The lesson Cameron needs to learn from Birgitte Nyborg

Our Scandinavian friends have much to teach us.

David Cameron has been in Stockholm this week, expressing his love for all things Nordic from economic openness, to free schools, and the Danish TV series The Killing.

Based on his pronouncements today he's doubtless also been attracted to Borgen, the political drama in which a female prime minister juggles coalition politics and the demands of a young family at the same time as driving through her commitment to equality in the corporate boardroom.

It's a welcome sign as we have a lot to learn from our Scandinavian friends -- and not just about increasing the number of female directors. We could also learn a lot when it comes to supporting the vast majority of working mothers.

As a new report from the Resolution Foundation today shows, motherhood in modern Britain still carries a heavy price in the workplace. More than nine out of ten of those surveyed, switched from full-time to part-time work since having children. Of course, for many women this is a positive choice with mothers wanting the flexibility to work fewer hours, especially when their children are young.

But here's the rub: it also shows that even when making a positive choice, working part-time still carries a very heavy cost. An incredible 44 per cent of women reported that they'd had to take a lower-skilled job when switching to part-time work.


By working part-time, do you feel you've had to take a lower skilled job than you would have if you worked full-time?

Working part-time


And while these trade-offs affect people in all income groups, those on low to middle incomes are far more likely to face constrained choices and tougher penalties. Compared to more affluent women, those on low to middle incomes are almost twice as likely to feel that they have no choice but to work part-time, and when they do they are 33 per cent more likely to be forced to take a lower skilled job.

Millions feel constrained, having to choose between a more fulfilling and well paid career and family life. As one respondent put it: "I guess just have to accept that career progression is impossible now because I chose to work part-time, employers won't admit it but this is the reality for part-time working mums."

And we're not just constraining parents' choices, we're also harming our economy. Overall the UK ranks 15th in the OECD in terms of levels of female employment. If we caught up with the highest performing countries, up to one million more women would be in the workplace.

The chart below shows the gap between our female employment rate and better performing countries for women of different ages. The story is clear -- it's at the peak years of childbirth that we really fall behind, with mothers having to drop out of the workforce.


Female employment gap between UK and better performing countries

Female employment

Given that the UK has the second most expensive childcare in the OECD this is hardly a surprise - nor is the fact that almost half of working mothers say that the lack of affordable and quality childcare is a key barrier preventing them from increasing their working hours.

Here's hoping that there is a sequel to Borgen in which Birgitte decides to highlight the plight of ordinary working mothers and the role that universal childcare plays in enabling them to work: and that someone makes David Cameron watch the box-set.


Gavin Kelly is a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.