There's no New Deal for women Woman's lot is still a forgotten one

Diane Coyle fears a 'laddish' Budget which looks set to ignore the needs of half the population

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Women have high hopes of this Government. It has given us our own minister in the Cabinet. All those babes in the House of Commons, we firmly expect, will change the masculine culture of politics and ensure that women's concerns get a higher priority. And that's not just the colour of your suits and size of your shoulder pads, girls, but money, jobs and health.

Sadly, the hints preceding next Wednesday's welfare-to-work Budget suggest that these hopes will be disappointed. There appears to be no place for questions of gender in welfare reform, the centrepiece of the Government's plans for the country.

Take the question of single mothers, one of the acid tests of New Labour's intentions. No one could doubt Harriet Harman's sincerity when she says she wants to improve the lot of the most vulnerable group of women in Britain. Similarly, her adviser Anna Coote is a much-respected and admired feminist.

But look at what Labour has actually said it will do to help lone mothers and the proposals so far turn out to be extraordinarily flimsy. In a new briefing the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) welcomes the Government's intentions but says it "is concerned at the lack of details revealed to date".

This is putting it kindly. The Government has said the Employment Service will interview lone parents whose youngest child has reached the second term at school, to help with their job search. And there will be an undefined national childcare strategy, at least partly funded by the National Lottery.

Nothing about the possibility of including single parents in the "New Deal" to be funded by the pounds 5bn windfall tax, which would help them into jobs by paying employers a subsidy. Nothing about paying an adequate level of benefits to the single parents with pre-school-age children, about half the 1.5 million single parents. Not a whisper about reversing the Conservative government's decision to abolish from next April both the pounds 5.20 lone-parent premium on benefits and pounds 6.30 one-parent top-up to child benefit.

Nothing about the most important question of all, paying for childcare. The Daycare Trust, which is lobbying for a new childcare allowance for low-income families, estimates that the cost for a school-age child is pounds 15-pounds 50 a week in term-time and up to pounds 80 a week in the holidays. This is the biggest obstacle facing single mothers who want to return to work. Sally Witcher, director of CPAG, says: "One big, unanswered question is whether there will be sufficient resources."

Ms Harman aside, the Government does not give the impression of having focused on the big issues concerning women. For example, for the New Deal measures to be announced next Wednesday, the Treasury team has been preoccupied with long-term unemployment - almost entirely a man's problem. Young or old, most of those who have been out of jobs for more than six months are male.

The female equivalent of the problem is single motherhood. But the revenues from the windfall tax have been earmarked exclusively for the New Deal for men. It is not too late for Gordon Brown to direct some of that money to women, but the Treasury has shown no interest in that idea.

What is really alarming is the Government's failure to put women's interests at the centre of its review of the welfare state. The welfare-to-work task force, headed by Martin Taylor of Barclays Bank, has no women among the eight civil servants who staff it.

The purpose of the task force is to work out how to mesh the tax and benefits systems. Both have big flaws, and one of the biggest problems is how they interact. People on benefits remain trapped in poverty because they lose more in the withdrawal of benefits than they can earn in low- paid jobs.

The Government sees integrating taxes and benefits as the route from welfare to work. This sounds as if it could be the solution but, as you would expect of such a big reform, it has pros and cons.

One of the drawbacks is that the benefit system assesses the financial situation of families, whereas the tax system taxes individuals. Integrating the two would mean abandoning the independent taxation of husbands and wives.

This matters, not simply because it would raise feminist hackles (though it would); it would also make some women poorer. One particular idea floated by the Treasury in the Budget run-up was a switch from family credit, the top-up benefit for low-earner families, to an "earned income tax credit". The trouble with family credit is that beyond a certain level of income it is withdrawn so rapidly that it reduces the incentive to work more. The mooted switch to a tax refund could overcome this. But apart from the fact that the Inland Revenue would need all kinds of new information to run the system (like the number of children, and spouse's earnings), to deliver the top-up through the tax system would be to deliver it to men. In 98 per cent of cases family credit goes to the woman. A tax credit through the wage packet would go to the man in 45 per cent of cases.

It might prove impossible, however. David Willetts, the Conservative MP for Havant who spear- headed the last government's thinking on welfare, predicts a return to joint taxation would not be possible. "We discussed it around the cabinet table at the time, and I remember we agreed that independent taxation was the final nail in the coffin of tax and benefit integration," he says.

All this is not to say that the new government is secretly against women. It is just that, for all their fine words, women's concerns do not cross their minds. The New Labour culture is quintessentially laddish. The women's place is in the House of Commons; at the heart of the Government, in the Treasury and No 10, the jobs belong to the boys.

Almost literally. The top policy jobs are packed with young men who slip from policy-wonk conversations about the welfare state to football chatter in the flutter of an eyelash. If women's hopes are to be fulfilled, what we need is for Labour's new girls to start out-wonking the boys.

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