Working it through

GlenysThornton.jpgGlenys Thornton on the impact of the cost of living crisis on women who want to work

I come from a background where there was never any question that women worked. When I grew up we knew that it was only the middle classes and high salaried for whom the choice was available for women to stay at home and be full time mothers and homemakers. And 60 years on that is still pretty much the same, both in the UK and for millions of women across the world.

Work is not an option, childcare is essential and expensive, and almost all women have caring responsibilities at various times in their lives. So to think that the need for women to work has fundamentally changed would be wrong. We need to address the role of government in making it easier and more equitable for women to work, and how it matches up to those challenges.

There is now mounting evidence of the impact that the increased cost of childcare is having on family budgets and our economy. Sending a child under two to nursery part- time (25 hours) now averages £109.89 per week – or £5,710 per year; and for full-time (42 hours per week) it is around £9,850. A clear example of the cost of living crisis facing ordinary families. 

Ironically I heard this week of a nursery in South West London putting up their fees for parents and citing “the Cost of Living Crisis” as the justification. Perhaps they missed the point somewhere. 

Fraser Nelson, Editor of The Spectator – a commentator I would not normally quote – wrote a piece this week headlined “Expensive child care is robbing Britain of its female talent”, describing how our economy "loses out on the talents of a significant chunk of our high-skilled female population" and calling it "a form of economic self-harm”. 

The Coalition has removed support for childcare and capped maternity pay while choosing to give a tax break to married couples where one spouse doesn’t work, or does a few hours. But there is no evidence that less than £4 a week is a good way to encourage more people to marry. In five out of six cases, that benefit will be paid to the husband; and according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies many families will face a £200 penalty if mum returns to work full-time. And oddly, this benefit would be paid to a married man on his fourth wife while a single mother raising the children won’t get a penny.

Labour gets how important it is that we address these issues and enable more parents, especially mums, to return to work or work more hours. That's why we have pledged to increase free childcare for three and four year olds with parents in work from 15 to 25 hours, benefitting both families and the economy. Our primary childcare guarantee would also help parents manage the logistical nightmare of before and after school care, helping parents balance work and family life.

Under the last Labour government, the gap fell by 7.7%. Last December, official figures revealed that the gender pay gap increased in 2012/13 for the first time in five years. With many women now struggling in temporary and insecure work, and one in four now earning less than the living wage, little is being done to improve their lot. Is it any wonder that people think David Cameron and his ministers are out of touch?

Baroness Glenys Thornton is Shadow Equalities Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @GlenysThornton 

Published 6th March 2014

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