a pittance in order to pay their rent (no mortgages for most of them) are to have their decisions - not just at work but at home as well - minutely scrutinised.

It has long been a bone of contention that while "business expenses" such as employing a chauffeur are tax deductible, the cost of child care at home is not. The childcare tax credit was introduced to at least pay lip-service to redressing this amazing discrepancy, whereby those who work unsocial hours and cannot claim a subsidised nursery place are punished for their failure to bring up babies while working nine to five. But the strings attached to this little concession turn out to be ties that really bind.

True, this tax credit is not aimed only at the low-waged. It is estimated that 9 out of 10 families with children will qualify for some amount of childcare tax credit, with an upper earnings limit of £50,000 attached to the scheme.

This is partly so that the resentful middle classes - poor lambs - can't complain of being left out of the benefits culture, and partly to offer some money back to the better-off for childcare expenses, without admitting that they ought to be, as a matter of course, tax deductible. Nice gesture, except that the complex 16-page form alone will ensure that the take-up for this benefit will be every bit as unenthusiastic as that for so many other of the fiendish credits Gordon Brown has introduced.

But just in case the better-off were thinking of applying on a point of principle, there are one or two other in-built catches designed to see off all but the most desperate. Only those earning a salary of £5,060 or less will be entitled to the full weekly credit - £94.50 a week for one child and £140 for two. But if you receive financial help from the Government so that you can go out and work for a wage so inadequate that it barely covers the cost of your childcare (or even if you just decide to put your mouth where the money is because it is right that childcare in the home should be recognised as a legitimate business expense), then the Government will claim entitlement to make checks on your home which will include the compilation of a "risk assessment" plan of the domestic terrain.

The level of intrusive, nosy, curtain-twitching unfairness here is mind-boggling. Not only is the Government - instead of having the guts to ensure that the most vulnerable people in the legitimate labour market have a sustainable minimum wage - happy to top up the incomes of those working for exploitative employers from the public purse. It also manipulates the system by which it delivers some of this subsidy so that it can get into the houses of these low-paid workers and pass judgement on their ability as parents.

The contrast is astounding. If you go out to work for an incompetent, mean or exploitative employer, and need child care to help you to do that (mothers of young children being the demographic group most likely to work under the worst wages and conditions), then the government claims the right to suspect that you cannot provide your children with a safe home environment.

If, on the other hand, you go out to work for an incompetent, mean or exploitative employer, get killed in the process, and leave your children motherless, then the Government will conclude only with the utmost resistance that the employer in question might possibly be criminally culpable for your death.

Has this society become so craven before the idea that there is nothing more important than the generation of economic activity, that it has come to believe that the less financial value you can command in the jobs market, then the less likely you are to be a responsible person? It seems to me that it has come to this. When the employers are allowed to resist taking responsibility for the people they employ, and the poor are forced to submit their homes to inspection as one of the hoops they must jump through in order to gain a living wage for their work, then things have gone horribly wrong.

It is worth bearing in mind that Mr Garnier's pay-off alone would pay for a year's child-tax credit for 4,400 children, or provide the deposits for the mortgages of around 1,000 West Country families. In the face of such gargantuan profligacy, the shareholders have finally revolted. What a pity the Government doesn't also revolt against such manifest greed.

Instead, it is concerning itself with policing those at the other end of the scale. It plans to hound those who want to work, but whose circumstances do not make this easy, even though this is what the Government exhorts them to do.

The implication can only be that it is somehow an affront to expect that a government that stands by and refuses to secure a functioning wage might help those at the bottom of the heap to offset the care of their children without judging them for it and finding them wanting. The level of means-testing in Britain is already outrageous. This new intrusion is beyond the pale.