The Coalition should remember: women still have the vote
What do you get if you get a Cabinet of millionaires? A concerted attack on women. No wonder Chris Huhne’s ex appears to be so bitter.
I realised this when Nick Clegg was wheeled out earlier in the week to defend government proposals to abolish Child Benefit for families where one income exceeds £42,475 a year. You know a policy is in trouble when Clegg fronts it.
So muddle-headed is the plan that if each parent earns £42,000, in other words have a joint income of £84,000, the mother gets to keep the benefit. In contrast a family with a sole breadwinner bringing £43,000 into the home loses the benefit.
‘Ah diddums,’ I hear some sneer. ‘Who cares about middle class stay-at-home mothers?’ Well, I do, as this is just the latest policy from the self-proclaimed ‘Party for the Family’ to undermine the financial security of mothers, richer and poorer.
On the 6th April low income families with parents in part-time work face losing as much as £4,000 a year as the threshold for paying tax credits is raised from 16 hours a week to 24. The money is paid to the parent working part-time. As women in part-time work outnumber men by four to one, it means the burden of this cut falls upon them.
For those out of work seeking employment, the change is another reason to remain on benefits and out of work. People say Labour was confused about work and family but they ain’t got nothing on George Osborne.
Adding injury to insult, the Child Benefit proposal has a vicious sting in the tail for women who’ve taken a career break to be full-time carers. Child Benefit entitles claimants to Home Responsibilities Protection, which issues credits towards a state pension if we’re not paying National Insurance. In other words, those who get it are guaranteed a state pension when they retire. For millions of middle class stay-at-home mums with no money for a private pension, this means they could face poverty in old age if their partner dies.
But the Coalition has form on this. Women have already born the brunt of government cuts. Deep cuts have been made to services like libraries and public transport, which are used by a disproportionate number of women; funding programmes paid to new mothers like SureStart have been scrapped or scaled back; and, as women are the biggest workforce in the public sector, cuts to pensions and job losses have impacted more heavily on them.
It’s because of the deficit, someone is bound to say. Fine, so why are some paying more than others? So much for us all being in this together.
As more women slip into poverty, Osborne has shown little interest in spreading the burden more fairly. He has said nothing about means testing winter fuel allowance, which means millionaires like Paul McCartney and Peter Stringfellow get help with their bills. He is pushing hard to scrap the 50p top tax rate and is known to oppose a mansion tax that would end the anomaly by which a house worth £350,000 is in the same council tax band as a £2m mansion. No wonder Russian oligarchs love it here.
I can’t expect baronet-in-waiting Mr Osborne or his wife to understand the financial struggle faced by millions of ordinary families. This is a man whose first ‘proper’ job was Chancellor of the Exchequer and whose wife is equally well inherited. It is easy to make a decision about work when you can afford a mews full of nannies and the mrs’s day job involves writing about her great-grandmother’s racy past (her 2004 non-fiction début was The Bolter about posh gel Idina Sackville).
For most women, work is not a choice. It is what we do to help keep a roof over our head and our children fed. For those who stay at home to look after children, it is a considered decision that involves forfeit not just of extra income but the status lent by paid work. (If you doubt a job gives status, imagine answering ‘full-time mum’ when next asked your profession). There are those who think stay-at-home and part-time mothers shouldn’t moan. Why should they expect the tax payer to subsidise their decisions to spend more time with their children?
One answer is that in the long term all society benefits.
Research into children left in full-time childcare is not encouraging. In 2007 the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in America found that the more time children spent in nursery, the more likely their future primary school teachers were to report problem behaviour.
The study of over 3,400 children also found that bad behaviour was contagious. Children in classes with a disproportionate number of pupils who’d been in full-time childcare were also more likely to behave badly.
Choosing to stay at home with your children full-or part-time is not selfish indulgence. All those I know who’ve had a choice acknowledge a level of privilege. But many also talk about feeling valueless in a world that doesn’t accord their work any status. Too often their self-esteem is one of many unacknowledged sacrifices involved in choosing to raise their children rather than work full-time.
Ah but isn’t sacrifice what mothers do well? That’s certainly the message I’m taking from this Cabinet of millionaire men. They would do well to remember: women still have the vote.
© Danuta Kean 2012