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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On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University