Benefits

I’ve made my position clear about ‘benefits’ over the year. ‘Benefits’ are not really benefits at all.

I decided to look at the meaning of the word ‘benefit’ and found (according to dictionary.com)

ben·e·fit

[ben-uh-fit]  noun, verb,ben·e·fit·ed or ben·e·fit·ted, ben·e·fit·ing or ben·e·fit·ting.

1.something that is advantageous or good; an advantage:

2.a payment or gift, as one made to help someone or given by a benefit society, insurance company, or public agency:

3.a theatrical performance or other public entertainment toraise money for a charitable organization or cause.

4.Archaic . an act of kindness; good deed;

Perhaps our national failing is that we still mentally see ‘benefits’ as a gift and not a right.  The payments given to those who have some form of need should not be considered as an ‘act of charity’ by government. It is money necessary to live not money in the gift of the government.

Sometimes language is and can be important.

By Cameron and his Conservative-led coalition like spreading the rhetoric that ‘benefits’ as well as ‘public housing’ should somehow be related to ‘good behaviour’.

This article for example as a case in point which explains

David Cameron wrote in a Sunday newspaper that he wanted to look at going further in welfare reforms, calling for the child benefit payments of parents who play truant from school to be withdrawn.

He suggested a more ambitious welfare reform programme when he posed the question of whether the government should be “asking much more of people on benefits who should be looking for work – or imposing even stricter penalties on those who refuse job offers?”

Cameron moves in a no-doubt electorally pleasing but morally questionable path.

Calling for the removal of child benefit payments to the parents of children who play truant is morally repulsive. It further impedes those who rely more heavily on those child benefit payments. Lets not forget that child benefit will be means tested soon (in a pathetically haphazard way but no matter). Where is the proposal for penalties for those parents who don’t receive child benefit and whose children play truant? Or do they really think truancy only affects ‘poor children’.

It insults our intelligence to make these proposals but they play very well to a public crowd that has been increasingly weaned to divide our own population into an ‘us/them’ dichotomy between those who work and those who do not work.

The government (and the previous government too) persist with a ‘divide and rule’ policy of presenting those who are not able to work against those who do work – well, we should never forget that for those us who aren’t party to the millions in trust funds that most of our government members grew up with – there is a extremely tenuous link between being a have and being a have-not.

The Guardian article goes on to quote Cameron saying

“What about welfare? The old something-for-nothing system we had under Labour had a poisonous effect on responsibility in our society. Again, we’ve already taken bold action – we’re in the process of moving hundreds of thousands of people who are fit to work off incapacity benefit and are imposing sensible limits on the amount of benefit people can take. But again, given the scale of the problem, can’t we go further? Say by asking much more of people on benefits who should be looking for work – or imposing even stricter penalties on those who refuse job offers?”

Something-for-nothing? Really? Personally I believe that people are entitled to a level of support from the state in order to live and that Cameron is playing games with words and assumptions when he appeals to the ‘Daily Mail’ reading crowd. He makes much reference to ‘benefit cheats’ as talks about ‘taking away benefits’ as if it is a reward that we had to well-behaved dogs and it is insulting in the extreme.

I those doubt that reforms are needed but the language in itself in invidious and pushes our thoughts to regard ‘benefits’ and ‘benefit claimants’ in a particularly unfavourable light.

And as an aside, as was pointed out to me, the photo in the Guardian article – well it has a picture of Charles and Camilla. Now THERE’S a family existing on benefits with absolutely no public gain and I think their social housing should be taken away for the genuine good of the nation. But that’s another question for another day..

From DLA to PiP – a consultation begins

Yesterday, the government published it’s consultation document regarding proposed changes to Disability Living Allowance (to be renamed Personal Independence Payment.. ).

At Arbitrary Constant there is a fantastic rundown of the details of the document which highlights some of the major points of concern and change from the current system.

So there is going to be a ‘rebranding’. Fair enough – of course a new and shiny ‘welfare system’ needs new names. I didn’t think DLA was particularly badly served and PiP sounds disarmingly chipper but no matter, in effect names are irrelevant.

The document emphasises the need to move to a system for ‘today rather than the 1990s’ again, all rather dull and obvious rhetoric.

The one blindingly obvious statement is that less people will meet the criteria for the new ‘payment’ than currently do. Marry this to the tightening upwards of local authority eligibility criteria for services and the stricter limits for Employment and Support Allowance which is means-tested and we can see that there will be a group of people who will slip away from ‘benefits and services’ completely. I fear that the barrier will be drawn reasonably high and that this has the potential to cause great hardship for some people.

There is no mention of Attendance Allowance at all – Attendance Allowance is the equivalent (but lower) benefit paid to over 65s. There is a note that a consideration will be made as to whether over 65s will be brought into the ‘new’ benefit.

I don’t want to pre-judge but I can’t see there is any possibility of attendance allowance carrying on in anything resembling it’s current form with these changes. I expect a convergence with PiP as differentiation between groups and entitlements on the basis of age is running close to the line as far as Equality legislation is concerned or an abolition of AA entirely.

I wonder at the ‘healthcare professional’ who will be conducting the assessments. This is currently the case with ESA and in some assessments of DLA as far as I understand (let me know if I’m wrong on this!)  and I feel very uncomfortable that the medical professionals who are involved with an individual –  that their own GP or consultant, cannot be trusted to provide relevant information rather than relying on a private company. I took a look at some of the job vacancy adverts for these ‘Disability Analysts’. Unsurprisingly ATOS are advertising for a fair few RGNS (registered general nurses). I was, however surprised that there was no adverts for RMNs (Registered mental nurses). Does that mean that all the ‘health professionals’ primarily have their experience in physical rather than mental health services? I’m willing to accept that maybe I’m putting 2 and 2 together and making 5 but one area I do worry about intensely is the way that decisions will be made for those who have fluctuating disabilities and primarily mental health difficulties. Firstly, the process itself seems to be an additional barrier to claim with many potentially saying ‘I can’t be bothered to make the application because I’ll be turned down’ or ‘I don’t want to be classed as a scrounger or doubted’ and thus a universal, non-means tested benefit eludes a certain group of people who have been terrified out of claiming that which is rightfully theirs.

My impression remains that the government fully knows that they are doing by stigmatising benefit claimants. They are scaring people who are fully entitled out of claiming what they rightfully could receive. That’s a very mean-spirited way of reducing cost.

There is a lot more in the document that I could and will, no doubt, consider over the next few days. I heartily recommend Arbitrary Constant for a much more thorough rundown of the main points.

I intend drafting a response to the consultation and I suggest as many people who are interested do. I am sceptical about the difference that these consultations actually make but it never hurts to try and help get our voices heard.

Future

Yesterday, I wrote specifically about my reactions to the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) without a lot of reference to other commentators. This was intentional as I wanted to spew out my initial thoughts pretty much freeform.

Today some of the dust has settled and a lot more commentary has been shaped and published and I wanted to focus more solidly on the way in which I see the developments and announcements specifically in the areas that I know most about and what impact I see the changes in social work in particular.

My experience is wholly in adult services. I started my working life in the voluntary sector working with adults with learning disabilities. Post-qualification, I have worked with adults with physical disabilities of working age as well as older adults and am currently placed within mental health services so I will focus on the areas I know, possibly to the detriment of children’s’ services but, of course, I welcome comments from those with more experience in that area.

The most notable and obvious/immediate change will be the reduction in funding for local authorities and the removal of ring-fencing. Community Care carries a statement by Paul Burstow, explaining that

“There is no justification for local authorities to slash and burn or for local authorities to tighten eligibility as far as the settlement goes.”

He points to the additional £1 billion to be focused on social care – remember, the other £1 billion is coming from the NHS budget.

However the removal of ringfencing and the costs of an ageing population make this a very vacuous statement. Last night, on Channel 4 News, the Leader of Westminster Council said he would be raising the criteria – tightening eligibility criteria (see the link at 3.37).

The removal of ringfencing of budgets and the massive hit that local authorities will be taking will mean that the bare minimum of services will be provided. Anyone who thinks these stories about wonderfully creative individual budgets will be sorely fooled. Charges for services will increase. Directly provided services will disappear by the wayside.

I’m not overly hopeful.

As for the place of social work departments, I refer to the beginning of the clip above.

Westminster and Lambeth are looking at merging services and departments across neighbouring borough. It’s happening across London. That’s where the job cuts will come in and social services will not be as ‘immune’ as we thought we might be.

The problem is that cuts have already been made. Any further cuts are absolutely at the front-line.

The stigmatisation of disabled adults continues. The Independent Living Fund is on its last legs. Many disabled adults rely heavily on this money to provide for a better quality of life that would have been provided solely depending on local authority’s increasingly tightening criteria. I think this can’t go without a fight as this is A LOT of support for some of the most dependent adults who are able to gain measures of independence through this scheme is looking like it will be lost.

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I wrote about changes to the ESA  (Employment and Support Allowance) yesterday and it reflects the perfidious nature of the cuts and a wholesale stigmatisation of disability and inability to work (which the government seems to want to link with unwillingness to work).

Perhaps one of the more staggeringly mealy-mouthed changes was the removal of DLA mobility from people who are in residential care. These really are the most dependent people.

I can’t say it any better than this Bendygirl at Benefit Scrounging Scum.

I urge you to go and watch the video message she has recorded for David Cameron in response to this.

Additional costs, if the standard of life for those with this benefit is to be maintained, will be pushed to local authorities by profit-making care homes and it doesn’t look like they’ll be any funding to plug this gap. This is callous in the extreme.

And finally housing.

Housing, housing. It sometimes feels like it is the bane of my life. Housing issues affect everyone in social services – adults and children alike. Housing always comes up. Poor housing = poor outcomes.

Where is the housing going to come from? Capital spending will be down. Councils will be able to charge more for new tenancies but that will be taken out of housing benefit which will be subject to the ‘benefits cap’. A fully subsidised rent on housing benefit would therefore leave more of the ‘capped income’ for other living expenses  but if housing is going to take out a larger chunk of this ‘capped amount’  because of higher rents – it is giving with one hand and taking away with another (housing benefits would be claimed for the higher rates of rent) but it would also decrease the amount of ‘universal benefit’ allowed to meet the cap.

So the effect I see within the local authority I work in? Pooled services, job losses, higher work pressures, higher caseloads, fewer resources, pushing more to informal carers and that’s if I have a job.

But it isn’t me that I’m concerned about. It is the nature of the NHS and the welfare state in this country and the social fabric and general tenets of social justice that I see being torn apart.

We must hold this government to account and keep fighting for the social justice that brought us into this profession in the first place.

This is why social workers must politicise. We cannot remain neutral as these changes take place. We are obliged to stand by a code of practice and we need to advocate and speak on behalf of those who rely on us for support.

Perhaps the profession’s failing has been its willingness to stand idle as the changes in social policy crept up on us. We need a voice, we need to shout and we need to vocalise some of the voices that can’t be heard so clearly.

The Welfare Cap

The announcement that Child Benefit would no longer be payable to higher rate tax payers came about five minutes after I pressed ‘publish’ on my post yesterday. For the record, I have no problems with reducing or means-testing child benefit although the method the government have chosen to limit Child Benefit is somewhat curious and I have no doubt that many questions will be asked about its equity in the next few months. The oft-quoted anomalies don’t need to be discussed here but the announcement fits in very well with my own concerns about the spending cuts – namely everything seems to be in panic mode at the moment without wider thoughts about the implications of the cuts.

I have graver concerns about the other parts of the millionaire Osborne’s speech yesterday. He drew wide roars of approval for his idea of capping benefit payments so that no-one would be better off on benefits than they would be in employment which sounds perfectly reasonable, especially as he specifically mentioned the proviso that this might not be the case for a household which has a disabled member.

All sounds very fair but he reverted to the benefits as lifestyle choice rhetoric again. I see this as a specific aim and sound bite to further stigmatise and discriminate against people on the basis of their employment status.

The ‘welfare cap’ is no doubt buying faithful party members but the universal ‘credit’ is going to not only include Jobseekers Allowance, Council Tax Benefit and Housing Benefit (now that’s scary for people who live in high rent areas) but also Employment and Support Allowance or the old ‘Invalidity Benefit’ – There is no reason to believe that Carer’s Allowance won’t also be included. It is a means-tested benefit and although it is a despicably small amount for what it is, it looks likely it will be a part of this capped, universal credit.

We know there are stories of people with many children living in large houses on hundreds of thousands of pounds of ‘welfare’ payments but that is not the majority experience.

Capping welfare to a specific level raises many concerns, specifically if there is no regional variation. Paying rent in London is going to take up the majority of the capped payment in any circumstances.

I can’t help but see a fundamental change in the fabric of this city when these reforms are ironed out. There will be entire towns that will be out of bounds to people who are claiming benefits because the mere cost of housing benefit will lead to a reduction in the other benefit incomes.

I know there is the argument that those who work have to choose where to live on the basis of cost, of course but we have to remember that not everyone is unemployed as a ‘lifestyle choice’ or is unemployed over the long term. What happens with someone who is made redundant in an ‘expensive’ city and needs some assistance for a few months until they find work in that same ‘expensive’ city? Would they be forced to move away from attachments, social support and familial links? It will be easier for some people than others and shifting unemployment north (because make no mistake, the cheaper moves will be northwards)  – out of the traditional ‘Tory’ areas and into the more traditional Labour strongholds, carries a hint of potential gerrymandering.

I suppose the proof will be in the details but the more I hear, the more the rhetoric of the right sickens me to my stomach.

The announcement of the ‘welfare cap’ seems to be entirely ideologically based. It was specifically to pander to the hard done by middle classes who baulked at the thought of losing their child benefit payments. This is not about cuts, make no mistake there. This is about ideology and forcing people into jobs that don’t exist.

There needs to be a move against the ‘benefits lifestyle choice’ rhetoric because it is untrue and it is unfair. Most anecdotal evidence provided has been either paraded on the front page of the right wing press – and remember, it only makes the front page BECAUSE it is rare. If we all knew real people like that, it wouldn’t actually hit the headlines.

But it feeds into an increasingly fearful societal agenda and narrative that is forming.

I know these posts are somewhat repetitive but I can’t shake the thoughts from my head at the moment and my personal politics drift merrily leftwards. I’m just glad I’ll be on another continent when the Spending Review is announced, it wouldn’t be good for my blood pressure!

On Welfare Reform

It’s easy to say that things need to be different as regards the welfare payment structure in the UK. Anyone could say it and to be honest, the system and the ways in which is it used and most of all the intricate complexities of the system beg for changes.

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So Cameron has got through the easy part there. Reform is overdue.

The details however remain forthcoming. A ‘universal benefit’ of overarching status that will encompass current Jobseekers Allowance, Council Tax Benefit, Housing Benefit, Employment and Support Allowance, Tax Credits of various types – but, quite rightly, not Disability Living Allowance which will remain separate – will be merged into one type of system which will, apparently reward additional work undertaken rather than penalise it.

Well, it’s hard to criticise the idea but to use a well-worn cliche’ the devil will be in the detail.

The one thing that is frightening me about this system – although to be fair – it isn’t this system in particular, is the reliance on a fantasy ‘new computer system’ that will ‘just be able to work everything out’. Hmm. Heard that one before.

As for changes in universal benefits such as child benefit, winter fuel allowance, free bus passes – I have no issue with those being more tightly controlled.

There are a couple of difficulties with the agenda that is being presented though apart from the ‘fantasy perfect computer system’ that will know everything.

Firstly, to push people back to work there have to be jobs to push people into.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the government and the right wing press have pushed an agenda and a narrative of ‘benefit cheats’ and ‘malingerers’ into the public perception. This is no doubt going to be a precursor to cuts.

We are, by nature a rather selfish society, looking to our own pockets before the needs of the citizen as a whole. If we see our  next door neighbour who SEEMS to be doing very well on benefits with a nice new plasma TV, we will moan and groan ad infinitum about the base unfairness of it all.

The truth is that no-one knows what is happening in someone elses’ life and household, the choices they might be making and the invisible disabilities they might be facing – but we all seem to become omnipotent when we are able to judge or compare what we, the perfect tax-paying citizen might be doing in comparison.

The Guardian quote Iain Duncan Smith as saying

there is “something fundamentally wrong” with a system that pays 5 million people not to work while immigrants come in to do jobs those on benefit reject: “You’re just replacing one group of unwilling workers with another group of willing workers. That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

I think this is generally a dangerous narrative and one that needs to be explored and questioned much more fully. There is an assumption that the ‘system’ is paying 5 million people not to work. I’d challenge that assumption. Of that 5 million, I assume that almost all are desperate to find good, dignified employment. Someone does not claim Jobseeker’s Allowance because they don’t WANT to work but because they cannot find work.

Knowing personally a few people who have had to claim, I think that trying to make an assumption that these people are ‘rejecting jobs’ that are then taken by immigrants plays (unsurprisingly) into the narrative of the Daily Mail and the Sun. This needs to be challenged. The job centre system needs to be reformed but as long as we treat people who don’t have jobs as quasi-criminals rather than individuals with skills that can be utilised in different ways, we will perpetuate the ‘us and them’ system.

Forcing people into jobs that have no match with their skill-set does not build an effective and strong economy.

There is also an underhand ‘blame’ of immigrants ‘coming in and taking ‘our’ jobs’ that is perfidious in the extreme. Many of these ‘jobs’ that are being ‘stolen’ are taken by citizens of member states of the European Union. It may not be that British people are unwilling to take the jobs but more than our culture values different types of jobs differently or that we do not train sufficiently in certain skill areas.

Helpfully, the Guardian also relates that

Cameron also promised today that unemployed people who refuse work would face tougher benefit sanctions, but gave no details.

That’s a really useful statement, Mr Cameron – but with no details, it is completely valueless.

At the moment, it sounds like empty crowd-pleasing rhetoric and a kick at people who are unable to find work – not because they are ‘being picky’ but because the manufacturing and industrial base of this country was torn apart by the previous Conservative government in the 1980s and because the global credit crash has affected the worldwide economy.

Cameron has picked an easy target and uses crowd-pleasing words. That makes me nervous.

Saints and Scroungers – a review

I didn’t plan to watch ‘Saints and Scroungers’ on BBC1 last night. Really, I didn’t but it was nestled between The One Show and Eastenders (I never claimed to have particularly high brow TV viewing habits!) so it just happened across my TV screen.

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It made me feel very angry. That was my one sentence review. In more detail, the premise of the programme is to highlight ‘benefits cheats and to track down people who deserve government help’.

Even typing that sentence made me feel faintly nauseous. It isn’t like it’s hard to find instances of people who have defrauded the benefits payments system, after all. You only need to (and I know, this is a big ask) read the Daily Mail where there highly skilled *cough* ‘investigative’ reporters are more than capable of fulfilling that self-satisfying smug need to ‘feel better’ that exists within the general populace.

The ‘scrounger’ in this sense was an ‘unremarkable grandmother’ who had CONNED THE SYSTEM (a not-so-gentle reminder every now and then that that’s you and me, you know, The Taxpayer) out of £600,000 she wasn’t entitled to.

Fair cop – it’s a heinous crime and she was caught. My problem is not that particular instance because it is a verifiable conviction from a repeat offender. My problem with the programme is the way it was couched in a self-satisfied smugness and a perception that the benefits system must be so easy to defraud that ‘we’ are all being defrauded. The cost of the reputation of people who are entirely entitled to live and receive welfare benefits is the perception that fraud is entrenched in the system.

This programme was a case type in stigmatisation and alienation of people who might access welfare benefits and as such, although it highlighted evidence of a criminal offence, the language and presentation was such that we can all go and pat ourselves on the back for not claiming benefits.

The ‘saint’ I thought initially was a young boy who had been paralysed in a motorbike accident whose mother was nursing him and who was CLEARLY entitled to all the money he received in payments. Actually, the saint was the Citizens Advice Bureau advisor who had told the family about all the benefits he had been entitled to.

This part was equally nauseating. Firstly, the CAB advisor seemed quite happy to present herself as a saint. I know they do a good job – don’t get me wrong – I’ve come across countless amazing CAB advisors but it is hardly deserving of sainthood to advise someone who is very clearly an eligible recipient of their benefits. Also, alluding to this as ‘sainthood’ is a little cloying to say the least.

It places an almost Victorian overlay of Deserving and Undeserving Disability. This young man clearly deserves our support. He looks the part and is well-spoken and able to talk to the cameras about his disability.

I did have a brief thought about what the role of social services would have been in this case and how much they might have been deserving or not of ‘sainthood’ but to be honest, I’m glad they steered well away from this condescending and nauseating programme.

I also wonder if it was a coincidence (and I’m sure it wasn’t intentionally done) that the person who defrauded the benefit system was an older black woman as opposed to a younger white man who was rightly receiving his entitlements and doing so ‘fairly’ according to the programme. I know it might be complete coincidence and I don’t doubt it wasn’t intentional  but it does build on subconscious (or perhaps fully formed) prejudices and compound them which can be a dangerous thing in tough economic times.

Why did I continue to watch it? I was tempted to switch over  but then decided I might write about it… look what I do for you, dear Reader!

In the end the feeling I was left with was not a satisfaction that my tax paying money was funding a poor, disabled boy and that police were working to route out the con merchant grandmother who was ruthlessly defrauding the state but an immense discomfort that I don’t need the payment of my tax money to be justified to me.

I don’t want or care to be frank, whether those who receive ESA and DLA etc are good and honest people or not – they are entitled to that money regardless and no-one receiving a benefit to which they are entitled should EVER have to justify how they spend that money to anyone – least of all, me, an average taxpayer.

Do we forget that people who don’t work are probably taxed the most harshly through indirect taxes? We are ALL taxpayers and I don’t want to feel that my taxes should be making me feel better. My taxes are also paying for the Trident Programme and I feel much more strongly about that than the odd benefit fraud to be honest – and whatever the media perception in – I remain convinced that there are far more people not claiming what they should and are entitled to than those who defraud the system.

I don’t WANT to live in an society that does not have a fair benefit system.

I can’t promise I’ll watch the next episode because this one was too much to stomach.

And I really really don’t want my TV licence to be paying for such utter, pointless, cloying and irrelevant tripe.

Men Needed

Perhaps it is unsurprising to learn that the majority of people who work in ‘social care’ are women. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report last week explaining why it was necessary for the sector to reach out and attract more men to the workforce.

stepheye Stepheye at Flickr

Some of the points made will come as no surprise. Care is traditionally  the province of women. For as much as we shout about inequalities and assumptions it cannot be disputed that while there are more male electronic engineers, there are more female home carers.

The report stated how informal care has been provided by women in society over a long period of time. An increase in women moving into the workforce from the latter part of the 20th century has created jobs and a sector in a way that might not have existed previously.

Basic sociological history so far.

One of the reasons given for the massive bias in the gender balance in the care sector is the low pay in the sector. It is less likely to attract men to the sector if the pay rates veer around the minimum wage level. While I think this is a factor, perhaps it isn’t a factor that affects only men and low pay rates probably deter a significant amount of quality applicants and potential carers.

Another reason given was that

Privatisation of residential and domiciliary care has produced a labour market with insufficient opportunities for training and career development. This is unlikely to attract men, and women will increasingly leave as their employment opportunities improve.

This isn’t a point that I see as particularly gender specific but it does raise a lot of questions about the way that social care is delivered and more importantly by whom. I work in a profession that values development and training and willingness to see work on a continuum with learning.

So why should the social care sector, meaning those that deliver hands-on care, should have the training dead end and the lack of opportunities? Why do wages at the residential homes where I place people hover around the minimum wage? (A pay cut was enforced following the privatisation of those homes).

It is seen as a ‘throwaway’ or stop-gap job – something you do when you are looking for a more permanent job. It shouldn’t be.

I always maintain that if a good training programme is in place with ways to advance and develop as well as a sturdy pension plan then the wages can be lower. People will look to benefits if necessary but when there is no added value on top of base salary and organisations rely on the ‘feel good’ factor in members of staff to take lower paying jobs, they are creating a false economy by paying poor wages.

I have to mention that there are many good private companies out there. The ones I, personally, have come across tend to be smaller but there’s no reason a large company cannot be an excellent employer. I am just slightly more sceptical.

Coming back to the Joseph Rowntree Report, they suggest a few ways of moving forward

  • This situation will be unsustainable for meeting society’s care needs unless:
    – pay and conditions improve to retain more women and encourage men to enter the care sector;
    – unpaid carers receive financial and other support, and working hours are reduced for all, so that more people can combine family care with employment;
    – cash payments to individuals are not allowed to drive out funding for vital community services; and
    – policies are judged by the quality of care they support and how much they encourage a stable, less gender-divided workforce, as well as value for money
  • Any other solution would be unworkable, unfair and inconsistent with government commitments to reduce gender inequalities.
  • Sounds fair enough to me!

    Now, just to find some more men..