Don't swap the slavery of the hearth for a yoke of work

Women languish on the economic margins. This Budget should address their needs
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The Independent Online
AFTER decades in which the nation's housekeeping has been assessed from an overwhelmingly male perspective, I feel almost churlish raising criticisms of a Budget billed as being for women and children.

Recognition of concerns such as childcare; the promise of a minimum wage; a female voice that government finally hears - what more can a girl want? Well, quite a lot. New Labour makes much of the desirability of work. But women who never move into the job market are already in work as unpaid labourers. As housekeepers, carers and mothers what they do may not yet be valued by economists and incorporated into the GDP, but it matters.

This is, after all, the government that says it cares about social cohesion. It should support those at the sharp end of keeping communities together with more than warm words.

Brown should also signal his realization that for those women who do work, the pattern of paid employment is very different from that of men. Forty-five per cent of them work part-time, frequently because of their family commitments. The majority in this low-paid sector tend to get stuck there, in the quicksand of aspirations. Low paid work also means that over two million women earn less than pounds 62 a week. This is the lower earnings limit on the payment of national insurance and as such the gateway to a number of benefits such as maternity pay and pensions. Let's hope Brown lowers the threshold and cuts the link between maternity pay and national insurance altogether.

Women retraining or studying need childcare grants. If mothers don't improve their qualifications they are stuck in a low-pay rut for life. Tax relief on childcare is equally important. None seems to be promised. In France, parents also have access to state-salaried childminders who are paid the minimum wage. We need such imaginative measures here and a further spreading of the burden of childcare costs.

Will Brown find ways to encourage employers to split charges - a third for government, a third for the individual, and a third for the boss? And why not have paid parental and paternity leave. It is time that we recognized that caring for offspring is a father's concern too.

If the interests of women and children are truly to come first, instead of Working Family Tax Credit (topping up low pay via employers and the Inland Revenue) there should be a significant increase in child benefit, taxed for high earners. Child benefit is fraud-proof and it gives a mother the choice of staying at home or paying for childcare. Britain has 6.5 million carers: why not give them an allowance within the working family tax credit too?

The requirements of women and children have been pushed to the margins of economic life for too long. We do not need policies that aim only to drive more women into the world of work, but to change conditions so that they fit the obligations and aspirations of women themselves.

At the same time, the right to be a full time mother should be supported - otherwise the "good" mother will soon rank only as the waged mother. That is no advance for feminism, nor for children.New Labour rightly preaches liberation from benefits. But if the only alternative is a lifetime of slavery on low wages, followed by an old age on a piddling pension, that is no progress at all.