Government must consider radical action on child care to help women stay in the work

Victoria Roberts 11.41am

Taking inspiration from a recent interview in the Times (£) with the Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, I would like to set out what we could learn from Scandinavia about child care. The things that could, longer term, keep women at work in those crucial career-building years, so that one day we could see an increase in the amount of women in the highest positions.

We are losing out on too much talent as skilled, educated women depart the workplace in order to have and to raise children.

Whether this happens because child care is too expensive or because of societal pressure or guilt, we need to address this female exodus. I have often joked that the Daily Mail finds itself in a quandary because its editors are never sure who is more deserving of its vitriol: working mothers or single mothers!

In Scandinavia, working mothers do not face the same pressures as they do here. Child care is of good quality (nursery staff are likely to hold degrees in child development) and accepted as a necessity. In Britain, the variations in quality are shocking and guilt is almost universal.

Of course, governments can only intervene so much but they can nudge and adopt policies to promote high quality, affordable child care. And the right policies can work: Denmark ranks fifth in the OECD for female participation in the economy, while Britain is fifteenth; 40 per cent of Danish MPs are women, yet only marginally over 20 per cent for British MPs.

Making changes wouldn’t give us 20 per cent of women on company boards within five years but they would facilitate a natural, longer term trend. Quotas could be a necessary evil in the short term (they are backed by the Tory MP Matt Hancock, while David Cameron won’t rule them out), but only positive changes to child care arrangements will work in the long term.

As important as this topic is, it irritates me that it is seen purely as a women’s issue. If a significant proportion of the population is unable or unwilling to participate in economic activity then we all lose out. And if we expend public resources training women only for them to give up work when they have children, then we all lose out.

Businesses miss out on talented people who could generate more economic activity, more revenue and more taxes.

This really is not just a women’s issue. It is not about tax breaks for ‘yummy mummies’. It should be a national priority.

George Osborne must be radical in his forthcoming Budget. He must simplify our tax system and shift weight of taxation from income to wealth. The first step should be, as Craig Barrett has argued on these pages recently, to end the 50p income tax band and, as David Cowan wrote last month, levy a more effective property tax, such as the land value tax (LVT) advocated by Nick Boles in his recent TRG Macmillan Lecture. A proportion of the revenue generated should then be earmarked for measures to help women stay in the workplace, where they can help to support the British economy.

This meaningless spin obscures the real rape debate

Victoria Roberts 6.30pm

Admittedly, I have not listened in full to Ken’s interview this morning but I’ve read extracts of what he said and a fair bit of the commentary.  Discussing something as serious and sensitive as rape is never going to be easy and Ken could have chosen his words more carefully.  There is a very serious debate to be had about attitudes towards rape, improving conviction rates and – possibly – making sentences longer.  However, let us not confuse that debate with Ken’s comments today.  Much of the furore surrounding his comments is nothing more than spin and an opportunity for Ed Miliband to score points at PMQs.

There have been suggestions that “date rape” should be a separate or lesser offence – quite rightly it isn’t, though public perception is often that “date rape” is qualitatively different to “stranger rape”.  However, Ken was not talking about this.  His comments were about the type of activity and the sentence handed out. 

Rape, as defined in s.1 of the Sexual Offences Act, is rape, whatever the circumstances.  But, as with all offences, there will be aggravating and mitigating circumstances about the offence (and the individual offender) which influence the sentencing.  With rape, in particular, the sentencing guidelines list specific types of activity and the sentencing ranges for them.   Repeated rape of same victim over a course of time or rape involving multiple victims has a higher sentencing range than rape where the offender was aware he was suffering from an STI or it was a sustained attack, which in turn has a higher sentencing range than a single offence of rape by a single offender. 

None of these “types of activity” are not serious.  But, in legal terms, a judgement is made about the length of the sentence to be awarded.  In my opinion, this is what Ken was referring to. 

A system for reducing tariffs for early guilty pleas is already in place.  Where a defendant pleads guilty at the earliest opportunity – usually their first appearance in court – the sentence is typically reduced by up to 30 per cent.  The proposal to extend the application of this to 50 per cent for the earliest pleas is a sensible move.  Adding incentives for early guilty pleas will improve the administration of justice and go some way to avoid situations where defendants please guilty on the first day of trial – when thousands have been spent preparing the case for trial, witnesses, including victims, have had to psych themselves up to appear in court. 

Consider Ken’s long record in politics.  Is he a misogynist who wants to deny victims justice?  No.  He approached the question from a legal perspective – understandable given his experience as a barrister and current position but possibly not the best way to express himself during a radio phone-in.  His comments have been misinterpreted and, in the case of some of his opponents, wilfully misinterpreted in a vain attempt to undermine one of the Coalition’s most effective performers.  This simply undermines the very real debate we need to have about how to improve the conviction rate for rape, how we can improve the procedures in court to lessen the ordeal for victims giving evidence and how we educate the public and address out-dated views about women, consent and rape.

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International Women’s Day 2011: Progress still needed home and abroad

Victoria Roberts 7.49am

Today is the centenary of International Women’s Day. Observed since the 1900s, International Women’s Day celebrates the economic, social and political achievements of women. In the UK, there have been great advances in women’s rights. With impressive women in all aspects of modern life and regular media coverage about girls outperforming boys at school, it would be easy to think that International Women’s Day is outdated and unnecessary.

Yet both in the UK and globally, the balance of power between the sexes is far from equal.

In the UK, the glass ceiling is very much in place. There are not enough women at the top in politics and business. For example, amongst the FTSE 300, less than 9 per cent of directorships are held by women and almost half of those were non-executive directors in the FTSE 100. Lord Sugar has said that he feels, as an employer, that he should be able to ask women about their plans for children and childcare arrangements. It is funny that he doesn’t feel the need to ask fathers that same question.

Our own government discriminates against women in Northern Ireland - as British citizens they are denied access to safe abortions on the NHS, even if they are victims of rape or incest, even if their baby has been diagnosed as profoundly disabled, or will not live at birth.

Particularly disturbing is that even now, two women per week are killed in the UK every single week by a partner or ex-partner. Why are we not more outraged at this? Why are we not investing in more courses that empower girls and women to escape domestic violence and teach boys and men about responsibility and respect?

The Government has taken some positive steps towards addressing the gender gap. In particular, the proposals for parental leave so that parents - not only mothers - can share childcare. These proposals will do much to improve the prospects of women in the workplace, as for instance it has in Scandinavia.

The Government’s greatest focus must, however, not be at home but in the developing world. The FCO must be vocal in its opposition to Afghan laws that legalise the rape of women. It should not use misguided notions of cultural relativism as an excuse for failing to confront the denigration and abuse of women, whether it takes the form of honour killings, female genital mutilation or 'gendercide'.

I have been reassured by Andrew Mitchell’s commitment at DFID to addressing maternal mortality. Every day, 1,000 women and girls die in childbirth - the vast majority in the developing world. For instance, in Africa a woman has a one in sixteen chance of dying from a pregnancy related complication. For every woman who dies, at least twenty more suffer injury, infection or disability. This is not only a tragedy for individuals and their families. A mother’s death threatens her infant’s survival. A mother’s death has long term implications for her child’s health and education. A mother’s death has wider ramifications for society as a whole, as productivity is lost.

Eighty per cent of maternal deaths could be prevented by cost-effective health care, including family planning and the provision of skilled birth attendants. Despite its life saving potential, there has been pervasive underinvestment in emergency obstetric care and in the health systems needed to deliver it.

It would cost approximately $6 billion per year to cut the maternal and child mortality rates to the level pledged in the Millennium Development Goals. This amount of money is what rich countries spend every week subsidising agriculture.

Dr Mahmoud Fathalla, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Assult University, Egypt, observed that “women are not dying because of diseases we cannot treat…they are dying because societies have yet to make the decision that their lives are worth saving.”

On International Women’s Day, perhaps we can encourage governments and societies the world over, that those lives are worth saving.

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