Today’s contribution to the Big Conversation is from Richard Dunstan, better known on Twitter as @WonkyPolicyWonk.
“Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation”, said US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2001. Here in the UK, it seems we’re not quite there yet.
Jacob Rees-Mogg – currently being feted as a potential future leader of the Conservative Party and, therefore, Prime Minister – has generously, some might say recklessly, contributed no fewer than six souls to the next generation, without having changed a single nappy. Well played, Jacob. And, according to government-commissioned and funded research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, pregnancy and maternity discrimination at work is even worse than it was ten years ago.
It’s fair to say that this and other forms of discrimination have not gone unnoticed by government ministers. In October 2015, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, condemned the “disgraceful” discrimination in British society, including by employers:
“We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally. I’m a dad of two daughters – opportunity won’t mean anything to them if they grow up in a country where they get paid less because of their gender rather than how good they are at their work. The point is this: you can’t have true opportunity without real equality.”
In July 2016,when launching her campaign to become Tory leader, Theresa May, now Prime Minister, highlighted the need – and her own determination – to “make Britain a country that works for everyone, regardless of who they are and regardless of where they’re from.” And, just a few weeks ago, equalities minister Claire Perry told the House of Commons that, when it comes to unlawful pregnancy discrimination, she and business minister Margot James are “absolutely determined to sort things out” and will “come down like a ton of bricks on any employer who breaks the law”. A. Ton. Of. Bricks.
However, as the Bee Gees almost sang, I think Cameron, May and Perry don’t even mean a single word they say. Because their actions speak far more powerfully than their words.
Cameron’s anguish about the shameful level of discrimination in British workplaces didn’t stop him introducing hefty, justice-denying fees of up to £1,200 to bring an employment tribunal (ET) claim for discrimination. And neither he nor Theresa May seemed the least bit bothered when, as predicted, those fees led to a sustained fall of as much as 80 per cent in the number of ET claims for disability, race, sex, pregnancy or other discrimination at work. Even when the Ministry of Justice’s own review of the fees concluded that they “may have resulted in indirect discrimination”, especially against women.
Nor did it stop Cameron stripping the EHRC of its duty to promote a society with equal opportunity for all, or cutting the equality watchdog’s funding by 60 per cent, leading to staff numbers tumbling from 455 to fewer than 200.
May’s determination to make Britain a country that works for pregnant women and new mothers – I assume she would include them in ‘everyone’ – hasn’t led her to act upon the various recommendations made by the EHRC when publishing its final research findings in March 2016 – a full eighteen months ago. Nor has it prevented her dismissing calls by the EHRC, the justice and women & equalities committees of MPs, and the energetic campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed to increase the time limit for submitting an ET claim – from three to six months – in cases of pregnancy or maternity discrimination.
Moreover, May’s apparent belief that there are ‘boys jobs’ and ‘girls jobs’ – changing nappies, perhaps – is deeply depressing, as it is this type of attitude that fosters and perpetuates gendered stereotypes that particularly hinder women, especially once they become pregnant, and then mothers – the assumption being that childcare falls to them.
Talking of childcare, the new Liberal Democrat MP, Layla Moran, has highlighted at Prime Minister’s Questions that the Government’s plan to offer 30 hours per week of free childcare for three and four year olds from 1 September this year sounded great, but – again, as predicted – in practice is proving to be something of a flop:
“Quite simply, the Government aren’t giving childminders and nurseries enough money to actually deliver these places for three and four year olds, and make a living at the same time. In England 74 per cent of providers said they would not be able to cover their costs.”
Theresa May can’t even bring herself to accept a few eminently sensible proposals, from the women & equalities committee of MPs, on increasing the number of female MPs in the House of Commons. Which means the Commons will go on selecting all-male Science and Technology Committees. So much for a country that works for everyone. We can’t even have a Parliament that works for everyone.
Where does this leave us? Well, not in a great place, imho. For the next two or three years, the attention of ministers, and their legislative programme, is almost certain to be dominated by the unfolding economic and social disaster of Brexit. ET fees may have gone, thanks to the Supreme Court, but austerity continues, and the exploitative practices of many large employers appear ever more blatant and cynical. When the economic shock of an Armageddon Brexit hits, pregnant workers and working mothers will feel the pain more intensely than most – just as they and other women have borne the brunt of austerity since 2010. That’s the way inequality works.
Sadly, we can expect little more than warm but hollow words from Theresa May in response. Because it seems words are all she has.