David Cameron's great childcare con

This isn’t just bad news for parents and children, it’s bad news for the economy too, says Sharon Hodgson.

Today’s coverage of David Cameron’s childcare policies has illustrated how out of touch this Government is. While they give tax cuts to those at the top, they have totally failed to support hardworking families with the cost of childcare.

As one mother, who works from home as a childminder, put it: “I remain unconvinced that it does anything for the typical working/lower middle class family”.

She is right. According to the Resolution Foundation think tank, 900,000 low income working families will not benefit from David Cameron’s childcare vouchers.

And of course no-one will get any help until 2015. There has been nothing for families in five years from this Government, while costs continue to rise and wages stagnate. And of course when it comes to living standards, hardworking parents have already seen their family budgets squeezed.

Working parents with two children have already lost £1,500 a year from the cut in childcare tax credits. Added to that, many mums have lost hundreds of pounds because of cuts to maternity pay, child benefit and pregnancy grants.

By the next election, George Osborne will have taken a total of £15 billion out of parents’ pockets.

All this is happening while costs continue to spiral. Childcare costs are rising faster than wages. A parent buying 50 hours of childcare per week for a child under two now faces an annual bill of nearly £11,000 per year or £14,000 per year in London. That’s the equivalent of a second mortgage.

And yet provision is getting patchier. Unbelievably, there are now 5,000 fewer childcare places since last year, as nurseries close down and childminders go out of business.

And many nurseries and children’s centres are charging top up fees for services that used to be free, pricing yet more hardworking families out of the labour market.

This isn’t just bad news for parents and children, it’s bad news for the economy too.

Labour want to ensure parents are able to go back to work if they want to. That’s why we’re looking to countries in Scandinavia who provide stronger support for childcare and where female unemployment is lower.

But this Government has made it more difficult for new mums to return to their job.

An Aviva survey found that 32,000 women left the workforce in one year since summer 2010 due to high costs of childcare making it more cost-effective to stay at home.

The summer holidays are a particularly tricky time for working parents. Those who can’t afford a private nanny or nursery are often forced to take time off work or rely on help from friends or families.

Labour was working to address this in Government. We tripled the number of holiday childcare places, but in their first year this Government cut 10,000 of those places, and have slashed the budget for holiday childcare by 40% so far.

There’s no doubt that childcare costs are one of the biggest drivers of living standards. The trouble is that hardworking parents have seen their income squeezed since the last election.

Only David Cameron could be so out of touch to think parents will be grateful for some help in 2015, when they’ve already seen their childcare support cut.

Sharon Hodgson MP is Labour’s Shadow Children’s Minister

David Cameron visits a school. Photo: Getty

Sharon Hodgson is Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West. 

Photo: Getty
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A rape-able sex robot makes the world more dangerous for women, not less

Eroticising a lack of consent is no answer to male sexual violence. 

On Wednesday, the Independent reported a new setting had been added to the personality range of a sex robot made by the company True Companion. Called “Frigid Farrah”, the setting allows men who own the robot to simulate rape. If you touch it in a “private area” when it is in this mode, the website explains, it will “not be appreciative of your advance”.

True Companion says the robot is not programmed to participate in a rape scenario, and the idea is “pure conjecture”. Nevertheless, the news has reopened the debate about sex robots and their relationship to consent. What does a rape-able robot say about our attitudes to consent, sex, violence and humanism? Do sex robots like Frigid Farrah eroticise and normalise male sexual aggression? Or does allowing men to “act out” these “most private sexual dreams” on inanimate objects actually make real women safer?

The idea that allowing men to “rape” robots could reduce rates of sexual violence is fundamentally flawed. Sex robot settings that eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, coupled with male aggression, risk normalising rape. It sends a message to the user that it is sexually fulfilling to violate a woman’s “No”.

It’s important to remember that rape is not a product of sexual desire. Rape is about power and domination – about violating a woman’s body and her sense of self. Raping a robot is of course preferable to raping a woman, but the fact is we need to challenge the attitudes and sense of entitlement that cause violent men to rape in the first place.

There is little evidence to back the claim that giving men sexual “outlets” reduces violence. The research that exists is focused on whether a legalised sex industry can reduce sexual assault.

Studies on Dutch “tippelzones” – spaces where soliciting is legal between certain hours – claimed the areas led to a reduction in sexual violence. However, the research lacked precise data on incidents of sexual violence and abuse, and the fact that sex workers themselves can be victims. As a result, it wasn’t possible to determine exactly how the number of rapes and assaults fell in the population at large.

Similar claims made by social scientist Catherine Hakim also failed to prove a causal link between legalised prostitution and reduced levels of sexual violence – again, because low reporting means a lack of accurate data.

Other research claims that access to the sex industry can in fact increase incidents of sexual violence. A 2013 report by Garner and Elvines for Rape Crisis South London argued that an analysis of existing research found “an overall significant positive association between pornography use and attitudes supporting violence against women in non-experimental studies”.

Meanwhile, a 2000 paper by Neil Malamuth, T Addison, and J Koss suggested that, when individuals considered at high risk of acting sexually aggressively are studied, levels of aggression are four times higher among frequent consumers of pornography.

However, just as the research fails to find a causal link between access to the sex industry and reducing violence, there is no research proving a causal link between violent pornography and gender-based violence.

Instead, we have to look at the ethical and moral principles in an industry that creates models of women for men to orgasm into. Sex robots are, at their heart, anti-humanist. They replace women with plastic and holes. They create a world for their owners where women’s voices and demands and desires and pleasures – and right to say no – are absent.

That should trouble us – we are creating products for men which send a message that the best woman is a compliant and silent one. That the best woman is one who lies back and “likes what you like, dislikes what you dislike”, to quote the True Companion website, who is “always ready to talk and play” but whose voice you can turn off whenever you want.

“By transferring one of the great evils of humanity from the real to the artificial, sex robots simply feed the demon of sexism,” says Professor Alan Winfield of the Bristol Robotics Lab. “Some might say, 'What’s the problem – a sex robot is just metal and plastic – where’s the harm?' But a 'fembot' is a sexualised representation of a woman or girl, which not only invites abusive treatment but demands it. A robot cannot give consent – thus only deepening the already chronic and dangerous objectification of real women and girls.”

What research does tell us is that there is a clear link between violence and the perpetrator’s ability to dehumanise their victims. That, and a setting designed to eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, suggest that Frigid Farrah will have no impact on reducing sexual assault. Rather, it creates a space where rape and violence is normalised and accepted.

Instead of shrugging our shoulders at this sexualisation of male violence, we should be taking action to end the belief that men are entitled to women’s bodies. That starts by saying that rape is not an inevitable part of our society, and the danger of rape cannot simply be neutralised by a robot.

Sian Norris is a writer. She blogs at sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com and is the Founder & Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She was previously writer-in-residence at Spike Island.