Mind the pay-gap: Lib Dem chutzpah’s not enough

by James Watkins

To be fair, it took some chutzpah. At the Lib Dem conference in September, the equalities minister, Lynne Featherstone, declared that it was time for “a new politics which has equality at its heart”. She continued that there would be “an equality for the future which is driven by the liberal principles of the past”. And, in a particularly impassioned part of the speech, delegates were urged to watch the film Made in Dagenham. And while watching to reflect on “the women to whom equality in the workplace is still a pipe dream”.

One of the last great acts of the Labour government was to require businesses employing 250 or more people to undertake gender pay audits from 2013. However, the minister has said, “We want to move away from the arrogant notion of government knowing best to one where government empowers individuals, businesses and communities to make change happen”.

With this strange policy contortion – of condemning the gender pay-gap but not wanting to get the facts – the “equality of the future” seems to have slipped away to a parallel universe.

But highlighting hypocrisy is not enough. Labour must map out its vision. Despite our achievements, including the equality act and improvements in maternity and paternity leave, the pay-gap damages families day in and day out. A 2008 TUC report demonstrated the extent of the pay-gap, which was highest in London and the South. The TUC correctly highlighted that “the poverty of children is inextricable from the poverty of their mothers”.

Matters had not improved by the time of the equalities and human rights commission’s (EHRC) triennial review published in 2010. It found that:

“Women are much more likely to be low paid and remain vulnerable to poverty both as lone parents and as single pensioners as their incomes are affected by the extent to which they are able to build up savings and pensions in their own right”.

This observation links in to the core of inequality in pay: discrimination and the “four Cs” – catering, cleaning, caring and cashier work. In terms of discrimination, the halt in pay audits is an omen of the lack of action we can expect from the Tory-Lib Dem government. And the four Cs – low paid and invariably part time work – leave many women coping with the pressures of life on very low pay. The TUC, EHRC and the office of national statistics have shown that the trend for a significant number of women to be stuck in these kinds of jobs has remained constant for too long. Despite changes in society, the pattern of employment in many parts of Britain has not fundamentally shifted.

So how should Labour demonstrate that it can break this basic inherent injustice? We should continue our commitment to sure start nursery provision. On the Politics Show, during the general election campaign, William Hague told a young mother that the Tories had no intention of limiting access to sure start. Now the Conservatives are limiting access for families with modest incomes. Labour can show that this move makes a further mockery of the government’s stated aim to improve social mobility.

Then there is the pattern of employment itself. Instead of the ad hoc initiatives of the past, Jobcentre Plus and the Connexions careers service should focus on helping women, particularly in deprived areas, with developing skills and considering new career opportunities.

If this action is to have teeth, the equality act must be enforced so that both women and men can access well-paid work that is also family-friendly. There will inevitably be complaints that such a stance is unaffordable. We must respond by highlighting the economies of several European countries, which show that fairness helps drive up standards and productivity. As the TUC has found, the underuse of women’s skills costs the UK economy in excess of £11 billion a year.

Various reports have shown that women are less likely to be self-employed than men. The last Labour government, via initiatives such as business link, tried to address this. But the tainted business link brand, with inconsistent delivery in different parts of the country, did not help. There should be a focused drive to demonstrate that starting a business could be a way out of low-paid part-time work.

Ultimately, Labour has to show that ambition and aspiration are at its core. Not only would that help to attract the many women voters Labour lost in the 2010 election, but it will give our party a renewed sense of purpose. As the TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, has said,

“With a half a million more jobs set to go in the female dominated public sector, women look likely to suffer rising joblessness for some time”.

Such thinking can contribute to the realignment of the centre of politics. Away from Cameron’s faux big society, towards developing a coalition that gives people hope. Even the CBI has stated that to tackle the preponderance of women in low paid jobs there needs to be “improved opportunities for women via childcare, flexible working and careers advice”.

2011 is the centenary of international women’s day. Labour can mark this anniversary, in the words of Lynne Featherstone, with its vision of “an equality for the future”. And shame ministers for their sins of omission.

James Watkins is a member of the Unite national political committee and Labour housing group executive. He writes in a personal capacity.

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