Archive | February, 2012

For whose benefit?

24 Feb

The current scuffle over Child Benefit reform does more than most issues to expose a lack of family policy thinking at the heart of government in the UK.

Families have been ‘put at the centre’ of Government thinking many times over recent years. And yet we are still here – no ‘joined up’ interdepartmental thinking; no family impact statements; a Childhood and Families Taskforce that rarely meets.  The consequence?  Child Benefit reform that takes from a single parent-headed household where the parent has achieved a salary of over £42,475 – but carries on giving to a couple where both earn £42,000 for a total income of £84,000; that takes from a couple where one partner earns £43,000 and the other earns nothing but does all the childcare.   And no-one in government seems to have listened to the voices pointing out these anomalies from day one.

Meanwhile the rhetoric around ‘family-friendliness’, and standing up for ‘hard-working’ families has continued.  These aspirations can not easily be held up alongside a policy which penalises lone parents for earning well; penalises breadwinners on £42,000 for taking up a modest pay rise, and rewards dual earning couples, but only in rather arbitrary circumstances.  And no-one in government wishes to point out that replacing a universal benefit with one which requires means-testing incurs a bureaucratic cost.  Now every time a parent’s salary rises above £42,475 – or falls back there from a higher point –  will have to be recorded and Child Benefit altered accordingly.  How costly is that going to be to get right?

There was a time when children were seen as a social good and the ‘injustice’ of wealthy families getting Child Benefit was a price worth paying for raising the next generation – a job which has to be done in all socio-economic groups and is often unpaid.  Now there’s a risk we will end up paying more for a reform which says that the State is only interested in paying for children whose parents individually earn up to a certain point.  The fact that they live in families is apparently irrelevant.

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Can Labour really learn from Denmark?

21 Feb

Another week, another Nordic-inspired family policy initiative.  Previously Wonklifebalance was sceptical about David Cameron’s trip to Sweden to learn about getting more women into business and the boardroom; this week it’s time to cast a critical eye over Labour’s proposition to look to Denmark for inspiration concerning State-subsidised childcare and employment trends.

In the Observer Liam Byrne and Stephen Twigg talk about creating ‘a childcare system fit for families in the 21st century’, under a headline declaring   that ‘Labour’s childcare plans will help families work’.  I think what they actually mean is that their proposals will help parents work, and by parents who do they mean?  Yes, it’s really about mothers.  The article places the case for childcare subsidy in the context of women’s employment and unemployment figures, rather than looking at figures for mothers and fathers – which would of course reveal substantial gender differences in employment through the childrearing years.  They also say that their policy review will be conducted together with Yvette Cooper and Tessa Jowell – but the policy initiative is being promoted here by men only, a shame given the small proportion of women at senior levels in British politics.

Elsewhere in the Observer Lucy Buck does acknowledge that the Danish system of universal childcare rests on the assumption that mothers will return to work full-time, and that fathers’ relatively generous paternity leave and access to flexible working is an important part of the picture.  The gap between experiences in Denmark and the UK therefore remains pretty big and cannot be solved through childcare issues alone.  Clearly there is a need to address the unusually high price of childcare in the UK.  OECD figures (page 3 Panel B) show that childcare costs are 8% of family net income for dual earner couples with two children in Denmark, but stand at 33% in the UK. Lack of affordable childcare is a major barrier to sustaining employment after childbirth – not only for the poorest families. And we are still a long way from having paid paternity leave of substance in this country.  This is in contrast to the Scandinavian countries who not only pay men for more substantial periods of leave at the time of birth, but encourage men’s leave-taking throughout the early years through elaborate systems of flexible parental leave.  These factors matter, for they release Danish and other Scandinavian couples from the pattern of mothers’ secondary earning and the complete foregoing of women’s earnings, so often the ‘rational choices’ for UK men and women in deciding who does what.  Mothers in the UK work part-time in high numbers because it is the compromise which best enables some accommodation of school hours and family life alongside the earnings required to maintain a family home; the persistent gender pay gap means that fathers are reciprocally tied to full-time work, often with little opportunity for family time during the working week.  If Labour allows subsidised childcare to remain a women’s issue they miss an opportunity to see mothers and fathers as equal partners at home and in the workplace, which is the aspiration expressed by current and future parents in survey after survey in the UK today.

The UK political parties’ desire to learn from Scandinavian examples is motivated much more by examining the work side of work-life balance than the aspect of family life and domestic labour and childcare.  Wonklifebalance is all for universal affordable childcare à la Denmark and Sweden to facilitate sustaining employment alongside parenthood.  Undoubtedly the Nordic countries are much further along the path of equality of choice between women and men in dividing earning and caring in families, but a more rarely cited statistic (OECD Gender Brief page 15 ) is the one which shows how unpaid work is shared between men and women – even in Scandinavia your mother is more likely to be doing the domestic chores or looking after you than your father.  This is the nut that has been hardest to crack from a gender equality perspective – and one which still exerts an influence on employment rates by gender everywhere.  Last year the Swedes decided that they had progressed sufficiently that they would reward families with a ‘gender equality bonus’ of nearly £300 a month where the man stayed at home with children and his partner returned to work.  This demonstrates that even in Scandinavia, the gender pay gap and gendered pattern of care have required structured incentives to enable men to support women through caring as well as income.  Labour should take note of the Nordic insight that work-life balance has to be for both sexes in order to be widely achieved: subsidised childcare would then be about facilitating working parents.

Can David Cameron really learn from Sweden?

10 Feb

You can’t be interested in family policy for more than ten seconds without looking at examples from Scandinavia, where societies have been so successful at creating mass work-life balance.  So Wonklifebalance should be delighted that David Cameron has gone to Sweden to talk about promoting women in business with the Northern Future Forum, a group composed of the Scandinavian and Baltic states and the UK.

However, Wonklifebalance is sceptical.  Cameron visiting Sweden whilst cutting public sector jobs, in-work benefits and childcare subsidies at home, brings to mind a gender version of Gil Scott Heron’s classic ‘Whitey’s on the Moon’.  In the fevered atmosphere of fractured race relations and the civil rights movement, Gil was unimpressed at the US elite’s travels into space.  With working women losing disproportionately from Coalition policies in Britain today, Cameron’s flight to Sweden, where gender equality is written into the constitution and where even single mothers have high employment rates, looks like a similar distraction from events on the ground.

Scepticism is justified on several fronts, apart from the distraction factor.  Cameron asserts that he wants to learn from countries that have been more successful in attracting women to positions of real power, but before his plane had even landed he had all but ruled out legislation as an option for change.  If there is any lesson to be learnt from the major Nordic countries, it is that enforcement of quotas by law has had a decisive impact on the shape of boardrooms:  Norway has been a runaway success in this regard through the imposition of a 40% quota for women on boards of major companies. David Cameron prefers an indicative approach, where the Government ‘encourages’ but business is left to itself – this is not a sufficient or effective policy stance.  If the gender-equal legislature of Scandinavia cannot achieve boardroom equity without State intervention, then any aspirations in Britain will be dead in the water without explicit and legally-binding directives. 

 A second cause for scepticism is that the arguments for enhancing women’s roles as powerful business executives and entrepreneurs is presented as a female-only issue in Britain.  A major reason why the Scandinavians have been comparatively good at creating work-life balance, is because they have recognised that men are also involved.  The presentation to the Northern Future Forum by the Icelandic representative (who speaks from the viewpoint of the historically macho mining industry)  explicitly and correctly states that a vital component of workplace equality is paternity leave. By designing post-birth leave so that it is available in three chunks, for mothers, for fathers and a third element to be distributed as couples choose, Icelanders have ensured that women remain attached to the workplace after birth and that men are fully involved as fathers from the outset: after that couples can negotiate themselves as to how they share the final tranche of leave.  Models in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark are all effective, because in one way or another they oblige men to take time off work in the early days of parenthood – and they pay properly for it.  In Britain, progress on paternity leave has been slow in comparison: at the moment it is too short and too poorly paid for most men to bother with it, and the changes currently proposed to it mean that men only get additional entitlement if their partner transfers the later months of maternity leave to them.  We have got past the point where it is acceptable for women to gain entitlements to benefit via men.  Now, surely, it is right that men’s caring roles should be rewarded independently of the mothers of their children. Without this, the ‘mummy track’ of underachievement in part-time work will remain a major barrier to progress.

A final reason to be sceptical is that the Nordic solutions to gender equal work-life balance have themselves been a partial success.  Although women’s and mother’s participation in employment is comparatively high in these countries, the gender pay gap has not been completely resolved.  This is largely due to women working in different occupational sectors from men:  women choose roles in the public sector, whilst men remain dominant in the most highly paid jobs of the private sector.  Women therefore take advantage of the family-friendliness of the public sector, whilst losing out on the bigger rewards of the private sector.  And this is why entrepreneurial solutions to gender inequalities should be viewed critically: it is only at the top that these options really pay off.  Without job security, affordable childcare and flexibility, the entrepreneurial approach only rewards the luckiest and the most driven, who somehow accommodate very working hours alongside family life.  So making more mothers into entrepreneurs sounds to me like pissing in the wind – and this remains something that only men are really good at.

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