U-turn on childcare cuts: is the coalition waking up to its women problem?

Ministers have rightly backtracked on a regressive cut aimed directly at working women.

Sooner or later something had to give. And today it has. Following much speculation the government has finally announced a change in its planned cuts to childcare, a key area of concern for many working mothers (and fathers). The recent heat about fast falling support for the coalition among key groups of women voters is starting to take its toll.

So £300m has been found to ensure that more part-time workers can claim tax-credit support for childcare without necessitating a further cut in provision for existing claimants. Up until now there had been widespread fear that any extension in support for part-timers would mean yet another cut in childcare support for everyone else.

To get perspective on these changes requires some background. Under Labour those parents on low and modest incomes working more than 16 hours a week were eligible for support covering 80 per cent of their childcare costs. Last April the coalition cut this support to 70 per cent. That may sound a small change - it isn't. It meant a major hike in the share of childcare costs low-income working parents have to pay. On average this has translated into a £450 loss for half a million parents, with some losing a staggering £1300.

Since then there has been much well informed speculation, based on meetings between ministers and children's campaigners, about another significant reduction in support for working parents currently claiming childcare support (as part of the move to towards the Universal Credit). The implications of this further cut were going to be devastating for many families, as lone parents and second earners - overwhelmingly women - would have been left with little if any incentive to work more than a few days a week.

Today's announcement removes this threat. Importantly, it extends for the first time eligibility for childcare support to those working less than 16 hours a week, without any offsetting cut for other parents to pay for this. This is genuinely good news for many families struggling on low incomes looking for slivers of work to help make ends meet. What it completely fails to do, however, is reverse April's cut.

For those involved in the technicalities of this policy debate, today's news feels like a bit of a victory - something awful has been averted and something positive secured. That's why there has been a fair bit of relief, and positive reaction, to the announcement. But for working parents already claiming support, still smarting from April's cuts, there isn't going to be any gratitude. You don't get prizes in politics for avoiding making a bad situation worse. In fact the money made available today almost exactly matches the cut made in the spring. The net result has been a shift in support away from those working more than two days a week, towards those working less than this. And this extra money comes from the £2bn set aside for introducing the Universal Credit; we don't yet know what else this money might have been spent on.

And let's not forget that, particularly following April's cut, the system of childcare support has some truly miserable features. Donald Hirsch, the leading welfare expert, has pointed out that someone on the minimum wage weighing up whether to work an extra hour will keep only about 35p of the extra £6 they earn (once they take account of additional childcare costs, the extra tax paid and reduced tax credits). Work hardly pays.

Today's shift on childcare is, nonetheless, significant in that it represents a clear decision to back-track on what was going to be an incredibly regressive cut aimed directly at working women. It also reveals something of the internal discussion going on within the coalition.

Above all it confirms that they have been rocked by recent polling showing plummeting support amongst female C2 voters, as well as other work by campaign groups showing how severely childcare costs are hitting family living standards. In the face of these concerns, abstract apologies from David Cameron to women voters were never going to suffice.

It also reflects the fact that Nick Clegg, who absented himself from debates on welfare and work for too long, has woken up to the fact that what was happening on childcare made a total mockery of his claim to champion 'alarm clock Britain'.

On closer inspection his team realised that further cuts would have risked the death of full-time work, or anything near full-time work, for women in low-income families relying on tax credits to pay for the childcare they need to hold down a job. This is obviously a major economic issue - but it's a massive electoral and gender one too. The Liberal Democrats, who were disproportionately reliant on female votes last May, realised during the summer that they couldn't sit this one out. Over recent weeks Clegg forced the hand of IDS and George Osborne and vetoed the idea of the announcement being made to the Tory faithful in Manchester this week.

Less easy to discern are the other changes this new found concern with working women might result in. Many expect a watering down of the coalition's proposed axing of Child Benefit for all higher rate tax-payers in 2013, though pressure for this will come from Conservative backbenchers (worrying about the impact on middle income stay-at-home mothers) rather than the Liberal Democrat leadership. Another flashpoint is likely to be the new and severe charging regime for parents using the Child Support Agency.

Either way the coalition's woes with working women on low-to-middle incomes are set to grow not diminish. The wider economic, fiscal and social forces underpinning them are hardly going to be reversed by one announcement on childcare. But at least today's announcement was more than warm words. And that's a step forward.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.