Why Iain Duncan Smith fails his own ‘Family Friendly’ test

I’m going to begin with a confession. When it comes to Iain Duncan Smith, our apparently untouchable Work and Pensions Secretary, I’m about as far from being a fan as one can be. It’s not that I dislike him, more that I utterly and unalterably loathe the man. If I have the misfortune to catch him on the Today programme of a morning, it can colour my mood for the rest of the day. If I turn the page of a newspaper to see his faux-earnest face gazing back at me, I’m overcome with an almost uncontrollable urge to rip the paper up into hundreds of tiny pieces. Do consider yourselves warned.

IDS recently unveiled his ‘family friendly test’ – a series of five questions every civil servant must consider when drafting policy, as a safeguard to ensure policies are conducive to a strong and stable family life. The questions are broad (“How does the policy impact families before, during and after couple separation?”) and the test is not binding, but IDS believes it will ensure the Government puts the support of families at the heart of it’s domestic policy. IDS claims his ‘family friendly’ test will look at how policy effects families without claiming a preference for any type of family (although to use that well-worn piece of Government rhetoric, they of course have to be ‘hard-working’).

So there you have it, Iain Duncan Smith, our self-declared champion of families. Except I’m not sure, given his record, if Iain Duncan Smith is actually very family friendly at all. Perhaps he even fails his own test which, given he’s in charge of family policy is a pretty awful state of affairs. Perhaps he should resign or be sacked for either being so incompetent he can’t understand his own safeguards, or so enthralled with his sense of moral triumphalism he’s blind to his own actions. Given we’re talking about a Minister who was found to have lied on his CV and stayed in his job, champions his ‘beliefs’ over actual, you know, facts and isn’t laughed out of office, and who’s Universal Credit project could see £500 million of public money written off, I won’t get my hopes up.

Two years IDS published a report which found that 28% of children in lone-parent families lived in relative poverty, compared with 17% for those living in two parent families. The report suggested that “children tend to enjoy better life outcomes when the same two parents are able to give them support and protection throughout”. So great, provide relationship counselling so parents stick together, rather than providing support, be it financial or otherwise so that parents can provide for their families whatever their circumstances (for example by providing affordable childcare, or paying a living wage across the board,  or ending the uncertainty and instability created by zero hour contracts, and that’s just off the top of my head). Two years on, and IDS is still singing the same tune. And yet, Unicef recently reported that one in four children in this country now live in poverty, and claim the number is increasing sharply due to the Government’s austerity measures. The majority of children effected live in homes with working parents on low wages. (DWP disputes the reports findings, claiming the apparent increase is due to nothing more than a change in the way the figures are collated).

Two years ago the charity Save the Children warned that the introduction of universal credit would see working single mothers lose up to £68 a week, and families with ‘second earners’ – the majority of whom are women – facing a loss of up to £1800 a year, pushing an estimated 250,000 children further into poverty. The charity also reported that mothers already struggling to support their children have suffered cuts to childcare support, child benefit and tax credits. In March the Government announced details of it’s Tax-free Childcare Scheme, due to begin next year, which the IFS reports is far more generous than first thought – however paying for the extras in this scheme will mean further cuts to universal credit next year, meaning families may suffer in other ways. Yesterday the Government announced it was considering cuts to ESA, the replacement to incapacity benefit which is currently paid to 2 million people.  Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, told the Guardian: “The proportion of people in absolute poverty in families living with disability has gone up each year since 2009 and now stands at a shocking 22%. Any cut in support would make it very much harder for families already reeling from austerity blows and would surely fail any credible family test.”

The Local Government Association estimate that the income of households claiming benefits will be, on average, lower by £1,615 a year – or £31 a week – in 2015/16 as a cumulative result of Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms – a huge burden for any family already surviving on a low income to tolerate. The Child Poverty Action Group recently reported that families in which both parents work full-time on the national minimum wage now have only 82 per cent (couples) or 87 per cent (lone parents) of the minimum income required to meet their needs – so I suppose DWP can claim here it isn’t showing a preference for any one ‘type’ of family – both single and two-parent low-income families are now struggling to afford a fair standard of living. And yes, you have read that right – in 2014, the majority of low-income families on benefits cannot afford to meet their basic needs. What a badge of honour for the Government.

If Iain Duncan Smith truly believes that a stable family life is key to tackling child poverty, and should be central to this Government’s domestic policy, it is perhaps time he gazed long and hard into the mirror and considered his record. Removing a family’s ability to meet their basic needs is not ‘family friendly’, punitive sanctions are not ‘family friendly’ – they breed instability and a sense of desperation, as does forcing people to work for no pay, or allowing them to be exploited by large corporations more than capable of paying them a living wage. Likewise, threatening to further cut a  safety net relied on by 2 million people already struggling to cope with a disability is hardly ‘family friendly’.

The ‘family friendly test’ is laughable from the off, but when the result is the misery of countless families already struggling to make ends meet, who’s laughing?

Why Iain Duncan Smith fails his own ‘Family Friendly’ test

Having It All

I was reading something the other day about ‘having it all’ (and marveling at having the time to sit and read something. And drink a cup of tea, a whole cup. It hasn’t happened since, btw). Yup, that old chestnut. You know the one, the idea that for women life is just one big balancing act as we attempt to manage the inevitable tension between motherhood and career, while also daring to try and have a life. It is a problem that the media would have us believe is very rarely encountered by men who apparently, implicitly, already ‘have it all’, just by way of being men. Lucky bastards.

I digress. What struck me was just how different this particular person’s concept of ‘having it all’ was to mine, and how much my idea of ‘it’ had evolved over the past few years. I suppose it’s pretty tough to conceive of juggling kids with your job until you actually have them and need to, you know, juggle.

Flashback to three years ago and I was on a proper career path, earning good money, and dating the man who’d finally convince me to stroll up the aisle (except there was no aisle and the wedding was essentially just a massive party, as all wedding should be), something which had never really interested me before. And even though I was pretty unhappy in my job, I felt secure in where I was going. I worked in politics – a world in which women are still just as likely to make it into the papers for their outfit choices, as they are their opinions, a world in which informing a women she should ‘calm down, dear’ is still seen as appropriate. It was a world that challenged me daily.

Feminism is a very important part of my life. It gets a bad press these days, but if you agree that men and women should be equal – which is what feminism boils down to, remember – then it’s hardly the bastion of radicals. It’s difficult to see why anyone would have an issue with it in this day and age unless they’ve completely got the wrong end of the stick. Like these guys.

When I imagined myself with a family the image I conjured in my head looked pretty darn similar to the life I had, just with a kid squeezed in. I imagined myself continuing to work full-time (although not necessarily in the same field. I’d pretty much had enough by this point), sharing the parenting equally with my partner, and yeah, ‘having it all’. Then stuff happened, as it has a habit of doing, and pretty much everything I thought I knew about the way I wanted my life to go turned upside down.

Here’s one example – the wedding? I thought it would just be a massively enjoyable way to celebrate being in love, because it’s pretty ace, and have a huge party. Which it was. I was very certain about what I didn’t want – no church, no ‘giving away’, no overwrought vows and meaningless traditions. What I hadn’t counted on was just how special it would feel to say those special words to my special person, and to really really mean them. It was one of the best days of my life and I loved every second of it, not just because everyone got rip-roaring drunk and had a wonderful time, but because I love every little bit of him and it felt amazing to celebrate that with my favourite people. I even changed my name. Yup, what a bad feminist I am. Don’t get me wrong, I agonized about it. I even blogged about it for the online feminist mag Vagenda. In the end my decision had nothing to do feminism/or ‘signing’ myself over to a man, and everything to do with a fresh start. The few years before I met my partner were, in terms of my personal life, completely bloody awful. The wedding, the entire relationship in fact, felt like a chance to start again. And I liked the idea of building something with my partner, of creating something from new – a family – our own exclusive club.

Then along came the boy and all hell broke loose. As my maternity leave ticked on by and the day I had decided to return to work drew ever closer, it began to dawn on me just how impossible I would find it to leave my little bundle of joy and occasionally vomit, and get back into the swing of things as a full-time commuting working woman. I didn’t want to spend ten hours of my week on a train, when I could be with the kid. I didn’t want to spend hours and hours trying to solve the latest ‘crisis’ in the office when in my head a voice was screaming ‘I don’t care’ on repeat. But here’s the thing, I didn’t want to stay at home and be supported. I didn’t want my son to grow up with little respect for me because I didn’t have a career to be proud of (although if he turns out to hold the title on a business card in higher esteem than a person’s moral and personal qualities, I think I’ve gone seriously wrong somewhere). As you’ve probably gathered by now, I don’t like to make things easy for myself.

As a new mother I’d gravitated towards a gentle/attachment style of parenting, and try as I might I just couldn’t square that with the inevitable pressures of a full-on career. So I made a decision. I’m lucky I even had a choice. I stepped off the ladder. I have a job – it’s nothing to write home about (although I love it), and it’s certainly never going to buy me any swish holidays, but I have enough of an income to cover my share of the bills. I’m also able to be there for my son and continue to parent in the way that feels best for us. I suppose my point, after all that, is that there’s no template for having it all. It is whatever you want it to be.

This blog is going to grow in a few ways – as a means of charting my attempt to align my feminism with my new role as a mother, and as an outlet for the anger I quite often feel towards the world around me. Apologies for that. I hope it’ll be a stimulating read, and I hope it allows me to contribute something to the debate that still rages on around issues of equality, even in a minor way.

Hold onto your hats, folks.

Having It All