Commentary and opinion on national and regional politics by Seema Malhotra

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

On the 100th anniversary of Barbara Castle's birth, what would she make of the Tories on Equal Pay transparency and Child Benefit cuts?

100 years ago today, one of the most successful and well known Labour woman politicians - Barbara Castle was born. She was elected to Parliament as MP for Blackburn in 1945, a seat she held before it was taken over by Jack Straw MP, her special adviser. There's a great piece about her life by Radio 4's Anne Perkins here, but just a few thoughts of my own.
Barbara Castle was the "Harriet Harman" of her time, a woman who challenged the male lens through which political discussion and decision making was always done. Her Equal Pay Act, the struggle for which is being brought to a new generation through the outstanding film "Made in Dagenham", was ground-breaking in its challenge both to politicians and business on the accepted way of doing things. And like the Minimum Wage, despite the mountain of opposition, it quickly became accepted as a long overdue measure of fairness in our economic life.
The Equal Pay Act was one of the last bills to go through Parliament in 1970 before Labour lost power - an uncanny parallel to the passing of Harman's Equality Act just before the election this year, becoming an Act of Parliament on 8th April.
An important milestone 40 years on from the Equal Pay Act, the Equality Act included measures on information about equal pay. Despite progress, there is still a gender pay gap of approx 21% in the UK, worse than the EU average. The gap varies each year, but is in the ball park of 80% of men's pay. This was cleverly marked by Fawcett's Equal Pay Day on 30th October 2009 - when they presented a cheque to the Prime Minister to symbolise the last pay cheque that woman would get for the year.
It isn't rocket science to suggest that tackling the gender pay gap once and for all is going to require gender pay gap information. To put this inequality right you need to know where it is happening. The Equality Act included two new ideas to help make equal pay happen - voluntary pay reporting on differences in men and women’s pay for a company with 250 or more workers, and secondly for public bodies to publish information about equal pay (and how many workers it has who are disabled or people of different races). The Government planned to do this for public bodies with 150 or more workers.
The part of the Act which relates to this is Section 78, which creates a power for Ministers to require employers to publish information relating to the gender pay gap. However the new Tory led Government has already said this is not being commenced from 1st October; instead they are "considering how to approach this clause in the best way for business and others involved."
Theresa May in her Conference speech this week talked about Equal Pay in a list of wrongs and said that the Conservatives plan to "put things right". It is unclear to me how this will be done without pay gap information. A lot of HR data today is computerised - a pay reporting function should hardly be problematic in an age when we expect complex and accurate end of year financial reporting from organisations and solid in-year management accounting to ensure efficiency and productivity.
The real reason for avoiding pay gap information is not red tape - the data already exists and could easily be compiled - the real reason is that as soon as you make something transparent you will see greater demand to do something about it. And the political will to really do something about it is just not there.
But onto another issue. Child Benefit is another of Barbara Castle's legacies - it replaced the Family Allowance in her final years as an MP. She was instrumental in changing a mindset and moving family funds from the wallet to the purse and investing in children. If she were here, she would certainly have made her views known on the regressive steps this Government is now taking, which is much less about economics than it is about politics. The idea that you save a billion by taking money away from children, and "sweeten" the move by giving a billion back to married couples in the form of tax relief is one step short of Dickensian.
This is politics plain and simple - a symbolic step in support of a traditionalist Conservative view of political economy, by attacking a symbol of a social democratic tradition that is in fact one of the symbols of equality for children and families across social classes, as well as a vital contribution to family income and welfare of children. It may be a small contribution to Castle's legacy on the 100th anniversary of her birth is to highlight how the Tories are turning the clock back on progress, but one that I hope will encourage others to look beyond the smokescreen to the reality that lies behind the Tories' words.