Leading article: Time to give working women a helping hand, Mr Brown

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The Independent Online
WITHOUT working women, many of them mothers, the world economy would collapse. An increasing slice of global household income depends on women's efforts outside the home. In most Western countries, "family" means an incessant struggle to balance work, home and children, in which most of the burden - still, whatever the alleged changes in men's role and sensibilities - falls on women. It is time that this was recognised by the Government and acted upon.

We are supposed to be having a grand debate about the reform of the welfare state. Just this week the Social Market Foundation, a think tank tilting right, published a pamphlet, typical of the breed, under the portentous title "The Future of Welfare". It contained 10 essays. One was by Frank, one by David, another by Myron, another by Nicholas ... Not a single one was written by a woman. In it women, the motors of welfare provision in the real world, were invisible - except as demonic breeders of fatherless children. Not a single contribution recognised the centrality of child- care in the household economy and the aching difficulty many real women have in trying to combine their domestic and occupational obligations.

And that kind of male insouciance has been par for the course. The Beveridgean welfare state and the fiscal system that grew up post-war were at best paternalist; at worst they ascribed to women a marginal position as breeders and nurturers ... an index of women's position in the system is how few benefits are claimable by women in their own right, and how long it took the tax authorities to recognise that women have an existence independent of the man in the house. Once, to be fair, the tax and benefits system tried to recognise the fact that a household with children had vastly greater outgoings than one without, of which Child Benefit is the paltry legacy. But for most women of working age with children, the financial odds are tipped against them: their lifetime earnings are severely reduced by the fact of having had children. Our system penalises households with children - yet they are our engines of social reproduction. The place where the new generation is being shaped and socialised ends up poorer. Allegedly "family friendly" Tory governments have made that situation worse.

The nub of the problem is child-care. Why are lone parents who want to work so often unable even to respond to the incentives the system offers to get off benefit (incentives which Chancellor Gordon Brown is striving to increase)? Why are British women at higher income levels relatively so reluctant to offer their talents and efforts to the paid economy? The answer is child-care. There will always be a mixed economy of child-care provision. The state could do much more to provide or facilitate the provision of pre-school places. All those glowing reports you read about Wisconsin, the American state that allegedly has solved all its welfare problems ... they neglect to mention just how much child-care government agencies provide and even, where it is not geographically accessible, provide mothers with the means of transport to get to it.

The cutting edge of reform is rebalancing the tax take in favour of households with children. This is the substance of the campaign we are launching today. Yes, in some perfect world devised by a theory-driven economist, the tax code would have no encrustations, no reliefs or allowances. But here in the real world, there are gold-plated reliefs provided to Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all - but not to that special group on whom society (yes indeed there is such a thing) depends for its posterity, working mothers.

If all employers were flexibly beneficent, there might be no need for state action. They are not. We need a universal child-care allowance made available to one parent in every household with children below the age of 16. Whatever this or a future Chancellor might decide on the balance of taxation between the income bands, this "horizontal" redistribution between households with and without children is essential.

Gordon Brown inherited family-unfriendly policy from the Conservatives. It would be asking a lot for him to reverse it all in his first full budget in March, committed as he is to reworking state help to those in low-income employment. Welfare- to-work is a priority, yes, but Mr Brown will realise that this needs to be seen in a wider context. Women - in all households, at all income levels - have reservoirs of skill and energy. Too much of it is presently consumed in struggling to find satisfactory ways of looking after their children while they work. The Chancellor could do few things with more positive social and economic effect (not to mention electoral appeal) than start planning for a new child- care tax allowance.