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  1. Long reads
11 October 1999

Someone has to pay for true equality

Tony Blair's "light touch" with employers is tough on families, arguesYvonne Roberts

By Yvonne Roberts

Women discovered it first. Now Tony Blair is about to learn it: you can’t have it all. He wants to run the country as a modern exercise in man-management with no nasty confrontations with the bosses. At the same time, he believes in fighting “the forces of conservatism” and establishing “true equality”, defined in his conference speech as based on “equal worth, an equal chance of fulfilment, equal access to . . . opportunity”.

On 6 October, at a breakfast meeting in No 10, the government’s patronising eight-month consultation exercise, Listening to Women, came to a halt. A cross- section of Britain’s women broke bread with Blair (hard to imagine a similar exercise being imposed on a “cross-section of men”) and, surprise, surprise, women – still – resent the low value placed on caring; the difficulty of balancing work and home; and the lack of recognition for full-time home-makers. They might also have thrown in concern at new Labour’s emphasis on paid work and the continuing gap between men’s and women’s pay.

It must have begun to dawn on Blair as he listened that if he wants to create “a new Great Britain”, he will have to stop being besotted with the real “dark forces of conservatism” – employers. To paraphrase his conference speech, we are more than workers, we are citizens, too – which is why tinkering with the old jalopy that passes for industrial relations in this country simply isn’t enough. At least – as may become plain when Labour seeks a second term – not in the eyes of many female voters.

Elsewhere in Europe, employers, employees and government have a triangular pact on issues such as childcare and family-friendly policies and new initiatives such as time banks. In the Netherlands, employees accrue six-month sabbaticals, for example. Time off, therefore, is regarded as the norm, not as a “female problem” marking the mother out as a less committed worker. The foundation for such arrangements is a strong legal framework which sets the pace for change, establishes standards and, crucially, forces re-examination of attitudes.

Such a framework recognises that flexibility between home and work is important both for citizenship and for business profits. In Britain, however, the government says it prefers “a light touch” with employers. It appears to believe that a revolution in the workplace will happen with cosy understandings. As a result, we have the shambles of the European Union 48-hour working time directive and almost no movement at all on career breaks, job shares, paid paternity leave and the pay gap.

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The work-life balance was central to discussion at another forum a few weeks ago. At a conference of Mothers in Management, founded by the writer Shirley Conran, women exchanged tales of chronic fatigue and telling white lies such as “business meetings” in order to attend a daughter’s nativity play.

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The conference took place at the Savoy, but it wasn’t just the postwar decor that provoked such a strong sense of deja vu. The emphasis on personal testimony reminded me of the first stirrings of the women’s movement. Individuals talked of “holistic” solutions, employers and individuals working together, but – and this is perhaps Blair’s triumph – very few placed this crisis in its political context.

Many women – and men, too – see the struggle to care for a family while earning a wage as something concerning only them and their boss; a privatised issue.

Those the marketplace values most will get all the family-friendly policies they need – but what clout will the majority of us carry in this depoliticised workplace? What price “equality” then, without dynamic government intervention?

On 13 October, Tony Blair is hosting another seminar at No 10, at which Heather Joshi, an academic, and Harriet Harman MP will give the results of a study calculating the impact on children of maternal employment. The results are “nuanced”, says Joshi. At risk of simplification, babies up to the age of one do better if a mother is at home. Children over the age of nine are better socialised if they have a working mother. Research by John Ermisch at Essex University, due out shortly, says strongly that children up to the age of five appear to benefit more from a parent at home.

Such findings are not a hymn for all women to return to the hearth. “Nuances” implies that each child is different – what is good for one may not be so beneficial for another, even within the same family. We need employment practices and a welfare system that allow parents the flexibility to make the right decision for each child. What we have now is exactly the opposite. As a result, the single-parent mother at home lives in poverty. Meanwhile, the mother who seeks a job-share slips down a corporate snake when she has as much right – and talent – as the next man to rise up the company ladder.

Women who return to work when their child is six months old will be eligible for a £70 childcare tax credit. Harman suggests that this should be turned into a baby tax credit to be used if a woman (or man) wants to stay at home for the first year of a child’s life. Furthermore, government should pay this along with maternity benefit and maternity pay, taking the burden off employers. This recognises that over 80 per cent of British companies employ 20 or fewer people (many of them run by women).

Getting tough on industry does not have to result in all-out war: employers made a fuss about the minimum wage, but once it was in place few claimed injury. Listening to women is cheap, acting radically costs more. But if equality – and children – really matter, Blair must now match his rhetoric about equality with money.