Blaming women

Why Frank Field’s plan to address child poverty won’t work.

At last, the coalition shows its softer side. In the interests of making sure their policies are "fair" for the nation's poorest children, it has asked Frank Field, Labour MP to conduct a review of poverty and the effect on children's life chances.

To be fair, it was a sorry situation the coalition inherited. The gender pay gap widens to a huge 41 per cent when looking at the part-time workforce dominated by mothers. The salary needed to cover the average cost of childcare and housing without state support sits at about £26,000 a year, with the median average full-time salary sitting at well below that.

Discrimination against mothers in the workplace is so widespread that women having their children young may find they never get to experience a career on the same terms as everyone else. Mothers are concentrated in low-paid, part-time positions that allow them to balance paid work with the unpaid 24/7 job that is parenting.

Most women in Britain, married or not, working or not couldn't afford to breed without the support of either a partner or the state. The very act of "breeding" ensures they are highly unlikely to be able to provide for themselves and their children alone, and there are no guarantees that the person they "breed" with will always be a willing, able, or safe provider.

Twenty-one per cent of working single parents are in poverty, and the rapidly rising cost to the state of subisidising this inequality has contributed to our booming tax credits and housing benefit bill. The receipt of housing benefit and tax credits when I worked full-time as a social worker meant that, after paying rent, childcare, utilities, student loan and travel to work, I was able to spend about £100 per month on food and the clothes that my daughter had the temerity to grow out of.

There are organisations that would have shared their extensive research with Mr Field. He could have looked at the overwhelming evidence that mothers act as "shock absorbers" of poverty within families, and the effect this has on their mental and physical health, as well as their ability to parent. He could have taken a passing glance at the plentiful evidence of widespread discrimination in the workplace experienced by mothers of young children – preventing many from entering the workplace at all. He could have looked at the exorbitant cost of childcare in the UK. On Friday, Unicef declared that urgent action was needed to tackle the income poverty caused by low wages of households with children in the UK.

So I read Mr Field's report cover to cover – after all, something needs to be done. All the things I thought were crucial to understanding children's poverty are apparently irrelevant. What children need is secure and loving parenting, and parents who are poor clearly cannot be trusted to do this, so money paid to them should be diverted into "early years intervention care" so that clever graduate professionals can raise children's aspirations.

Mind the gap

Frank Field's report is the centrepiece of a strategy to tackle child poverty, which has so far seen huge cuts to the housing benefit, and tax credits that allow the parents of young children to work and stay in their communities.

Single parents are to be forced on to JSA when their children are five, with their housing benefit being cut a further 10 per cent if they fail to fly in the face of widespread discrimination and secure employment, and mothers of babies as young as one will face financial sanctions for not "keeping in touch with the labour market". Conditions of the replacement to the current tax credit system are likely to look at whether working mothers requiring state support are doing enough paid work, and dictate their working patterns accordingly.

Our "feminist" equalities minister Lynne Featherstone MP announced this week that companies will not be required to address the gender pay gap in their organisations, and the legal aid that would allow individual mothers of young children to challenge employers when they experience discrimination has been dropped.

Rapidly rising female unemployment is to be addressed by slashing hundreds and thousands of jobs in our public sector done predominantly by women. Still, now that the clause in our Equality Bill which demands that legislation be assessed on its impact on equality has been dropped, it isn't like anyone can point this out.

After nudging women out of the workplace and into poverty – nudging equality out of our legislation, nudging away women's ability to seek legal help to challenge this, and slashing the meagre state funding that bridges some of that inequality – early years professionals need to teach these feckless women (and let's face it, it is mainly women we are talking about) to centre their lives around Surestart, so they can be taught to be "better". Create poverty and blame women for the effects.

Now I don't want to be disingenuous. I knew that part of Frank Field's remit had been to eliminate a "couples penalty" from our tax and benefit system. A penalty calculated by omitting the cost of childcare, or the earnings potential of women with children.The anti-abortion charity Christian Research Action and Education (Care) has long been grateful for the support of Iain Duncan Smith and Frank Field in campaigning about it.

Frank Field's belief then was that if you took money away from single mothers, they would be more inclined to find themselves a man – thus improving their outlook. I thought the coalition had quietly dropped this obscene aim, but it would appear it has been achieved completely – without anyone bothering to announce it.

Christopher Hitchens is apparently incorrect: the cure for poverty isn't empowering women, it's marriage or Surestart.

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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