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Cristina Odone: David Cameron must not repeat Labour's mistake of forcing mothers into work

Picture 1 Cristina Odone is a former editor of the Catholic Herald and has just written What women want... and how they can get it, which is published by the Centre for Policy Studies.

Labour prides itself on “listening to women”. Its champions regularly point to the narrowing gap between men’s and women’s pay, extended maternity leave, and flexible work as colossal achievements that have made the workplace more woman-friendly.

But the workplace is not where women want to be. A YouGov poll published in What women want... by the Centre for Policy Studies shows that the overwhelming majority of women rate their family above their job. They feel ignored by a government that unrolls a raft of policies (the Childcare Tax Credit, the new Child Care for Training and Learning, the 2006 Childcare Act and an income tax system that penalises the single-earner couple) to force women into work.

They are outraged by the same government taking control over who minds their children: why can two best friends not exchange babysitting services without Ofsted accusing them of breaking the law, as happened last week with the two policewomen in Aylesbury? The message of Labour’s policies is clear: your value to society lies in the job you hold down, not the caring, nurturing, volunteering you do.

This message reflects a culture of careerist individualism in which a few may thrive, but which leaves society the poorer.

When David Cameron last week vowed to get single mothers out of their home and into work, he risked repeating Labour’s mistake. What kind of a person will that child grow into, deprived in those crucial early years of its mum’s care? What kind of a worker will the mum be, knowing that she’s been forced to part from her child? What kind of citizens does such a policy create?

Instead of falling into the work-centred trap, Cameron should signal a shift in our macho culture by affecting a few key policy changes. He should free business from the burdens of regulations and red tape that make companies large and small think twice before offering part-time jobs. Most women, as our YouGov poll shows, would welcome part-time employment as the perfect way to combine work and emotional commitments.

The Tories should adopt income-splitting, which allows couples to be taxed jointly rather than individually. This would help single earner couples, where one partner (prevalently the woman) stays home to care for children or elderly relatives, who are penalised under the present tax system. Cameron should move quickly to free mothers from regulations that prevent them from choosing who will mind their children.

Again and again mothers who contributed to the CPS pamphlet said that their preference was not for parking their children at a state childcare centre or a wrap around school, but for leaving them with neighbours, friends, or grandparents.

Finally, David Cameron’s Tories should invest in support services that can help women struggling to balance mothering, relationships, work. Research conducted in conjunction with the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships as part of What women want shows how lonely many women feel, today. The tight-knit network of the extended family, neighbours and the parish, which once supported women (and men) through the challenges of life, has been frayed. Debt, unemployment, childbirth can place an incalculable strain on couple relationships.

If free support were on hand, in the shape of health visitors (as mentioned in David Cameron’s speech), couple counsellors and therapists, women would be better able to overcome these obstacles. To this end, Cameron should implement some of the recommendations already made by Iain Duncan Smith in his recent Building a Fairer Britain report.

Women have been ill-served by this government – let’s hope the next one fares better.


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