The Independent

Thursday, October 14, 1999

WOMEN DON'T NEED TO BE TOLD WHEN TO TAKE A YEAR OFF

no author indicated
The Independent

WOMEN AND New Labour are still not comfortable in one another's company. A
palpable sense of strain hangs over the relationship. Women are a bit of a mystery and an inconvenience in Blairland. Can't make policy with 'em, can't make it without 'em. Blairites don't like the old Feminist Conspiracy, with its one-sided emphasis on the rights of single mothers. Neither do they trust social conservatives clamouring for a return to some fantasy good old days of mother's apple pie, either. They know that family life is needlessly strained for too many people. Yet their feel for what to do about it remains erratic and uncertain.

>From time to time women such as Harriet Harman, with views on these matters, are heaved into the limelight to show that the Government cares, only to be heaved out again when it seems that their caring may end up costing too much. Ms Harman was fronting a document on Maternal Employment at No 11 Downing Street yesterday, so clearly this is an in phase.

Having spent the last two years telling us with puritan zeal that work is the sole way for women to preserve their dignity and independence, the Government's Posh Spices, Baroness Jay and Tessa Jowell, hoofed it down to Marks & Spencer last week to launch some laughable document that came to the conclusion that women would like to "strike a balance between home andork". Well, I never.

Having constructed incentives that would prod women to work - a policy that fitted the Chancellor's Presbyterian instincts as well as the strain of Beatrice Webbery that runs through the Old Labour feminism - they have since discovered that women have far more nuanced desires than a tax credit to pay some childminder and get back to the production line.

Hence Ms Harman's proposals to extend maternity provisions from six months to a year. As she points out, one of the most striking changes in the last decade is the number of mothers of pre-school children who go back to work. Neither the workplace, nor the system of maternity provision, has kept pace with the consequences.

Her solution is to extend the right of women to return to work until the baby is a year old, and back this leave with a baby tax credit to replace the present muddle of allowances, pay and credits. This is a welcome simplification of complex rules, and should be welcomed by employers.

The bit they won't like, and with some reason, is that "right". It is a classic tug-of-war. One side maintains that the bosses could make life much easier for the put-upon workers if only they would reorganise a bit and show some good will; the other side says that job-creators rely on the flexibility of labour markets to stay in business and feel the impact of every centralised directive. No intervention in the labour market is neutral, no boon comes free of cost - a lesson that we learn anew every time the economy tightens.

But even if we decide that this was a price worth paying to benefit women and children, Ms Harman's broader logic confuses me. She produces research which says that children fare worse in reading if their mothers work in the first year, in order to support the notion that this is the key time for women to stay at home. But women are different and so are their children. Why should the state impose one year off and not another?

If it is so great for a parent to be with its children, then extend the Working Families Tax Credits to either partner who chooses to stay at home. The present scheme provides a strong incentive for women to go out to work and none to bring up their children.

The only honest objection to this is that the Government does not want single mothers at home when they could be supporting themselves and their offspring through work.

This always struck me as one of the less well thought-out parts of the Government's early stabs at welfare reform. Single mothers should be provided with the easiest possible gateway into work but not shoe-horned into it. There are no guarantees that they will make a worse fist of bringing up offspring than a local childminder: rather the opposite, I should have thought.

Debates on this subject are still conducted at a depressingly neolithic level, with the Right telling women to stay at home and the Left telling us to get out to work. The most sensible option is to expand choice in the system. A lot of women will still conclude that they want or need to work, but single or with partners, they should have more options that the present strictures allow.

The regiments of Jowells, Jays and Harmans never speak up for choice. A certain sell-by date is all too apparent in the approach to women and families. But it is a long time since Anna Coote stormed El Vino's in her trouser suit and New Labour needs to think as freshly about the modern family as it is prepared to do elsewhere in order to break the encrusted moulds of expected solutions.

The centre-left remains trapped somewhere between the earnest social engineering of the 1970s and the go-getting of the 1980s. The symbolic as well as the substantial messages are all mixed up. Take the wonder which has greeted the news that Yvette Cooper, who has a small baby and is married to Gordon Brown's economic advisor, has been promoted to a public health minister. No greater fuss has been made since the Virgin Birth.

Of course, no one bats an eyelid when a doctor, lawyer or City worker goes back to work ghastly hours. But we indulge our politicians' belief that they have an outrageously tough time and it's all for the good of the rest of us. Ms Cooper is ambitious and hardworking and she'll manage fine like a lot of other bright women do with busy jobs, supportive partners and a high enough income to pay out for good child care.

She wants both family and promotion, as do a lot of other driven women. Yes, we probably drive ourselves bonkers trying to fit it all into a single human life. Yes, there may well be saner options involving Buddhist prayer wheels and aromatherapy. But we are lucky enough to be able to choose how we live our lives. About us there is not much more that needs saying.

As Deborah Orr pointed out last week, we stubbornly behave as if some broader lessons for society could be learnt from the limited experience of a small group of metropolitan professional women. Does anyone seriously believe that Ms Cooper's daughter will fall into the worry-category of children whose reading suffered because their mothers worked during the first year? Hell, that child will be devouring neo-classical endogenous growth theory by the time it is two.

The bitter traps and constraints are felt by women whose lives are not considered to be glamorous or aspirational. "Society is indebted to mums who play a crucial role," trilled Baroness Jay. It is a sentiment so obviously, staringly true. So much so that it would take a politician even to dream of uttering it.