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Is the Prime Minister ready for war with stay-at-home mums?

The declaration this week that the government is to consult on criminalising forced marriage, like David Cameron fronting a campaign to protect children from online nasties, is a divertissement designed to reassure women that the Prime Minister really, really gets what they care about. It follows his apology to Nadine Dorries - for seeming to suggest in the Commons that she was sexually frustrated - and to Angela Eagle, for calling her "dear" at Prime Minister's Questions, two outbursts that suggest the Prime Minister is suffering from a serious case of governmental machismo.

What women really care about is what men really care about - money and, in the case of parents, how to pay for children and childcare in particular. When this does arise as a political issue in the media (and hence impinges on the consciousness of No 10), as often as not it is about the cost of nannies, or cuts in child benefit for high earners. Ministers throw out a few hints about tax breaks for nannies in future,
No 10 does a "female friendly" policy launch and the caravan moves on.

Behind the headlines about forced marriage or online safety for children this week, the government quietly slipped out some of the killer details around universal credit (UC), the issue that will make or break millions of families in Britain. A headline announcement about help paying for childcare for low-earning women who work fewer than 16 hours a week obscured a mass of detail about just how punitive for women the new regime is going to be.

Grim reading

First, there were the findings of the first Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in-depth research reports into the introduction of UC - 34 focus groups conducted around the country to see what people make of the plans. Some of it makes pretty grim reading. It is very poorly understood, in particular by recipients of tax benefits, that in future those working part-time or self-employed and earning below a certain amount, will have to be actively seeking more work in order to increase their earnings or they will lose their UC. This sounds marginal, but it isn't, and especially not for women.

One fifth of the entire workforce consists of female part-time workers (only 7 per cent are male part-timers). There are 5.8 million of these women, of whom the vast majority will presumably be parents working fewer hours in order to cope with children. Of these 5.8 million women in part-time jobs, a quarter earn £6 an hour or less. One of the things that the DWP confirmed this week was that any person earning less than the minimum wage, for fewer than 35 hours a week, will be forced to accept other work or risk losing UC. That's a lot of very poor families, already under great stress. Women with children aged 5-12 will be expected to work during school hours.

The change in rules will be make or break for those families. Today, if a lone parent with two children works 16 hours a week for the minimum wage of £6.08 an hour, 52 weeks a year, her gross pay equals £5,060 and working tax credit plus child tax credit would increase that by about £9,000 a year, without asking her to work any more. This isn't marginal income to pay for new trainers for the children: this is core funding, food on the table.

“Child tax credit" is a misnomer: it is a benefit not a tax credit, paid at the moment to anyone who has care of children unless the family has high income. When ministers say - and most of the media parrots - that "child benefits" are not being cut for low-income families, that is only because of a trick of the language. In fact the cuts are far more vicious than the child benefit cuts for high earners.

At the moment if you have one child, and your family income is under £16,000 a year, then whether you work or not, child tax credit is worth £3,100 a year; with two children, it is £5,660; and for three children, a whopping £8,220. Every woman - whether a lone parent or in a couple - who receives this credit will in future have to meet the conditionality criteria set out this week: to work during school hours, or spend that amount of time actively looking for work, regardless of type and salary, as long as it pays at least the national minimum wage, and is within 90 minutes of their home. And once children are over 13, the work has to be full time. This will hit "stay-at-home mums" hard (under the new rules, they will also see their credit cut if the family has savings).

Purse snatcher

Ministers worried about their standing with women now are going to have a lot more to worry about when families realise what this means for them. Not even the 65 per cent taper (much higher than the 50 per cent originally envisaged) is capped: another DWP note published this week warned ominously that the taper would be "set in line with government spending commitments" as plans develop.

There was another insidious problem noted by the DWP focus groups, too. Because UC will be a single payment, for a couple all the tax credits will often end up in the man's bank account, resulting in a "purse to wallet" transfer. "Benefits that would previously have gone to women and by extension the children (eg child tax credits) would end up with men under a single Universal Credit and it was felt that some men would misuse or otherwise not share the benefit with their partners or children." Men are known to be less likely to protect income for the benefit of children than women are.

I supported UC as a promising move towards removing the stark distinction between work and benefits and making transitions between them easier. Now it is set to wreck the progress made by Labour in giving mothers financial independence from both the workforce and an overbearing state. I sincerely hope Cameron's women troubles have only just begun.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, This is plan B