Sod real equality of opportunity - in this economy, we all have to go to work

Like Nick Clegg, I also value equality for parents, not for “a stronger economy” but for its own sake.

A lifelong feminist, before my own kids arrived I was completely committed to the idea of shared parenting. Then my sons came along and I was confronted with that essential, almost physical need to be with them constantly. It wasn’t just breastfeeding but a broader consciousness of what “motherhood” truly meant, as though labour had awakened the… Only kidding. By month five of maternity leave I was climbing the walls. My return to spreadsheets and payslips couldn’t have come a moment too soon... (Again, only kidding. It was all about the cold, hard cash.)

Being a full-time career bitch from hell (as opposed to a lazy part-timer or a fluff-brained, cupcake-baking stay-at-home-mum), I ought to welcome Nick Clegg’s latest announcement on shared parental leave. After all, I want to be one of those “women up and down the country realising their potential, keeping their independence, fulfilling their dreams”. Indeed, it wasn’t for those pesky kids, it appears that my life would already be a Barbara Taylor Bradford novel. And yet I find myself reading Clegg’s depressingly titled "Greater Equality for a Stronger Economy" speech and feeling really bloody miserable. It all sounds so tiring. “You won’t get to 30 and suddenly have to choose: motherhood or work”, says Nick. Well, thanks for that. I might be a breeder but I’m already doing my bit for the economy (and equality, or so it would seem). I’m not complaining but please – will you get off my case? Feminism – and the fact that “we” (by which I don’t assume the likes of me) “have got so much better at telling young women: the sky’s the limit” – has made me into the obedient little economic unit I am today. Sure, I might spend my evenings reading Thomas the Tank Engine, but it doesn’t stop me being a Really Useful Engine come the next day.

Because that’s what all this feels like to me. Back to work, mummies. None of this stay-at-home slacking, not when “there’s no money around”. Sod real equality of opportunity. Sod extending paternity leave (or rather, let’s revisit it “when the economy is in a stronger state”). Sod the fact that the domestic arrangement Clegg derides – “Mum in the kitchen, Dad in the office” – is no longer affordable for most of us anyhow. Equality, if it means anything, means the important people herding everyone else back into low-paid jobs while telling them they’re realising their dreams. Excuse me if I find it less liberating than it sounds. Unlike Sam Cam, who might work two days a week but admits to “spending a lot of time thinking about work on her days off”, I get to be at work every single day. If it’s economically beneficial equality they’re after, the Coalition should look closer to home. Smythson are paying their creative consultants way too much and it’s preventing them from “realising their potential”.

I have nothing against paid work. There’s one rather obvious reason why it’s better than unpaid work (especially true if you’re female, since rather than waste your income on supporting a family, you get to spend it all on shoes or something). I was never stay-at-home mother material and would have gladly shared more of the leave I had following the birth of my children. And now, since both my partner and I work full-time anyhow, aren’t we precisely the model that Clegg’s hypothetical “young couple” should look up to? Follow us, young pioneers! No more shall “fathers miss out on being with their children” while “women lower their ambitions for themselves”. Way-hey! Three Men and a Baby domestic bliss for Daddy, Working Girl office advancement for Mummy. It’ll be just like the eighties, only minus the shoulder pads and champers (and the relatively small gap between top- and bottom-level pay, even if we didn’t think it small at the time).

It’s not just that flowery pro-equality language has been hijacked in order to sweeten the pill of making those who can’t afford to work unable not to. I have real issues with Clegg’s explanation of how gender equality will be promoted through this exploitative proposal. In Nick’s post-feminist vision, motherhood is to blame for all the hurdles faced by women in the workplace: “the moment they start planning a family, their options begin to narrow”. Hence the key to equality lies in getting Mummy back to work sharpish, breastpump in hand, providing Daddy can step into the breach. Yet is it really that straightforward? In a list of major factors explaining the pay gap, the Home Office website puts just 16 per cent of the gap down to “the negative effect of having previously worked part-time or of having taken time out of the labour market to look after a family”. Meawhile, 36 per cent remains unaccounted for, “suggesting discrimination may still be an important factor” (imagine that!). And if one is looking for evidence that plain old discrimination against workers for being female still exists, it’s not hard to find. Research suggests that if you are female, requesting a pay rise is more likely to have a negative impact on how you are perceived. You might have the best qualifications for a role, but if you’re not male, it might not be qualifications they’re after. As Cordelia Fine explains in Delusions of Gender, employers aren’t always conscious of discriminating and employees don’t always know they’re experiencing discrimination. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but if you blame its effects on the indisputable fact that some women bear children, you can make it appear invisible. 

But even if the gender pay gap were all down to the expectations we place on women when they become mothers, is three years long enough to sort the whole thing out? Because young couples, that’s all you’re being given. Three years in which to overcome the prejudice and guilt-mongering of employers, friends and relatives, in which to ignore the prod-prodding of the “Mum’s gone to Iceland” culture that surrounds you, in which to put your own financial priorities on hold in the name of the greater good that is economically prudent equality. New flexible leave laws come into effect in 2015 and then, says Clegg:

The next stage will be assessing if couples are using this new freedom. So flexible leave will be reviewed in the first few years, by 2018, and extending paternity leave will be looked at as part of that.

I’d imagine that whatever happens we still won’t be able to afford/prioritise extended paternity leave by 2018. But by that time we’ll know it doesn’t matter anyhow. The only couples who are interested in shared parenting are eccentrics such as me and my partner and those who can actually afford childcare which fits around their shift patterns. The rest of humankind will have proven once and for all that unpaid work is women’s work and that that’s what nature intended.

I’ll be honest, though. If I were to have another child, I am sure that my partner and I would want to make use of this new leave structure. I’d have a few months of being typically socially inept at baby group before heading back to the office with my trusty electric pump (which, if you’re sleep-deprived enough, appears to wheeze out the theme to Byker Grove while you’re expressing). I’d make use of the new legislation, but the fact is, ungrateful sod that I am, I’d just get on with it. I don’t see myself standing at the photocopier, breast pads ruining the cut of my work shirt, thinking “thank you, Nick! Thank you for allowing me to help men like you sort out the economy!”. The truth is, I value my job but I also value equality, not for “a stronger economy” but for its own sake. You might think that’s the only way you can sell it but alas, when you unpick the rhetoric, you’re not selling us equality at all.

Samantha Cameron works two days a week but admits to “spending a lot of time thinking about work on her days off”. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.