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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle