E Jane Dickson: Women drowning in debt? You can't blame it all on expensive shoes

An absent, unemployed father is effectively absolved of his financial responsibilities

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The Independent Online

It's equality, but not as we dreamed it. Financial parity between the sexes has finally been achieved. Not in the boardroom, nor even in the public sector, where women still earn substantially less than men. These days, if it's equal opportunities you're after, you need to start at the bottom.

Government figures announced yesterday reveal that, for the first time since records began, women account for roughly 50 per cent of insolvencies. I doubt it's all down to a reckless shoe habit.

You don't have to be a financial expert – or even George Osborne – to work out that if more women are bumping on to the breadline, it's because they didn't have far to fall. Cuts to public services – women make up two thirds of the state workforce – have played their part.

Women working part-time jobs around families are also an easy mark for the axe; more than a million UK women are currently unemployed and the figure is rising by a terrifying 500 jobs per day.

While quaint debate rages on Mumsnet about the various merits of working mothers or Stay at Home Mums, increasing numbers of women are the sole providers for their families. For a lucky few, this will be a matter of choice. For an awful lot more it's a matter of holding the baby and holding down a low-paid job in the wake of parental separation. It's when the job goes that gender differences really start to bite.

An absent, unemployed father is effectively absolved of his financial responsibility – child maintenance agreements are generally based on percentage of salary; it's not the father's fault he's unemployed, but a statutory percentage of bugger-all is no help to the mother who must, somehow continue to provide for her children. Even when fathers are in work, it is mothers who, statistically and, overwhelmingly, bear the financial brunt of separation.

There has been widespread outrage at this week's official review on family justice which "failed" to promote the rights of fathers to shared parenting. Fair enough. Families need fathers. They also need food on the table and I hope the row over paternal rights does not preclude the issue of paternal responsibilities.

The howling lacuna in this, and any historic attempt at family justice reform is the framing of a workable and effective system of child maintenance where fathers genuinely pay according to their means. It seems to me ludicrous – and indicative of a basic confusion in legal attitudes to women and money – that family courts continue to pay out "think of a number" sums to the former wives of wealthy men in alimony (an outdated and, to my mind, unflattering notion which effectively pays a woman for services during her marriage) but seem incapable of calculating a pro-rata sum for child maintenance which takes account of all assets.

Let's assume, for reasons of historical sentiment, that a nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its most disadvantaged members. I'd say it's time we took an urgent look at women in poverty and why women are in poverty. I'd say the deadline for greatness is running out.

 

What a comfort, in testing times, to see David Attenborough back on screen in Frozen Planet. Some years back, I accompanied Sir David and the BBC Natural History Unit on a trip to Kenya. The crew had a lovely time scaring me witless with tales of adventure in the field.

At night, as we crawled into flimsy scout tents, I was uncomfortably aware of the yickering of hyena and the yowling of lions (lions, for god's sake!) around the campsite.

"Does anyone, "I asked nervously, "have – y'know – a gun?"

"Dear Lady," came Attenborough's reply. "Rest assured, the animals here are all protected."

Such agile diplomacy, one feels, would make short work of a Euro summit.

Come in from the cold, Sir David. Your country needs you!

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