Edwina Currie: Equality is fine, but this absurd bill will be a disaster for women and Britain.
29th April 2009
Harriet Harman: Her demands gender equality are 'ludicrous', says Ms Currie
Let's get this straight. I am not a feminist - and I never have been. All the bra-burners ever did in the Sixties was blame men for their failings, and they set back the cause of genuine female equality by years.
Now, 40 years on, it's Harriet Harman who's at it, with her ludicrous proposals to promote equality in the workplace.
The Equality Bill, published yesterday, demands gender pay audits, in which firms will have to reveal the 'pay gap' between male and female employees. Given a fair wind, it will become law about this time next year. It will also be a disaster.
'When times are difficult, fairness is at a premium,' Miss Harman says. 'We don't see this as anti-competitiveness - it actually underpins competitiveness. This does not hold business back; this helps business.'
What planet is she on? Was she listening last week when her colleague Chancellor Alistair Darling told the nation how many billions in debt Labour has put us?
Was she watching the news the following day when it was announced that the British economy has shrunk by a whopping 1.9 per cent in just three months - and is set for worse?
Has she noticed, in her little Westminster cocoon, how many small companies, strangled by this Government's obsession with red tape, are going bust; how many ordinary men and women are losing their jobs; how many individual bankruptcies have been declared; how many homes repossessed?
And she's wittering on about equality?
Predictably, her fellow feminists have lined up to offer their support. In The Guardian, the headline for Polly Toynbee's column trumpeted 'Harman's Law is Labour's biggest idea in 11 years' - which just about sums up this miserable administration.
Eyes off the ball, Labour leaders dance about making speeches and publishing proposals which will have no beneficial impact on the issues they purport to care about.
Meanwhile, these same proposals will cost business a mint to fulfil, pushing yet more firms under and yet more people onto the dole queue. And that's bad for everyone - men and women alike.
This is what goes wrong when Ministers fret only about their bizarre, private agendas, and couldn't care less about the likes of you and me.
The idea is that there will be a single legal duty to eradicate inequalities. The new laws will extend from breast-feeding in public to female members being allowed at golf clubs.
The dominance of top jobs by men is also to be challenged. The Army, the media, politics - all professions are to be targeted.
In many ways, this is a noble aim. But as is so often the case with New Labour proposals, hypocrisy is never far behind. If Gordon Brown's Cabinet really cared about equality, they might start thinking about some existing anomalies.
Take the case of charming 22-year- old Georgia Gould, scion of an eminent New Labour family (her daddy is Labour pollster Lord Gould; her mummy Gail Rebuck, boss of publisher Random House).
Labour wannabe: Georgina Gould with Alistair Campbell. She hopes to win Labour safe seat Erith and Thamesmead
Georgia is pretty, smart, welleducated - although she's never had a proper job - and she wants to be a Labour MP for the safe seat of Erith and Thamesmead. Good for her.
But if Labour is all about equality, why hasn't it allowed any men to be on the short-list?
And what does it say to the long-suffering ordinary members of the Labour Party, those who slog around shoving leaflets through doors, and don't appear in the Rich List or dine at the House of Lords, when this inexperienced but well-connected newcomer is set for a shoo-in?
Nor does the Bill have its basis in reality. Whatever our precious Minister for Equality claims - and will try to enforce - the truth is that much of the gap between male and female earnings can't be explained by discrimination against women in the workplace.
It's the result of millions of considered choices that are made by women themselves, usually with the full support of their partners.
Those choices stem from a simple biological fact: it's women who bear the children, and, by and large, it's mothers who look after them. What's more, the majority are more than happy to do so.
This means that around 40 per cent of British mothers with a child under five don't work at all, and most of the rest work part-time.
Once the youngest child is in school, the proportion of mothers at home drops to around 20 per cent, but part-time work remains the norm until the youngest starts at secondary school.
At this point, most women go full-time, but they have lost ground to their male counterparts and are, justifiably, way behind in the pay stakes.
What's more, these women often choose not to try for promotion, putting their family's needs first.
That, it seems to me, is their choice - and it is a very wise one at that.
But while these choices, which put families ahead of careers, are enviable, they do mean that female workers will always be paid less on average than their male colleagues.
Let's remember that the men have been working full-time all along, staying in the loop for the better-paid jobs, working their way up the ladder.
Surely they shouldn't be discriminated against for that.
In my experience, I have also found that men are more ambitious than women. They are far more likely to apply for a new post and are more likely to be spurred on to have another go if they fail.
The female psyche goes in other directions - and long may it be so. After all, let's remember that there is much more to life than work.
Of course, thank goodness today we are a million miles from the Britain of my youth, when I needed a male signature (my father's) to open a bank account.
In my first job, in 1969, women were not allowed to join the company pension fund - until I marched into the managing partner's office, gave him a piece of my mind and the rules were promptly changed.
And, yes, active discrimination is wrong. But to try to legislate away all of the differences in society is equally wrong - and ultimately bound to fail.
Labour is obsessed with legislation - and Harriet Harman is no exception. Her style is that of some latter-day Boudicca, charging the Romans; she's on the warpath, eyes flashing, brandishing as her weapons the full might of the law.
This is typical of a Government that is stuffed to bursting with lawyers and so light on anyone with real business acumen or experience.
They cannot see that the law is frequently an ass - and them with it.
These proposals won't help individual women in the workplace, but they will certainly provide extra cases and fat fees for their friends in the fashionable Inns of Court.
If you really want to promote the position of women, Harriet, then do whatever you can to preserve a healthy level of employment in the next couple of years, because it's often female employees who get the boot when times are tough.
Meanwhile, undo the overt hypocrisy in your own backyard. If you managed that, we women might have someone in power we can actually look up to.Then again, perhaps that's just a hope too far.