Childcare cuts, maternity leave threatened, higher taxes… Young mothers are bearing the brunt of coalition cuts
The notion that maternity leave should be abolished is easy to dismiss as a ludicrous piece of “blue sky” thinking by one of the prime minister’s inner circle of trusted advisers. Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s director of strategy, is known for thinking the unthinkable. Portrayed as a maverick who wanders around No 10 in his socks, he is said to have nine mad ideas for every good one. A spoof website, The Steve Hilton Policy Generator, throws up suggestions such as “Return to VHS to abolish online piracy … just to see what happens” or “Make children sweep chimneys to make things more fun”.
No need to worry, then. “He comes out with this stuff all the time,” one senior Whitehall source said after news of the idea emerged last week. “He is madder than any of the caricatures around.”
But what then of the government’s cuts to childcare provision, Sure Start services and working tax credits? And what are women to make of recent research from the Fawcett Society, the gender equality group, which found those hardest hit by the triple whammy of cuts to jobs, benefits and services were single mothers?
Despite all the talk of family-friendly policies, and Cameron and Nick Clegg insisting on taking paternity leave and doing the school run, perhaps Hilton’s remarks are just further proof of the Conservatives’ blind spot when it comes to motherhood.
“There are serious signs across the government not just of a carelessness about women’s lives but of an ideological approach which risks turning the clock back,” said Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary and minister for women. “It is hard to imagine anyone who has any idea about working mothers or their importance to the British economy proposing the abolition of maternity leave – unless, of course, they think mothers shouldn’t work at all.”
Cooper’s intervention could be passed off as party politicking, but even within the coalition there is some evidence that Hilton’s plan was following a direction of travel not entirely alien to the government. This month, the minister for equalities, Lynne Featherstone, a Liberal Democrat, publicly warned government departments and local authorities that they will be in breach of equality laws if they do not examine the potential for cuts to fall disproportionately on women. Last year the Fawcett Society said that of the £8.1bn in savings (from cuts to jobs, benefits and services) announced in the emergency budget of June 2010, £5.7bn, or 72%, was being borne by women, compared with 28% by men.
Featherstone rejects the “blind spot” thesis, but when asked to justify the fact that women were being hit hardest by public sector job cuts, she said: “You can’t make an omelette without cracking eggs.” Critics say there have been too many omelettes. Many families have seen their income fall thanks to changes to working tax credits and a lowering of the threshold for receiving them. The proportion of childcare costs that a parent can claim back from the government has already been reduced and the Observer revealed earlier this year that ministers are considering almost halving the childcare allowance for some parents. It would reduce the amount a family with two children can claim from £210 to about £120 a week.
There has been a £20m (28%) cut to Playbuilder funding, a Labour government programme to build more playgrounds. A 22% cut to funding for childcare provision and Sure Start, with the removal of ringfencing, has resulted in many councils withdrawing, scaling back or charging extra for services such as holiday childcare and leisure activities. Justine Roberts, co-founder of the website Mumsnet, said: “It seems rather ironic that the coalition government agreement included a promise to make our society more family-friendly. We’ve yet to see much evidence of this. Parents are struggling with some of the highest childcare costs in Europe, static wages and the prospect of reduced child benefit and tax credits for many.”
Siobhan Courtney, 28, who has a four-month-old son, Alban, has given up the job she loved as a television journalist because the numbers do not add up. She and her partner live in St Albans, Hertfordshire, and both work in London. “We are on the threshold and aren’t entitled to any tax credits,” she said. “If I send my son to nursery, I’ll be going to work just to cover his nursery fees and my commuting fares. That’s bonkers. Many new mothers I’ve met say the same. I’m going to freelance, but the trouble with ad hoc work is that you have to pay for childcare whether or not any work comes in. I don’t want to come across as some sort of middle-class, bleating woman but it does seem unfair. It’s a really tricky time.”
Luciana Berger, the Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree, said the squeeze on women and families was a constant topic of discussion in her constituency surgeries: “From cutting funding for childcare and working tax credits to closing Sure Start centres and changing the state pension – affecting women aged 56 and 57 particularly hard – this Tory-led government has systematically pursued policies that disproportionately affect women. I’ve been inundated with representations from female constituents.”
A year on from the coalition’s first budget, research from the Fawcett Society and the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that single mothers are the most affected and, after all the changes, can expect to lose 8.5% of their net annual income by 2015. Anna Bird, acting chief executive of the society, said: “Childcare is getting more expensive, incomes are falling and the tax credits that add to low income are being reduced. Single mothers are facing difficult decisions about whether they can afford to go out to work. These women want to be role models for their daughters too. It’s the role models we’ll lose that will have the biggest impact.”
One lone parent who is finding life a financial struggle is Victoria Hopkins, a human resources manager from West Yorkshire. “I would really like to see the government offering more assistance in the way of tax relief to single working mothers like myself,” she said. “I get no financial assistance from my daughter’s father because his business went into administration. My annual salary is £28,000, which I appreciate is OK, but by no means is it a huge wage. I have to cover my outgoings and on the weeks that my daughter is on school holidays I have to pay £130 a week for childcare. This equates to nearly £2,500 a year, and the contribution from the government via tax credits is £345 a year – pitiful.
“I am contributing to society by working, I am contributing to the economy through my taxes, I’m being a good role model for my five-year-old daughter. Where is the incentive for me to work? I’d be better of being a stay-at-home mum living off benefits. It’s ridiculous.”
Siobhan Freegard, co-founder of the website Netmums, calls women in this situation “ledgers”. “It sums up what a huge proportion of the working mothers who talk to us feel,” she said. “They are on this ledge where they are just coping but if one thing changes – for example, when they get a tax credit review and are told they are going to be £40 worse off, or they have to take unpaid time off because a child is sick, or there’s a snow day – it tips them off the ledge. We have women with jobs telling us they are worse off than if they didn’t work but they are hanging on because in a year’s time one child will start school and their childcare costs will fall.”
Sharon Hodgson, the Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West, said she believed the government was targeting women with children because they were the demographic least likely to vote. “The worst things they did last year, people have forgotten about. Getting rid of the child trust fund, the baby bond, the health in pregnancy grant, added to all the things they have done recently, is all targeted at women and families.”
Tory MPs reject the notion that the government’s way out of economic problems is to make women suffer more, and the latest intake of the parliamentary party insist that they are different from their predecessors. Certainly, they claim, there is no ideological motivation. “I would say this is more woman- and family-friendly than previous governments,” said Damian Hinds, the MP for East Hampshire. “It is probably an evolution over time, but also [the result of] having a man in Downing Street with a young family and Nick Clegg with a young family too. Of course, there have been cuts but I genuinely think there is a real will to address problems such as multigenerational worklessness and dysfunctional households. The design of the new benefits system is an enormously ambitious project and there are obstacles we need to overcome but there is nothing ideological about this, not at all.”
Shortly after the coalition took power, Hilton spoke at a staff meeting in Downing Street. Described by one of those who attended as inspirational, Hilton stressed he was interested in three things: “Transparency, big society and family.”
The Fawcett Society said last week it was hugely encouraged by the Modern Workplace consultation, which is looking at extending the right to request flexible working and changing parental leave so fathers can take a greater role in their child’s first year. But perhaps the government should look to France for truly family-friendly policies. Mothers there are helped by free pre-schools, family allowances, tax deductions and four months of maternity leave on full pay. Or would this be too much for even the wackiest of blue-sky thinkers?
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