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Girly swot

8 Sep

 Our PM Boris Johnson has been embroiled in new controversy (or should that be, ‘has got himself into a bit of a scrape’…) for calling David Cameron ‘a girly swot’ in notes on Cabinet papers discussing the prorogation of parliament. The notes were revealed by Sky News, following a Court release where the words had been redacted. It would appear that the term ‘girly swot’ had been considered embarrassing for someone in high office to use in such a memo.

 

This schoolboy insult does seem to tell us quite a lot about the man who used it.  For one thing, he is someone who sees no great formality in the documents of State, no reason to watch words on record – just ‘be himself’.  This attitude must have been seen as potentially troublesome by whoever saw ‘girly swot’ redacted in the first place. However, in a Trumpian political context, it could be viewed as part of Boris Johnson’s appeal, for people who go for his brand of so-called ‘anti-establishment’ ‘straight-talking’: Boris is just ‘like that’ and they (often similarly aged, or older, men) like him that way.

 

Meanwhile, many others have been quick to point out that the Prime Minister has form in using this type of playground language.  He first called David Cameron a ‘girly swot’ a few years ago, recalling that Cameron got a first class degree, while he, Boris Johnson, the popular Classicist extraordinaire, did not. This instance seems to underline that he means the term to be derogatory.  He’s playing to a gallery that he wants to root for him, rather than a more academically successful colleague. There’s an implication that he is the ‘real man’, and that to be ‘girly’ is undesirable.  Coupled with his recent use of the term ‘big girl’s blouse’, which he lobbed across the chamber at Jeremy Corbyn in an exchange about calling a General Election, it does imply sexism on Johnson’s part. Over on twitter, women in politics and journalism pointed out how anachronistic the language was. They wondered how being a studious woman was something to be ashamed of – ‘Girly swot is a compliment, right?’ tweeted Sky’s own Sophy Ridge.

 

I’m probably one of nature’s ‘girly swots’ myself, and the added issue for me in the PM’s use of the term, is that it implies that attention to detail in politics (wonkery, you might say) is a weakness.  Boris Johnson is trying to extricate the UK from the EU, unravelling over 40 years of legal and trade agreements.  If I was embarking on such an exercise, I’d want all the ‘girly swots’ I could get.  But then I’m not sure Dominic Cummings is a big fan of ‘girly swots’ either…. This morning Sophy Ridge asked the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, what he thought of the Prime Minister’s language.  He evaded, saying ‘you can call me a girly swot anytime’. That is not something I would have in mind for someone who was recently part of ‘showing off wives and policies’ in the Tory leadership contest.  The report for this term’s Conservative men reads ‘Must try harder’ ….

 

 

 

 

X marks the spot

4 Jul

The government has just published its Gender Equality Roadmap, launched with a flourish yesterday by Penny Mordaunt, in her capacity as Women and Equalities Minister. 

 

The Roadmap charts the types of disadvantage women encounter at different stages in their lives and sets out government initiatives in response.  So far, so good … but the trouble is that the roadmap is hardly new, and the responses aren’t big on concrete action either.  Researchers and policy analysts have been charting women’s lifetime economic disadvantage compared to men for years –  and counting the cost (and calculating the value) of childcare and elder care.  We know that women’s career trajectories leave them lower-earning in prime years, and under-pensioned in old age, compared to men.  We also know that girls are less likely to enter scientific careers, or to find jobs in the most lucrative sectors of the labour market.  Like many reports before it, the roadmap talks about engaging girls in STEM, but has little to say about enhancing the esteem in which traditionally female sectors of the labour force are held, or encouraging boys to get involved in them.  The Roadmap acknowledges that the benefits system has not always met the needs of women, and proposes that Universal Credit will simplify the process of claiming and improve  outcomes for women.  This claim is rather hard to reconcile with the evidence that Universal Credit has driven many to foodbanks during the long waiting periods before payments are made.  No mention is made of the single payment per household, a feature of Universal Credit which campaigners have highlighted as having potentially negative impacts for women. 

 

The Roadmap discusses Shared Parental Leave (SPL) and flexible working, as policies which can contribute to closing the gender gap in earning and progression at work.  While it is welcome that the government is reviewing the current SPL system, and ‘celebrating’ employers who offer beyond the statutory levels of pay, we already know that without higher pay levels, Shared Parental Leave is a non-starter for many families, however well-disposed towards it parents are in theory.  And we also know from international evidence that our current system falls well short of the conditions required for it to become a mainstream option – I’ve blogged about this repeatedly – e.g. here.  The Roadmap proposes a new digital tool to inform parents better of their leave and childcare options, but without more resources it is hard to see how this will make any significant difference to take-up.  Pilots for innovation in flexible working may be more promising, but we do seem to have been stuck at the pilot stage for a long time now ….

 

 The Roadmap does acknowledge a range of factors including direct discrimination and harassment which contribute to women’s disadvantage, and it makes mention of intersectionality and the value of care work as well as its costs. It also flags that the Government Equalities Office will now sit in the Cabinet Office, which should aid cross-departmental working.  But, as the Women’s Budget Group points out, identifying the issues is a first step, and the solutions to gender inequality require financial investment – in public services, in childcare and social care.  Instead of a Roadmap, perhaps we need a treasure map, with X marking the spot where a budget for women’s needs is to be found. 

 

Some ministries are still more equal than others ….

2 May

It’s just past a year to the day since I wrote about the way in which some ministries of government are more equal than others.  This was in reference to the post of Minister for Women and Equalities. It is a jointly-held office, whose new incumbent in 2018, Penny Mordaunt, was only announced some time after the Prime Minister had named Amber Rudd’s successor in the Home Office, Sajid Javid.  Back to the present, and in the wake of yet another controversial departure from government, we find that Ms Mordaunt is to step up to replace Gavin Williamson at the Ministry of Defence.  This year, it has been immediately announced that she takes the joint brief of Women and Equalities with her, thus halting a regular churn of appointments in this post – at least for now. When it comes to establishing who is prioritising the burning injustices at the heart of the Women and Equalities office, it will prove tempting to ask ‘You and whose army?’ …

 

Penny Mordaunt makes history as the first woman to act as Defence Secretary, and it’s been interesting to see the response to her keeping Women and Equalities as well.  While last year’s attention focussed on the fact that the low priority of Women and Equalities was demonstrated by the late naming of the new official, this year there seems to be more concern about how two ministerial jobs can be done at once.  I’m guessing it’s not rocket science to work out why this comes up more in terms of Defence, than say, Education, Home Office or Culture… Defence, like the last bastion of male-only incumbents, the office of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is still often viewed as a man’s world, and, often a macho one too.  And we all know that archetypal men’s jobs are all-consumingly full-time …

 

The truth is that Women and Equalities should be a freestanding post.  Many today are pointing to the fact that Theresa May mentioned her preference to see more women in senior government posts, while giving evidence at a select committee, just hours before the news of Williamson’s sacking and Mordaunt’s promotion were made public. But there hasn’t been much renewed call for the Women and Equalities brief to be re-allocated as a full-on Cabinet post.  Another year, another missed opportunity to do so.

 

However, since last year, all has not stood still in terms of Women and Equalities.  Following Penny Mordaunt’s appointment, the Women and Equalities Select Committee produced a report on the role of the Minister, and the place of the Government Equalities Office (GEO) in government.  This report spoke out against the continual movement between departments, which has been characteristic of the role in its current form as a jointly-held post.  New ministers have come along because of changes in Cabinet personnel, rather than due to the priorities of the post itself.  The report recommended that post should become full-time in the Cabinet Office, and that the supporting GEO should also permanently reside there.  In her response for the government, Ms Mordaunt agreed that ‘the GEO will need a permanent home in future, and we will look to do that at a suitable opportunity.’ Meanwhile, it remains camped at the Department of Education, and the GEO was reporting to leaders at the department for International Development while Penny Mordaunt was minister there. It remains to be seen if her shift to Defence might represent a ‘suitable opportunity’ to seek permanent residence elsewhere.

 

Given the general government paralysis as Brexit rumbles on, it seems unlikely that there will be much appetite to transform the equalities function in government. And Penny Mordaunt’s desire to maintain the brief is good for stability, while making any such transformation less immediately likely.  Women and Equalities therefore remains a Cinderella brief – like women’s unpaid work, a second shift while doing something else.

 

 

 

Who figures?

14 Mar

Time for another in my occasional series on issues of representation and parliamentary Select Committees.  This one concerns the grandly-named Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC).  It works to examine constitutional issues, and quality and standards in the Civil Service.  This is important stuff, with relevance to public services and government accountability, as well, of course, to the trifling matter of Brexit …

 

Among its current inquiries, is one into Governance of Statistics.  This looks at how the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) is performing, in its role to promote, and to safeguard, official statistics, collated ‘for the public good’.  UKSA oversees government statistics, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) and the regulatory body which is responsible for the quality of statistics. The stated mission of the official statistics system is to ‘mobilise the power of data to help Britain to make better decisions.’  This mission affects us all – from considering which data to collect in order to inform decisions, through to interpreting statistics.  Official statistics, then, are an essential component in informing government policy and spending decisions, which cover all aspects of our lives. 

 

It’s therefore surprising, as Hetan Shah, head of the Royal Statistical Society, pointed out on Twitter, that, so far, PACAC has taken evidence from 8 men, with a further two slated to appear at the next evidence session.  Not a single female witness has appeared so far during this inquiry.  Shah referred to Caroline Criado Perez’s book on the gender data gap, which has just come out, and illustrates powerfully how women become invisible in systems where decisions are made on the basis of ‘default man’ – the average male.  His needs are met in everything from phone design to town planning, from drug formulation to public sanitation.  By overlooking the different physiques and lives of women, decision-makers can create systems with unintended consequences for women – from long toilet queues to medicines that don’t work effectively; from awkward phones to cars and public transport systems that are less safe for women.  Gender is an essential part of the picture, in deciding what is measured, and whose needs are catered for.

 

In response to Hetan Shah, the Chair of PACAC, Bernard Jenkin, threw up his hands and apologised, admitting that the Committee had got the balance wrong on this occasion.  In extended comments to Civil Service World, he said that the Committee had invited female experts to appear, but should have done more, when the women they approached initially were unable to attend.  Current guidelines state that 40% of witnesses appearing at Select Committee evidence sessions should be women. Clearly PACAC has fallen short this time.  

 

It’s not as if well-qualified women are absent from the field.  Ever since Florence Nightingale famously charted the causes of mortality among soldiers in the Crimean War, women have played a role in the statistics profession. Indeed, two of the four most recent UK National Statisticians, heading up the government statistical service, have been women.  However, economics and public policy as a whole, remain male-dominated at senior levels.  The Office for National Statistics itself, recently lost a sex discrimination case brought by a female economist who was overlooked for promotion, without being interviewed.  The ruling suggested that the ONS still has work to do, in providing equal opportunities for women.  It seems that we don’t just need better data, but better working cultures too.  In achieving this, women’s voices count. 

 

 

30 hours free childcare: still complicated

31 May

Figures newly released from Wales, show that take-up of 30 hours free childcare per week – available to 3 and 4 year olds with parents in work – has been considerably lower than expected.  For a flagship government policy, aimed at improving outcomes for disadvantaged children, and at enhancing mothers’ opportunities in the labour force, this must raise questions in the corridors of power.

Back in 2015, when 30 hours free childcare was first slated in the Queen’s Speech, I wrote a blog outlining some of the issues which were likely to open up in the gap between rhetoric and practice.  In the intervening period it has remained one of my most popular pieces.  It’s a policy area where the solution offered seems simple, but which encompasses an impressive range of potential pitfalls.

Three main factors demonstrate the problems with the offer.  First, 30 hours free childcare is offered to children where parents are working – it is not a universal offer.  While children in some of the most disadvantaged families can access 15 hours free child care from the age of 2, and all 3 and 4 years can access 15 hours per week over the school year, the enhanced 30 hours offer is limited, at the lower end, to those earning at least the equivalent of 16 hours National Minimum Wage per week. The lack of universality is an issue, as some of the families where early childcare might be most beneficial, may not be eligible, due to lower or no earnings for at least one parent. Secondly, there is a timing issue.  As parents are not eligible for free childcare from the end of maternity or parental leave, the 30 hours can be viewed as too little, too late.  For parents who have had to go it alone in the period between their child’s first and third birthday, some may be unwilling or unable to change existing providers when eligibility eventually kicks in; others may have already done the calculation of costs of childcare (rising at rates of 7% last year) versus wage packet (stagnant), and left the workforce altogether.

Thirdly, providers are struggling (as was warned from the start) to meet the conditions of the offer without cross-subsidising the free hours through new charges elsewhere.  The hourly rate paid to providers by the government, may not reflect full costs, and has not been uprated this year.  The funding rate is complicated still further by interaction with other policies. Increases in the National Minimum Wage mean that staff are now more expensive, and auto-enrolment in pensions will make employer bills still higher, as outlined here.  Of course, such employment policies are positive in a relatively low-paid sector of the economy, but if funding for children’s places does not reflect these costs, a hole remains to be filled.  Some may bridge the gap by employing cheaper, less well-trained staff; others lower staff to child ratios.  Meanwhile, parents working longer hours will pay more for cover of hours above the 30 provided free. Some nurseries now charge for items (e.g. meals) and excursions that were previously included in fees.  Moreover, commentators have started to raise concerns that large-scale providers could go bust if the funding pressures become  greater. As local authorities provide fewer childcare services directly, private sector organisations are increasingly important.  A recent Guardian piece noted that commercial providers may be less accountable in terms of how they use government money, and distribute costs between themselves and parents. They also need to bring profit to investors. In more deprived areas the pressures may be magnified, as quality childcare is more patchily available, and there may be little capacity to cross-subsidise the free offer through additional charges elsewhere.

In her feminist takeover of the New European, Caroline Criado Perez today makes the case for universal free childcare as an integral part of achieving gender equality.  She points out that 25% of mothers in the EU cite unpaid care work as the reason for their lack of participation in the jobs market (compared to only 3% of men).  The UK has amongst the most expensive childcare in the region, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the partial solution on offer here is proving unpersuasive for many.  The generous policies of countries like Sweden, which provides daycare for all children at an enviably subsidised rate, alongside relatively well-paid parental leave, is beginning to prove a pull for workers from Britain, other parts of the EU, and beyond.  In an article for Swedish radio, an Irish woman talks about how being in Sweden means she can be with her child in the early months and not worry about costs when she returns to work, or about having to give up work altogether.  Thirty hours free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds in the UK still risks failing to meet this test for many parents.

 

 

Some ministries are more equal than others

1 May

Behind the headlines about Amber Rudd’s resignation from the office of Home Secretary, and the anointing of her successor in that role, Sajid Javid, there was a second, less well-attended announcement.  Rudd had recently taken on the Women and Equalities portfolio, following Justine Greening’s departure from government in the January reshuffle, and a new minister was therefore also required in this role. Penny Mordaunt is to be that person, balancing the Women and Equalities brief with her existing job of Secretary of State for International Development.

Mordaunt is the fourth person to hold the Women an Equalities brief in two years, and the seventh incumbent since 2010, when the Conservatives came to power, under David Cameron in the coalition government.  The minister for Women and Equalities is not a freestanding post, and has been held in conjunction with other ministerial positions.  Since 2010, the brief has been held alongside Home Office (twice) Culture (twice) Education (twice) and now International Development.  The eagle-eyed may have noticed that one of the spells in Culture was presided over by none other than Sajid Javid, who held the Equalities part of the brief while Culture secretary in 2014, partnering with Nicky Morgan who was then Minister for women, alongside her role as Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Eyebrows were raised as Morgan had only ‘attending’ status in Cabinet – such ministers only join Cabinet when issues concerning their remit are on the agenda. Some might say that gender and equalities issues are always there ….

So, has there been any shift in priorities since 2014? Well, in the sense that the Women and Equalities minister has been a full member of Cabinet, then yes. Nicky Morgan later took on the brief while Education Secretary, and Justine Greening held those two posts under Theresa May, before Amber Rudd’s brief sojourn while Home Secretary. There is now also a Women and Equalities Select Committee in parliament to provide scrutiny on relevant issues. But the frequent movement between departments and subsequent lack of continuity, is less positive. With Amber Rudd’s departure, the Cabinet has become even less gender-balanced than before – it could have presented an opportunity to make the post freestanding and promote another woman.

Mordaunt’s busy role as International Development Secretary currently involves developing new safeguarding standards in the aid sector, following the Oxfam scandal, on top of all the complexities of poverty reduction and humanitarian activity.  Arguably there is a good match between dealing with global and domestic inequalities, but the two ministerial roles have not been held together before, and the international development sector is currently having to work hard in these areas.  We will have to wait and see if this results in any new synergies, or further movement down an already crowded political agenda.

Meanwhile, over in Labour, the Shadow Women and Equalities minister is now a standalone post, indicating that the brief may have higher priority in any future Labour administration. How long we’ll have to wait and see if that’s the case is an open question…

 

 

 

Springing into action on Shared Parental Leave?

20 Mar

Today marks the vernal equinox in the Northern hemisphere, the official start of Spring, and the day when we experience almost exactly equal amounts of daylight and night time.  What better time to consider the balance between the sexes in terms of earning and caring work, and gender equality in general?

Appropriately, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee have published their Fathers and the Workplace report, making recommendations concerning paternity leave, flexible working, workplace culture and the much-discussed – and often criticised –  Shared Parental Leave, which was first made available to parents almost exactly three years ago, in 2015.

Shared Parental Leave was introduced in order to better meet the aspirations of new generations of mothers and fathers, who wish to share employment and childcare responsibilities more equally, avoiding the traditional default of breadwinner fathers and mothers as parents-in-chief.  As dual-earner families have grown in numbers, and younger men and women report more egalitarian attitudes regarding paid work and parenting, this all seems to make good sense.

However, the particular system of Shared Parental Leave that was introduced in the UK has done little to shift the dial in practice, in terms of who does what.  It does not come with a realistic level of wage replacement, nor does it represent a means whereby fathers have their own entitlement to parental leave; rather it is a method for women to transfer leave to their partners during the first year of their child’s lives, after they have used up the initial weeks of non-transferable maternity leave. The government estimated that the policy would be taken up by 2-8% of parents, and evidence collected since, suggests that even this figure may have been optimistic.  As the Committee’s report sums up: ‘The Government’s objective is for mothers and fathers to share the task of caring for their children more equally. The current shared parental leave policy will not achieve this on a large scale, as the Government’s own estimates of take-up show’.

In order to address the low take-up issue, the Government has embarked on a new campaign, ‘share the joy‘ which publicises Shared Parental Leave, showing couples who have used it, talking up the benefits of both parents being able to work and to take leave during their baby’s first year.  But without higher levels of pay for Shared Parental Leave, it is hard to see how raising awareness will increase the attractiveness of the package.  And while, of course, caring for babies and children can often be joyful and rewarding, what many parents are looking for is a policy which will enable then to share the load of meals, laundry, appointments as well as the joys of parenting.  As today’s report says, ‘[the] campaign to promote shared parental leave is welcome, but does not constitute a plan of action for achieving wider societal change.

If we’ve learnt anything from other countries, it is that getting to that point takes time.  The ‘latte papas’, the much-vaunted buggy pushers of Sweden’s urban landscape, only reached a critical mass because of decades of policy tweaking. Sweden first changed the law regarding leave in 1974, when maternity leave was changed to parental leave, for which both mothers and fathers were eligible.  However, there was an option for men to sign over their parental leave to their partners – in 1994 it was discovered that most did so, meaning that only 10% of parental leave days were actually used by men.  In order to attain the gender equality envisaged by the original policy, the government introduced a ‘daddy quota’ of 30 days leave in 1994.  If fathers didn’t use this quota, the month of leave was lost from the couple’s total entitlement.  This policy had immediate impact on fathers’ participation in early parenting, and dedicated leave for fathers spread as a policy throughout Scandinavia.  In the intervening years, the amount of leave for men has been increased repeatedly, and the Nordic countries regularly top international indices measuring both gender equality and happiness, or life satisfaction (incidentally, today is also the International Day of Happiness, and the Finns top the UN’s index this year).

At the end of last year the Telegraph reported that the Swedish government was looking to increase their ‘daddy quota’ to 5 months, to further enhance gender equality.  Perhaps a test of how embedded such policies have become, is that in the early days of parental leave in Sweden, sceptics complained that men just used their days to go elk hunting;  now in the West of Sweden where an elk hunting week is an annual tradition, they are looking change the rules for subsidised childcare to mean that parents can have an ‘elk days’ entitlement, without their partners having to take holiday to accommodate the hunt ….

Meanwhile, back in Britain, the Nordic experience of dedicated leave for fathers has long been cited as a preferred solution to the problem of gender imbalances in take-up of parental leave.  Today’s report goes so far as to recommend that the government considers replacing the current system of Shared Parental Leave with a Nordic-style independent entitlement for fathers.  The Women and Equalities Committee suggests a 12-week period of paternal leave, with the first four weeks paid at a capped wage replacement rate, and the rest at statutory levels.  While the costs of such a scheme are not inconsiderable, there is scope for them to be balanced by greater participation in the workforce by mothers.  There are still plenty of barriers to the success of such a policy – not least the slowness of government machinery.  Elsewhere in the report there are recommendations related to flexible working which are not slated for review until 2019, and Brexit will keep everyone busy at least until then.  There are also wider barriers, in the shape of prevailing workplace culture, and the long reach of gender stereotypes. But as the Swedish experience shows, we might be getting somewhere with this type of policy in 20 years’ time.  Springing in to action? Maybe not, but perhaps, at last, a kickstart.

 

 

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