Focus: What's next for women? No clout without money

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT is going to do wonderful things for women. A powerful unit has been set up to investigate inequality, gather statistics and publish reports which ministers will be expected to act upon. Women's interests will be actively promoted by top female politicians, who have the ear of the Prime Minister. It will be formally announced tomorrow and it's great news, except for one awkward fact. We have heard it all before.

Early last summer, to be exact, when the Government suddenly recalled its election commitments on women and announced a nearly identical set of measures. Admittedly the names were different, Harriet Harman - remember her? - and Joan Ruddock instead of Baroness Jay and Tessa Jowell. At the time, the Government considered Ms Ruddock's job so important they couldn't find any money to pay her. But she already had her MP's salary to live on and women are famous for their willingness to do voluntary work on the side, so that was all right.

Nevertheless this alarming principle - don't trust women with the dosh if you can avoid it - seems to be one of the main carry-overs from the first draft of what we might call Blair and the Women. (Another is the idea that women do not need a full-time minister to look after their interests, so Baroness Jay will combine the job with her other role as Leader of the House of Lords.) The women's unit still has very little money and neither Baroness Jay nor Ms Jowell has a budget to pay for the brilliant ideas they come up with. Instead, they will have to persuade ministers who have got spending powers into accepting and paying for their proposals, presumably at the expense of some other cherished article of government policy.

Even those of us who have long suspected that Tony Blair is a social conservative did not expect that he would replicate traditional male-female roles within his own government. Yet the two women's ministers have been placed in the position of a wife who, without her own income, has to keep reminding her husband that the carpet needs replacing.

In a sense, this simply underlines Mr Blair's general disinclination to give women ministers spending jobs - unless you count Clare Short, the Overseas Development Minister, whose budget is limited. Critics pointed out, when Harriet Harman was given the dual responsibility of social security and women's issues after the last election, that there was an obvious conflict between the two jobs; one is a cost-cutting role while the other has to involve spending money if it is to make an impact. Nor does it inspire confidence that Ms Harman and Ms Ruddock did not survive the Government's first reshuffle. Did they really get it so wrong or are they victims of an initiative which is stronger on rhetoric than political clout?

The women's unit has done a great deal of research, gathering facts and figures which demonstrate the pay differential at work, for instance, and the results will be published tomorrow. But some of its fire has been stolen by the Equal Opportunities Commission, which last week proposed a tough new legislative framework to deal with sexual harassment, discrimination and inequality. And do we really need a women's unit to tell us that women earn less than men? I have in front of me a large document published by the Central Statistical Office in 1995, entitled Social Focus on Women. Putting together a mass of data from government departments, it pointed out that "in most couples the male partner earns more than the female", and that more single parents and carers are women.

John Major's administration admitted all this. The question is what Mr Blair's government intends to do about it. On one crucial question, the level at which it intends to set the minimum wage, it has already sold the pass by announcing a pitifully low rate. Initiatives such as setting up panels of role models pale into insignificance - and cost very little - compared to the beneficial effect on girls' expectations of making sure they have well-paid jobs to look forward to. Teenage girls whose mothers are stuck in occupations which pay barely above the level of income support are hardly going to regard their own future job prospects with enthusiasm.

It is hard not to conclude that the Government has botched its first attempt to make a substantial impact on women's lives, has sacked the original cast while sticking to the same flawed script. It is true that Baroness Jay is a political heavyweight compared to Ms Harman. But she still does not have the money to spend on improving public transport or compensating for the effect of career breaks on pension entitlement.

The fortysomething men who predominate in Mr Blair's cabinet grew up at a time when it was impossible to ignore feminist theories. The Cabinet and the House of Commons contain a substantial number of women who cut their political teeth on them. What remains to be seen is whether tomorrow's announcements represent a serious commitment to equality by Mr Blair and his male colleagues or a piece of lip service. Judging by what has happened so far, Blair and the Women needs an urgent rethink if it is to get better reviews than its predecessor.